Category: Commentary

Danielle Allen on the geography of power sharing and how I think it applies to Chicago

Danielle Allen is a professor of public policy at Harvard University. She also started the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation at Harvard. Danielle was interviewed on the California YIMBY “Abundance” podcast, published December 21.

Danielle said something that I thought was extremely relevant to understanding why the way decisions on Chicago land use and zoning are made is defective and leads to bad outcomes (including segregation and lack of housing in higher-resource neighborhoods ).

Before I excerpt from the interview, here are three summaries of how Chicago land use and zoning decision making processes are, as I said, “defective”. They come from myself, Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), and the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (better known as HUD).

My own summary: There are 51 ways – at least – to legalize housing in Chicago. The first is the collection of ordinances, regulations, and processes administered by City Hall (as well as the division of power within City Hall amongst the mayor’s office and the departments, and the influence exerted by same); the other 50 are the individual and idiosyncratic ways of the 50 alderpersons. Projects are entitled (approved) on a project by project and lot by lot basis. Every lot is zoned and its zoning district is fungible depending on if the local alderperson supports the change.

CAFHA: “The City of Chicago’s longstanding policy and practice of ‘aldermanic prerogative’ – whereby the City of Chicago delegates to the City’s 50 aldermen and alderwomen (“aldermen”) unfettered power over zoning, land use, city lots, and public financing, in order to decide where, if, and how affordable housing is built in their wards – discriminates on the basis of race, color, national origin, familial status, and disability, and perpetuates segregation on those bases, notwithstanding the city’s certifications it would overcome such segregation. These same policies and practices violate the City of Chicago’s duty to affirmatively further fair housing.”(CAFHA et. al. submitted this complaint to HUD in November 2018)

HUD: “The Department’s investigation indicates that the City affords each of its fifty wards a local veto over proposals to build affordable housing, and that many majority-White wards use the local veto to block, deter, or downsize such proposals. As a result, new affordable housing is rarely, if ever, constructed in the majority-White wards that already have the least affordable housing. The City acknowledges this effect of the practice, its historical use for the purpose of creating and maintaining patterns of racial segregation, and its continued use as a tool that effectuates racially motivated opposition to affordable housing. The City’s use of the local veto despite understanding its effects raises serious concerns about the City’s compliance with Title VI and Section 109.

“The Department understands that the local veto over affordable housing proposals is not a law or formal policy, but a practice arising from (1) the requirement that City Council approve all such proposals, and (2) the custom of only approving those proposals which have the affirmative support of the alderman for the ward in which the development is proposed. This investigation identified three ways in which aldermen wield the local veto to block, deter, or downsize proposals to build affordable housing:” [read the rest of they response to CAFHA’s complaint]

On to the interview!

This excerpted part of the conversation starts at 11:14.

Screen grab from the interview of Danielle Allen by Nolan Gray and Ned Resnikoff.

Ned Resnikoff: Nolan [Gray] and I have talked a lot about this idea that we need to, we need to bring back actual planning. So the idea that you have a sort of democratic process for for a citywide general plan, but then if something if a project conforms to that general plan, it’s like, well, the city, the community has already sort of planned to allow for that. And so I guess I’m curious how you think about that, like, is there? Is there a role for project by project planning? Or is it the sort of thing that should happen more at the citywide level or neighborhood level?

[Note that Chicago does not have a general or comprehensive plan. Another way to look at this is that Chicago’s zoning map is its comp plan.]

Danielle Allen: I think it can be either city wide or regional, it sort of depends on what the issue is, or neighborhood. If you take the case of land use in renewable energy contexts, it could literally be like the folks who sort of share the same wind footprint. And so do you think this is the hardest? Well, there’s many hard problems in this space.

But one of the hardest problems in the space is the fact that our current jurisdictional structures don’t always map the footprints of the affected community for a given issue.

[I bolded that statement. I think the issue where this is most relevant is housing production – the people who need or would use proposed housing is the affected community not mapped to the footprint of the Chicago alderperson’s jurisdiction and the application of that alderperson’s power is defined by one of 50 ways, leading to the outcomes of not building enough housing which are outlined in CAFHA’s complaint and HUD’s general agreement of the nature of the complaint.]

Danielle continues… So that’s the kind of thing I’m wrestling with, and my lab is working on, is kind of having concrete cases where that’s true. And then how do you start to actually give people access to a governance structure that aligns with the actual footprint of impact? And how would you make that work given the existing legacy jurisdictional structures? So I don’t think we have answers to that question yet. But I feel like that’s the problem we have to solve.

