Chicago’s affordable housing problems would be helped by higher density

The city needs more lively neighborhoods. Restrictive zoning, de-conversion and teardowns mean gentrifying communities outside downtown tend to become less dense.

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In Logan Square, Bickerdike Redevelopment says it expects to break ground soon on a 100-unit, affordable residential project, as shown in this rendering.

In Logan Square, Bickerdike Redevelopment says it expects to break ground soon on a 100-unit, affordable residential project, as shown in this rendering.

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Higher density offers a way to help solve Chicago’s growing problem with housing affordability, three recent projects suggest — but success requires a shrewd eye and sensitivity to community needs.

In Uptown, Cedar Street Companies converted an old office building on Broadway into 342 apartments a short walk from the Red Line. Opened last fall, the building is filling up quickly enough that the developer is thinking about building another residential mid-rise across the street.

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In Logan Square, Bickerdike Redevelopment, a not-for-profit developer, expects to break ground soon on a 100-unit, all-affordable residential project near the Blue Line. After some early controversy, the project gained community support. One nice touch: putting the tall part of the structure on a commercial street, with townhouses for families accessible from side streets.

In Ravenswood, Ronan Construction developed two condo buildings with a total of 14 units on a residential street just off Irving Park Road. After negotiations involving neighbors and the alderman, all parties agreed on a plan to gradually step the buildings down in height so they’d fit into the neighborhood.

These projects demonstrate:

Higher density makes it possible to build more affordable housing, ranging from big midrise projects to small-scale, soft-density projects on side streets.

Chicago’s commercial streets are a promising place to build market-rate housing in neighborhoods — not just along hipster highways like Milwaukee Avenue.

Those hipster highways can be part of the solution, too. High-density corridors in trendy neighborhoods offer a good location for subsidized affordable housing projects, where they can be part of a diverse urban mix and not a threat.

• Finally — and this is the key to making the whole thing work — you can do all of the above while keeping neighbors happy.

“It was a longer road than we anticipated, but we were delighted with the way the project came out,” says Jimmy Ronan, a principal in the company that built the Ravenswood condos. Among the early occupants: families with children.

“Pushback from the neighbors wasn’t bad,” says Mark Heffron, managing partner of Cedar Street. “The project had real community benefits — improved pedestrian activity, retail, more economic development in the area.”

“We got a lot of comments from the community and took them to heart,” says architect Pete Landon,whose firm designed the Bickerdike project. “We tried to be as accommodating as we could.”

Increased density is likely to be an important part of Chicago’s future. It can help make housing more affordable, keep families in the city and increase neighborhood vitality.

Affordability is a problem for a lot of people in Chicago, not just those with low incomes, as the accompanying maps show.

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Red and yellow indicate neighborhoods where the average amount residents spend on housing exceeds 30% of their income — the threshold above which the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development considers people to be cost-burdened.

Rents in most of the city are affordable, except for the West Side and South Side. And the problem there isn’t high rents — they’re among the lowest in the city. It’s that incomes are so low.

Home ownership costs, though, are a different story. All over town, the cost of home ownership is above 30% — often far above.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the average resident in these neighborhoods is cost-burdened — a lot of people rent. But it does mean home ownership is beyond the reach of the typical person who lives there.

In metro Chicago, home ownership costs account for 31% of median income. In the city, it’s 41%.

The affordability of city home ownership is slowly but inexorably getting worse. As it does, an increasing number of Chicagoans will quietly decide to head for the door.

Higher density can help head off that problem. It won’t make single-family homes cheaper. But, by encouraging production of other types of dwellings, it’ll help drive down the cost of housing.

Soft density — say, two to four units per building lot rather than one — is especially important. By reducing the cost of home ownership in the way that two-flats did a century ago, it can enable families to stay in the city.

“Increasing density is an incentive to build more housing,” says Matt Fiascone, president of the Habitat Company, one of the city’s largest housing developers. “You can’t say adding three to five units is too small. It all makes a difference.”

Increased density would help the city chip away at another problem — the overconcentration of subsidized housing in Chicago’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

According to HUD data, federally subsidized housing of all types — including public housing, subsidized affordable housing and Section 8 vouchers — is overwhelmingly concentrated on the West Side and South Side. In some neighborhoods, more than 50% of households are subsidized.

“We need a vision for affordable housing across the entire city,” says Marisa Novara, Chicago’s housing commissioner. “We want every community to contribute.”

Till now, neighborhood opposition and aldermanic privilege have conspired to keep that from happening. But the higher densities increasingly accepted in gentrifying neighborhoods make it possible to squeeze in affordable housing with everything else.

Higher density also means an affordable housing development can be large enough to support onsite staff, streamlining management and maintenance.

Higher density won’t just produce more affordable housing. It’ll increase the city’s vitality and attractiveness.

In 1950, Chicago had roughly the same density as San Francisco — about 16,000 people per square mile. San Francisco’s density has climbed to almost 19,000, second to New York at 28,000 among major U.S. cities. Chicago’s has fallen to 11,600.

It’s no coincidence San Francisco and New York have become the nation’s leading technology centers — millennials like the urban buzz density produces.

Downtown Chicago has that buzz, too — that’s why the city has done as well as it has. Since 2010, Chicago’s core has gained 63,000 residents. There’s a good chance the 2020 census will show the downtown population count trailing only — you guessed it — San Francisco and New York.

Chicago needs more lively neighborhoods, but they won’t happen automatically. Restrictive zoning plus de-conversion and teardowns mean gentrifying communities outside downtown tend to become less dense over time. For example, Lincoln Park has shrunk from 38,000 dwellings in 1990 to 35,000 now.

That’s an easier problem to solve if the neighbors are on board with higher density — a possibility along commercial corridors near transit like Broadway in Uptown and Edgewater.

The city’s transit-oriented development ordinance provides a framework for making that happen but “could definitely be streamlined,” Fiascone says. His suggestion: citywide transit-oriented development standards and bonuses that limit aldermanic discretion.

Worth a try.

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