Why are Chicago families fleeing for cheaper homes in the suburbs?

The Chicago Tribune leads with the story of a Chicago family who left the city for a townhouse in River Forest:

Megan Keskitalo and her husband, Glenn Eckstein, were enthusiastic city dwellers until the suburbs began calling. First it was Chicago’s crime, then it was worry about school districts, and in the end, it was money that pushed them past the city’s edge.

After a long search, the parents of two young daughters packed up their $1,300-a-month three-bedroom Lincoln Square apartment and in September paid $286,000 for a three-bedroom town house in River Forest.

“We were looking (in the city), but we couldn’t find anything in our price range, which was under $350,000,” Keskitalo said.

But, just how many Chicago families are doing this? The story sticks to general trends without any numbers:

They aren’t the only ones. While experts say Chicago’s housing market is sizzling — home sales were up about 8.1 percent in Chicago through November of this year, says the Illinois Association of Realtors — not everyone can afford to buy in the city. That’s because home prices are up too…

It’s not unusual for millennials and Generation Xers with children to flee to what real estate experts call “surbans” — walkable, amenity-rich suburbs — once they get married, have kids and are looking for less party and more quiet.

The implication of this article is that families like this are being priced out of Chicago: they might stay if they could find housing in their price range in attractive neighborhoods. Yet, there is a lot more going on here:

  1. The article also says real estate prices are on the rise in Chicago. This is generally seen as a good thing – unless it pushes desirable people, like young white families (or recent college graduates or older long-time city residents) out.
  2. There are real issues of affordable housing in Chicago and the whole region. However, there is often disagreement about who such housing should serve. Should it help keep wealthier residents in a community or serve those with much lower levels of income? Chicago is building plenty of high-end condos but there is not much action on the lower end of the market with affordable units in decent neighborhoods.
  3. This family had particular conditions for where they were willing to live: less crime, good schools, cheaper housing. Overall, they wanted a particular quality of life. They could have found cheaper housing in Chicago but without being willing to compromise on these particular issues, they left for the suburbs.
  4. How much of this is tied to the ongoing process of white flight? This family left a trendy Chicago neighborhood for an established wealthy and white suburb: River Forest is roughly 85% white and the median household income is over $113,000. Again, they could have found cheaper housing in the city (#3 above) if they were willing to live in more places that might not have been as white.

What if car-free central Paris catches on?

It is a day for pedestrians in Paris:

“Parisians will be able to take back their daily living space and experience the city in a different way,” said Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who would have liked to make the entire city off-limits to vehicles on Sunday.The closure is unprecedented for the French capital and opens the entire city center to pedestrians only for one day, expanding on popular areas already off-limits to Sunday traffic like the fashionable Marais, the cobblestoned Montmartre and the hip neighborhood along Canal Saint-Martin.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic that normally clogs the city’s boulevards will be replaced by street parties, yoga classes, markets with fresh produce and — this being Paris — food tastings with top chefs…

Paris’ motor-free day is by no means a world’s first. Brussels, the traffic congestion capital of Europe, launched its first car-free Sunday 15 years ago, an example followed by Montreal, Jakarta and other cities.

The rest of the article emphasizes the pollution cars regularly bring to Paris and an upcoming climate change conference. These are important matters to address but there are also quality of life issues at well. Like many older cities, Paris has been retrofitted to accommodate cars and vehicles but what can be done is limited. Central Paris is a place for pedestrians, even after Haussmann’s changes, for both locals and tourists. The congestion tax in central London is an adaptation to a similar setting.

All together, I’m interested in what happens after this car-free day happens: do people find that they like this more than they thought? Why not regular car-free Sundays and then perhaps additional days as well? Yes, this could help bring down pollution levels but it could also make the central city a more pleasant place. Given the spread of such days in major cities throughout the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more such days in Paris.

Another downside: McMansions threaten trees

McMansion critics may have another argument at their disposal: constructing McMansions may often require removing trees.

About 2,000 street trees, or trees near Los Angeles roadways, are removed annually, according to Los Angeles City Hall leaders.