So for example, again, renewable energy is basically a land use issue, right? Because it takes so much more land to source energy through renewable sources, whether solar or wind. So at the end of the day, it’s like, anybody who thinks about land use, we need you in the kind of climate conversation because it is just fundamentally a land use question. I think what we’re working on is the different structures, that kind of collective ownership, so that the benefits that could come from harvesting the renewable energy resource that you are somehow connected to either because you’re upwind or downwind or someplace in between, but if the wind gets used, you’re going to be affected by it. You know, those kinds of things might give us some new governance structures that can kind of come in and help us break through some of our impasses. That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to figure out, to align the need for that participatory element that does deliver the appropriate kind of empowerment, but is also driving towards something effective.

Zoning 101: Business live/work units

This is the first post in what might become a video series about the Chicago zoning code. I picked business live/work unit because they’re a rarely seen “use” (an establishment) in Chicago, likely in part due to how few buildings are zoned to allow them and that the rules setting their minimum size might make eligible spaces doubly harder to find.

There is no order! An authentic “Zoning 101” would probably start by describing zoning, but I’m assuming you know that Chicago has a zoning code that defines what can and cannot be built or practiced on every property in the city. Business live/work units are one of those many things the code defines and regulates.

A business live/work unit is distinguished from an artist live/work unit in the Chicago zoning code in that it allows more business types – i.e. more than the creation or practice of art is allowed – but it requires that they happen on the ground floor. Artist live/work units are allowed in more zoning districts as of right (no additional permission necessary) above the ground floor.

What do you want to learn about next? Leave a comment or @ me on Twitter (stevevance).

Links to the relevant parts of the Chicago zoning code:

Is it possible for us to “greenline” neighborhoods?

(I don’t mean extending the Green Line to its original terminal, to provide more transportation options in Woodlawn.)

Maps have been used to devalue neighborhoods and to excuse disinvestment. There should be maps, and narratives, to “greenline” – raise up – Chicago neighborhoods.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “residential lending security” maps marked areas based on prejudicial characteristics and some objective traits of neighborhoods to assess the home mortgage lending risk. (View the Cook County maps.) The red and yellow areas have suffered almost continuously since the 1930s, and it could be based on the marking of these neighborhoods as red or yellow (there is some debate about the maps’ real effects).

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and its local consultants (brokers and appraisers, mostly) outlined areas and labeled them according to objective and subjective & prejudicial criteria in the 1930s. Each area is accompanied by a data sheet and narrative description. The image is a screenshot of the maps as hosted and presented on Chicago Cityscape.

The idea of “greenlining”

I might be thinking myopically, but what would happen if we marked *every* neighborhood in green, and talked about their strengths, and any historical and current disinvestment – actions that contribute to people’s distressed conditions today?

One aspect of this is a form of affirmative marketing – advertising yourself, telling your own story, in a more positive way than others have heard about you in the past.

In 1940, one area on the Far West Side of Chicago, in the Austin community area, was described as “Definitely Declining”, a “C” grade, like this:

This area is bounded on the north by Lake St., on the south by Columbus Park, and on the west by the neighboring village of Oak Park. The terrain is flat and the area is about 100% built up. There is heavy traffic along Lake St., Washington Blvd. Madison St., Austin Ave. (the western boundary) and Central Ave. (the eastern boundary).

High schools, grammar schools, and churches are convenient. Residents shop at fine shopping center in Oak Park. There are also numerouss small stores along Lake St., and along Madison St. There are many large apartment buildings along the boulevards above mentioned, and these are largely occupied by Hebrew tenants. As a whole the area would probably be 20-25% Jewish.

Some of this migration is coming from Lawndale and from the southwest side of Chicago. Land values are quite high due to the fact that the area is zoned for apartment buildings. This penalizes single family occupancy because of high taxes based on exclusive land values, which are from $60-80 a front foot, altho one authority estimates them at $100 a front foot. An example of this is shown where HOLC had a house on Mason St. exposed for sale over a (over) period of two years at prices beginning at $6,000 and going down to $4,500. it was finally sold for $3,800. The land alone is taxed based on a valuation exceeding that amount. This area is favored by good transportation and by proximity to a good Catholic Church and parochial school.

There are a few scattered two flats in which units rent for about $55. Columbus Park on the south affords exceptional recreational advantages. The Hawthorne Building & Loan, Bell Savings Building & Loan, and Prairie State Bank have loaned in this area, without the FHA insurance provision. The amounts are stated to be up to 50% and in some cases 60%, of current appraisals.

Age, slow infiltration, and rather indifferent maintenance have been considered in grading this area “C”.

Infiltration is a coded reference to people of color, and Jews.

My questions about how to “greenline” a neighborhood

  1. How would you describe this part of Austin today to stand up for the neighborhood and its residents, the actions taken against them over decades, and work to repair these?
  2. How do you change the mindset of investors (both small and large, local and far) to see the advantages in every neighborhood rather than rely on money metrics?
  3. What other kinds of data can investors use in their pro formas to find the positive outlook?
  4. What would these areas look like today if they received the same level of investment (per square mile, per student, per resident, per road mile) as green and blue areas? How great was the level of disinvestment from 1940-2018?

