Chicago is an affordable city.
I know that sounds antithetical to what we’re accustomed to hearing. I’ll let you read this sentence again. Give it a moment to sink in. Yes, Chicago is affordable.
To be clear, I am talking about homeownership affordability. I am not talking about the rental market. Low-income families face myriad housing struggles, which I do acknowledge. But if you are a middle-class family, want to own a single-family home in the city proper and don’t have a mammoth budget, there are bungalows, Georgians, colonials and ranches awaiting.
And also to be clear, I am not talking about coveted pricey neighborhoods like Ravenswood, Logan Square or Lake View. Instead, I mean neighborhoods like Garfield Ridge, Washington Heights and Chicago Lawn.
Lakefront neighborhoods have long held cache in the city, and certain North Side enclaves get favor as the city’s darlings. Thus, we have a skewed view of where affordability actually lies. Thousands of single-family homes are on the market for $250,000 or less in a city in which the median income for a family of four is $79,000. More on that later.
While I believe the city has visible and invisible borders around who lives where (and that should change), we can’t afford to ignore the so-called middling or non-sexy neighborhoods. These are the places that also make up the city’s fabric. A number of working- and middle-class communities can welcome first-time homeowners or families looking to expand.
I’m sure you’re thinking the non-name brand neighborhoods don’t have the best schools, suffer from crime or boast the most amenities. There is truth in that or not, depending on the neighborhood. But I am for sure not referring to hipster neighborhoods or pockets real estate agents hype as the next up-and-coming “it” thing.
Okay, back to affordability. What do I mean? I conducted a non-scientific online experiment. I looked on three real estate websites, searching for single-family homes in the city with at least three bedrooms for no more than $250,000. The results yielded myriad results: gut rehabs with well-appointed kitchens and wainscoting to foreclosures in need of more than tender loving care. A lot in between. Large backyards or big lots. Thousands of such homes exist: more than 2,000 on Trulia, 4,700 on Realtor.com and 4,400 on Zillow.com.
But those homes are not equally distributed throughout the city. On Zillow, for example, red dots on a map indicate a home’s location. White space, not red dots, mark the North Side. Huge surprise. There needs to be a reckoning with blatant disparities because every neighborhood should provide some affordable homeownership options.
Yet we cannot ignore the myriad bedroom communities in Chicago that crave more resources or branding.
As part of my reporting and stake as a city denizen, I drive through or visit these communities — the Park Manors, the Hegewisches, the Auburn-Greshams, the Ashburns, the Back of the Yards. They have strong block clubs and residents toiling to make their communities stronger while considering how to market them. Some of the neighborhoods are black, white, Latino or mixed. Many are aging and trying to attract younger families, whether for a starter home or a forever home. Notably, the Greater Chatham Initiative has made restoring the luster of this black middle-class milieu a priority.
The struggles some neighborhoods experience range from crime to economic disinvestment to poor-performing schools. Not every neighborhood desires a Starbucks or other type of status development. And some neighborhoods struggle more than others, which is all the more reason city and private investment needs to view these places as worthy.
Chicago is vast. We are not bursting at the seams. Empty lots and depopulation tell that story well. The upside is that we are not like Washington, D.C., New York, Atlanta, Oakland or San Francisco, where home affordability has disappeared like manufacturing jobs in the Midwest. The aforementioned Chicago home prices turn people’s faces green with envy in other cities.
A singular focus on neighborhoods with the latest craft brewery, hot restaurant or boutique does a huge disservice to everyone in Chicago. We need to pay attention to the hollowing out of the middle class and joblessness — major threats to neighborhoods.
Potential and existing homeowners should pay attention to a much broader swath of neighborhoods instead of lamenting the high prices in the same handful of trendy areas.
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