The trees are removed in some cases because of disease or death, but in other instances, they’re taken down because of the construction of so-called McMansions.

Concerned about the loss of trees at the hands of developers, a City Council committee called for a report back on new policies for the removal of street trees…

With some tear-downs, a “double driveway is needed where one used to be sufficient,” she said, resulting in the loss of a tree.

This doesn’t seem like that many trees, particularly since there could be multiple reasons behind the removal of street trees. Yet, losing trees could be another blow dealt by teardown McMansions to neighbors: not only will the new home fill up the lot and look out of place with nearby homes, it will require losing some of the greenery that residents tend to like. This is probably less about nature and more about appearances and quality of life where mature trees on residential properties lend gravitas and pleasant barriers between the street and sidewalks, lawns, and homes.

If the problem is the larger driveways for the new large homes, it would be interesting to see how Los Angeles regulates their width. Is there a ratio or size that could be invoked to fit all kinds of situations?

How about this crazy idea: builders of McMansions, teardowns or otherwise, should spend a little bit more money and cover their properties with decent-sized trees. Neighbors and others may still not like the house but who can argue with a number of new trees?

Insight into the highest status western suburbs of Chicagoland

An Internet journey led me to West Suburban Living‘s 2015 Best of the West which included this question to readers:


Best: Geneva
2nd: Naperville
3rd: TIE: Glen Ellyn and Hinsdale
Other Favorites: Downers Grove, Elmhurst, Geneva, St. Charles and Western Springs

I’m sure there are all sorts of sampling issues here: who exactly reads this magazine and who votes? Yet, this may just provide a hint into how suburbanites in the western suburbs view their communities. All of these suburbs mentioned are majority white and pretty wealthy. They all have downtowns and fairly long histories (they were all founded before post-World War II suburbanization). Generally, they have high scores in quality of life: good schools, parks, good local services, low crime, nice houses, relatively competent local governments.

Sampling issues aside, this may get at the social status ranking of western suburbs. Or, at least, it hints at the geographic and lifestyle aspirations of the voters.

Reflecting on McKinney, TX as Money’s Best Place to Live

Following the pool incident McKinney, Texas, one former resident thinks through how the event matches Money‘s claim that it is the Best Place to Live in the United States:

Before this month, the last time McKinney made major news was in the fall, when it was named the best place to live in America by Money magazine. It’s among the fastest-growing cities in the country, and lately big companies have infused the region with thousands of jobs in fields such as energy and aviation. Starting this year, Money wrote, every high-school freshman in McKinney would be issued a Macbook Air to aid in his or her studies.

“Underlying McKinney’s homey Southern charm is a thoroughly modern city,” the Money story gushed…

But the events of recent weeks suggest that even as McKinney has boomed and prospered, some of the more repressive aspects of small-town thinking persist. Perhaps now that so many have come to McKinney to claim what they feel is theirs—a better job, a bigger house, a more private swimming pool—people feel more entitled than ever to push away anyone unlike themselves. Perhaps some cops believe they have an even bigger mandate to crack down on those who pester the well-heeled. Adults at the pool were reportedly telling the black children to “go back to Section 8” housing, and in the aftermath of the incident, local homeowners defended the police. “I feel absolutely horrible for the police and what’s going on… they were completely outnumbered and they were just doing the right thing when these kids were fleeing and using profanity and threatening security guards,” one anonymous woman told Fox 4 in Dallas…

McKinney, more modern than ever, isn’t always recognizable as its former, sleepy southern self. (The Money article speaks of its art galleries, boutiques, and, oddly, shoe-repair shops.) But becoming a “thoroughly modern city” doesn’t just mean a job at Raytheon and access to craft beer. It implies compromise and integration. It requires an understanding of the fact that, in order for a newly rich town to keep growing, it needs a diverse environment in which every person feels at home. When McKinney tops the rankings as the best place to live, it’s worth considering for whom, exactly, that’s actually true.