In the midst of writing this, Paola Aguirre pointed me to another kind of greenlining that’s been proposed in St. Louis. A new anti-segregation report from For the Sake of All recommended a “Greenlining Fund” that would pay to cover the gap between what the bank is appraising a house for and what the sales price is for a house, so that more renters and Black families can buy a house in their neighborhoods.

That “greenlining” is a more direct response to the outcome of redlining: It was harder to get a mortgage in a red area. My idea of greenlining is to come up with ways to say to convince people who have a hard time believing there are qualities worth investing in that there they are people and places worth investing in.

The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond digitized the HOLC maps and published them on their Mapping Inequality website as well as provided the GIS data under a Creative Commons license.

Yes, please, to Accessory Dwelling Units and adopting Vancouver’s policy

income property

There’s a couch house back there, providing an income opportunity for the owner of this single-family house. It’s hard to find photos of coach houses in Chicago because, given their position behind the house, it’s hard to see them from the street! Photo by Curtis Locke

I’m a huge opponent of how cities use zoning to keep densities very low and prevent people from moving into a neighborhood to enjoy high quality public schools and good access to transit. This is evidenced by many of my tweets about zoning analyses in Chicago over the last two weeks, and many blog posts I’ve written over the years.

I’m a proponent of Accessory Dwelling Units. In Chicago these are most commonly seen, in practice, as coach houses, which were built before most of us were born. ADUs, because they’re behind the primary building on a lot, are a nearly-hidden, low-impact way to provide affordable housing for a couple more people per lot without affecting the “character” of the neighborhood. And they generate rental income for the family that owns the primary building!

Coach houses, and ADUs, are illegal in Chicago. You’re allowed to keep the one you have, and it can be rented out to anyone else, so long as you don’t renovate it.

Bryn Davidson is an architect based in Vancouver, B.C., and his firm, Lanefab, designs ADUs in that city, a housing type that was legalized in 2009. He wrote an article in CityLab today and there are *so many quotable parts*.

In the article, Davidson offers five strategies for a city that’s developing an ADU legalization policy.

In the “Keep the approvals process simple” strategy, Davidson says that Vancouver’s policy means homeowners “don’t have to solicit feedback from neighbors”, adding, “The…is perhaps the most important. In North America we have a long history of granting neighbors truly extraordinary veto powers when it comes to adding new housing. Going forward, if we want to treat younger generations and renters more fairly, we need to stop trying to litigate housing on a lot-by-lot basis.”

This is one of the worst things about zoning today. Zoning is supposed to be the way that you tell property owners what they can expect to be able to build, and it’s a way for cities or residents to manage certain aspects about the way their area looks and who is living there.

But if everywhere in the city (cough Chicago cough) where people want to build is improperly zoned to begin with – for example, allowing only single-family houses near train stations in areas that have hundreds of apartment buildings that predate that zoning – you get a situation where so many property owners have to ask their city council member for a zoning change.

The next quotable is…the entire parking strategy. But here’s some choice parts:

  • “We argued at length about parking in Vancouver, but in the end, opted to require only one onsite parking space…”
  • “Some neighbors will get irate about the new competition for street parking, but here’s the counterpoint: If a neighbor is complaining about street parking, it’s because they’re using their garage…for something else”
  • “Either way, a lot of single-family-home residents are parking on city property for free while extracting extra value out of their private land.”

Chicago is experiencing gentrification, with rising property values and taxes in neighborhoods filled with households that can least afford it. Many of these households live in a single-family house – what do you think about giving them the opportunity to renovate and rent out an existing coach house in North Lawndale, or build a new coach house in Humboldt Park?

You won’t believe why Arcade Place in Chicago’s Loop was changed from an alley to a street

The enhanced proposal for the building on the right, 230 W Monroe, was made possible by converting the alley to a “street”.

Arcade Place, for all intents and purposes, is an alley. It has Dumpsters, and loading docks. It has no sidewalks. It’s dark and probably dirty.

Yet in 1969, Alder Fred Roti passed an ordinance that gave the alley a name and street status.

Why? Because it gave an adjacent property owner the ability to get an FAR bonus and build a larger office building.

That’s not why Roti said he did it, though. “Nobody talked to me about this. I walk around the Loop all the time and I noticed this alley. It’s Arcade east and west and it didn’t make sense to me to be an alley here”, he told the Chicago Daily News.

How gracious he was to the poor alley!

There are several other “named alleys” in downtown Chicago, including Couch Place, Court Place, and Garland Court. I don’t know why they are streets.

I’m reading “Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago”, by Joseph P. Schwieterman, and Dana M. Caspall, which is full of downtown and North Side zoning change stories like the above. It’s available at the Chicago Public Library, or you can buy it right now.