A few thoughts:

1. Even the best places to live have ugly incidents. This reminds me of Naperville, Illinois which was ranked several times in the top 5 places to live by Money but which has some high profile crimes in recent years. Granted, the crimes were rare. But, Naperville has also dropped to #33 in the rankings.

2. Rapid population growth always comes with adjustments to the character of a community, particularly for suburbs. As late as 1990, McKinney had a population of just over 21,000. There will be rifts between old-timers and new-comers, people who remember when they could know everyone and those who are used to anonymity, those who resent new developments and others who like the new housing options. New populations will arrive – McKinney is over 10% black and over 18% Latino. The suburb will wonder how they can have a single community – and maybe this isn’t possible any longer.

3. Quality of life issues are huge in suburbs. Protecting private property through homeowners associations (and their private pools and security guards) and expensive housing (often leading to separate parts of town based on housing values) is common. Of course, there are places within suburbs where people across these divides do come together. But, the emphasis is often on private lives and avoiding open conflict with other suburban residents.

Removing suburban strip clubs using zoning, eminent domain, and lawsuits

The typical suburb doesn’t welcome strip clubs but it can be difficult to remove them:

Kane County Board members voted — twice — to say that’s exactly what they don’t want. Those votes spawned a $16 million lawsuit by the pending new owners of the club. The outcome may determine the future of the strip club or any adult businesses in the county. As others have discovered, limiting an industry protected by the Constitution but rife with criminals, violence and deep pockets can be a long, costly road…

Neighboring DuPage County found Diamonds wasn’t its best friend when strip club owners became interested in an industrial area near the DuPage County Airport in 1999. Before the county even ruled on the zoning use, the would-be owners of the club, Palmetto Properties Inc., sued the county for creating unconstitutional restrictions…

After three years of research, the county crafted a legal defense for buffers by citing fears about strip clubs fueling crime and killing property values and development. The county also shrank the buffer between strip clubs and inaccessible sections of forest preserves, allowing Diamonds to open…

Having robust development has also limited where strip clubs can operate. Every commercial development and residential rooftop pushes areas for strip clubs farther out…

Neither did Bedford Park, a South suburban community of about 600 people, when it tried to block Diaz from opening a strip club within its borders. After more than six years in courtrooms, and about $400,000 in legal fees, the new Ocean Gentlemen’s Club opens this fall.

An interesting back and forth between businesses and suburban communities. A few quick thoughts:

1. If this was left to a referendum for voters, how many strip clubs would be approved? For those who approve of property rights (a topic that often comes up with teardowns), how many would also vote for strip clubs (and be consistent in their support of property owners)?

2. One note from the article on how to effectively word local regulations: “The court found the law did not infringe upon free speech because it did not ban adult expression, a key factor in successfully worded zoning laws restricting adult businesses across the country.” Thus, communities have to be very careful in order not to leave loopholes.

3. For clubs that already exist, it sounds like the most effective way to remove them is to find evidence of criminal or illegal activity.

New Naperville leaders say the suburb is in “maintenance mode”

With little open land to develop, several new Naperville officials discussed what the city can do:

Chirico said that one of the highest priorities for the new council will be to find a way to ease the burden on property taxpayers.

He said that, with the city essentially built out, smart economic development is needed to maintain revenue to keep the city operating at its current level.

Chirico said that a good first step toward that smart development would not necessarily be new projects, but rather concentrating on existing structures that are either empty or not suited to modern commerce…

Chirico used the example of the former Kmart on Ogden Avenue, and the nearby intersection of Ogden and Naper Boulevard, as areas that could be ripe for redevelopment.

“We may have to rethink the entire area,” he said.

Hinterlong agreed, saying “We are at build out…we’re in maintenance mode.”…

Chirico acknowledged the [affordable housing] problem, saying that “it might take some political will” to address it.

On one hand, this is not too surprising. Naperville likes to think of itself as having small-town charm and this is enhanced by a high quality of life, lots of single-family homes, conservative fiscal policies that don’t take too many risks, and developments that don’t rock the boat too much.

On the other hand, I’m not sure it is possible to simply go into “maintenance mode.” Here are three reasons why this may be difficult:

1. Trying to maintain a certain quality of life plus rising costs (inflation, pensions, less funding from the state of Illinois) without significant new sources of revenue may be difficult.

2. While Naperville touts its small-town charm, the suburb is where it is today partly because of aggressive growth with annexations for subdivisions and businesses as well as working to build a vibrant downtown. Retreating into a protective shell doesn’t seem to suit Naperville’s desires to be a leader.

3. Other communities, from Chicago to other growing suburbs, will not hesitate to pursue different strategies for growth. If Naperville doesn’t want to do much, other places may. Just because Naperville has this current level of population, wealth, and jobs doesn’t mean this is guaranteed several decades from now.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Naperville suddenly has to approve high-rise condo and office buildings – I don’t think it would be too difficult to find developers for such projects. Yet, “maintenance mode” can mean stagnation, something that businesses and local politicians really don’t want.

Are Forest Preserves really about maintaining property values and quality of life, not protecting nature?

Each day on the way to and from work I drive past multiple Forest Preserve properties. They are generally green and open, providing a relaxing scene under the rising sun or after a long day. Yet, how much are they really about preserving or protecting nature as opposed to improving the quality of life of suburbanites? Are these two goals antithetical to each other?

The DuPage County Forest Preserve – alongside others in the Chicago metropolitan region – has been aggressive over the decades in purchasing land. The pace of acquisition picked up after World War II in the era of mass suburbanization where development eventually spread throughout all of Cook, DuPage, and Lake County. See an animation here of the land acquired by the DuPage County Forest Preserve since 1920.

The mission of the organization is stated here:

As mandated by the Illinois Downstate Forest Preserve Act, our mission is “to acquire and hold lands containing forests, prairies, wetlands, and associated plant communities or lands capable of being restored to such natural conditions for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna and scenic beauty for the education, pleasure and recreation of its citizens.”

The mission mentions both nature and citizens. But, one way to look at the acquisitions is that they enhance the quality of life of wealthier residents by providing green and/or open space that will not be developed, offering recreational opportunities, and raising property values for nearby housing and not just for those that border the properties but for numerous developments who don’t have to contend with more nearby developments. Of course, forest preserves and parks can be used by residents of all class backgrounds. Yet, taking away all of the land from possible development means that affordable housing – already limited in wealthier places like DuPage County – may be even less possible. Property values are always lurking in the background of development decisions in the suburbs and I suspect it is relevant here.

Additionally, “protecting and preserving” nature is a tricky business. It is not exactly in a “natural state” as human beings have been in the area for at least hundreds of years going back to the first white settlers in the 1830s and Native American groups as least a few decades before that. These Forest Preserves present a particular kind of nature, one that this is never too far from busy roads, housing developments, tricky water run-off situations, and pollution. This is made more clear in the term sometimes used of “open space” where concerned suburbanites want empty land.

In the end, do suburbanites really desire Forest Preserves for the mediated nature they provide or the enhanced quality of life they bring? The answer might be both but we rarely discuss the implications of the second reason.

Perhaps the drop in property values in Ferguson could prompt change

The fallout from last year’s events in Ferguson, Missouri continues including this look at the changes in property values:

For the city’s 2014 budget, approximately 20 percent of the city’s revenue came from the city’s courts, and 17 percent came through property taxes. But after a Department of Justice report found the courts were profiting off racial discrimination, the State of Missouri took over to implement reforms. Couple that with rapidly falling property values (which are used to calculate owed taxes) and it seems like key parts of the city’s business plan are falling out from under it…

The average selling price of a home in the city has been on a steady decline since the shooting of Brown last August, according to housing data compiled from MARIS, an information and statistics service for real estate agents. Prior to Brown’s death, the average home sold in 2014 was selling for $66,764. For the last three and a half months of the year, the average home sold for $36,168, a 46 percent decrease.

The trend has continued on through this year, with the average home selling for only $22,951 so far in 2015. Another negative indicator: in the eight and a half months leading up to Brown’s death, the average residential square foot in 2014 was selling for $45.82. In the eight and a half months since Brown’s passing, the average residential square foot in the city has sold for $24.11. That’s about a 47 percent downtick in one of real estate’s core indicators.

In the suburbs, where quality of life (including factors like crime, the quality of the houses, performance of the local schools) is paramount in (1) influencing housing values and buying and selling real estate and (2) building a tax base through attracting businesses and organizations, infamy is not a good thing. But, given the patterns of local treatment of people by police in the area, it is hard to see how this wouldn’t affect housing values and the tax base. When given options across the suburbs of St. Louis, how many homeowners or companies would choose to move to Ferguson? And, if we’re honest, hitting suburbanites where it really matters – property values and their tax base (the double whammy of housing and land values going down while property taxes may need to increase to close the gap) – may be what is needed to prompt change.

The American Dream and how Chicago magazine determined “Chicago’s Best Places to Live”

Chicago has a new list of the best places to live that includes 12 Chicago neighborhoods and 12 Chicago suburbs. Here are the factors the magazine used to identify these communities

First we looked at the factor that tends to be uppermost in the minds of families these days: safety. We eliminated from contention all community areas that notched violent crime rates higher than 7.0 offenses per 1,000 inhabitants last year (the city average: 9.3 per 1,000). That meant tossing out the Loop (9.9 per 1,000) and the historic South Side neighborhood of Pullman (11.2 per 1,000), for example. And we eliminated suburbs with violent crime rates above their county’s average—which removed from contention such otherwise appealing places as Evanston (2.2 per 1,000) and Oak Park (2.7 per 1,000), both in Cook County (2.1 per 1,000).

Then we turned to education. If a town or community lacks a public school whose students score above average on standardized tests, we dinged it. And because raising kids in an area that’s at least somewhat diverse is a goal of most parents, we nixed spots where more than 92 percent of residents are of any one race. (Bye-bye, Kenilworth, Western Springs, and Winnetka.)

For the places that remained, we looked at ease of transportation downtown, giving extra points to those that have several el stops and at least one Metra stop. (Places with outstanding schools and low rates of property crime also got bonus points.) And we considered how home prices in these places have fared in recent years compared with prices in neighboring areas, as well as whether buyers there can get good value for their money—which is not the same thing as paying the smallest amount. (For detailed price charts covering all Chicago suburbs and neighborhoods with at least 20 home sales in 2013, see this page with all the housing data.)

Finally, I hit the pavement to assess which spots possess those hard-to-define qualities that matter hugely when you’re looking for somewhere to live. Things like vibrancy (are there lots of bustling restaurants and shops?). Beauty (are there architecturally interesting buildings or just cookie-cutter developments?). Friendliness (does the community have a natural center that brings people together?). Is it, quite simply, a great place to call home?

So it boils down to safety, good schools, good transportation, higher than average housing values, and quality of life. Such measures are not uncommon on Best Places to Live lists.

However, it struck me upon reading this list that these traits tend to match a particular vision of a good community. If I may put it this way, it is a middle to upper-class ideal where kids are safe and nurtured and communities are protected from the difficulties of the world. It roughly matches the American Dream where people can live in small-town type places (even though most Americans do not live in such areas, they harbor the ideal of living in a tight-knit community – even if they may not want to contribute much to it) in relative comfort.

Just to take the two examples from DuPage County, Wheaton and Hinsdale, these communities partly derive their ranking from protecting this particular vision over the decades. Not everyone can move into these communities; it requires a certain amount of money as the affordable housing the communities discuss has much more to do with allowing senior citizens and recent college graduates to have somewhere to live rather than truly addressing low-income residents.

Maybe this methodology does reflect what many Americans want. The suburbs on the list are nice and the Chicago neighborhoods, while having more diversity, tend to be the more sought-after ones. At the same time, such lists could reinforce the notion that protected and wealthy places are the best ones, the ones we should all aspire to live.