Per the Supreme Court’s June ruling, cities receiving HUD funds must now check long-entrenched practices of structural discrimination, like clustering affordable housing in just one or two zip codes. In the wealthy suburbs north of Chicago, a group of activists sees the federal overhaul as a chance to address one of exclusionary zoning’s equally problematic but less visible counterparts: transportation inequality.
To demonstrate their point, Brendan Saunders of Open Communities and Kyle Smith of the Center for Neighborhood Technology cite Sunset Village, a manufactured housing community in Glenview. Originally built on unincorporated land, the affordable neighborhood has struggled with water contamination and a lack of basic infrastructure like fire hydrants over the years. Today, bus service remains infrequent. The 422 is the sole route on nearby Waukegan Road, and it runs only during peak hours. On weekends, it doesn’t run at all.
Comparing Sunset Village to a transit-oriented development called The Glen, Smith digs into the issue of economic opportunity.
“These two locations are just a mile apart, but from The Glen, a worker could get to 209,000 jobs within a 30-minute transit ride,” he says. “From Sunset Village, the number is less than half that.”
A 2012 report from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research found Chicago to be the nation’s most racially segregated city, with historic reasons ranging from redlining and restrictive covenants to the construction of massive housing projects for black residents cut off from white neighborhoods. That same report did find increasing integration in the Chicago metro in recent years, and in July, The Atlantic lauded the region as a national model for Section 8. Thanks to a new fund-pooling mechanism, the city now shares voucher finances with outlying suburbs, meaning that affordable housing can be more equitably distributed throughout the entire metro.
Still, a report released by Smith and Saunders’ organizations argues that, even as the north suburbs implement more affordable housing, it’s not always near transit. This is particularly troubling as transit-oriented development gains prominence and popularity.
“In the northern suburbs, mixed-income housing and TOD have not often occurred together,” the report states, arguing that the trend cuts both ways. “In some places, station areas added market-rate condominiums, which put market pressure on existing rental housing and may have pushed some families to leave those areas. In other towns, affordable housing production occurred outside of station areas.”
Studying developments around CTA and Metra stations in Chicago’s northern suburbs, the researchers see a pattern of declining affordability.
“Around CTA stations, owner-occupied units increased by 11 percent while renter-occupied units declined by 14 percent, and around Metra stations, owner-occupied units increased by 7 percent while renter-occupied units declined by 14 percent,” the report states.
“Affordable housing is often delivered in the place that it’s easiest to do — not the places with the highest amount of opportunity,” Smith says.
Going forward, Smith and Saunders want to encourage the region to consider transit when thinking about HUD’s new mandates. Since 1968, the federal agency has ruled that grantees must “affirmatively further fair housing.” Under the law’s previous incarnation, a landlord couldn’t deny units based on a potential tenant’s race or religion. Now, however, HUD wants cities and counties to consider structural racism and segregation as potential barriers to the implementation of fair housing.
“TOD is by no means spelled out” in those new rules, Saunders says. “But we saw this as a prime opportunity to think about transit in the context of ‘affirmatively furthering fair housing.’”
Because TOD and affordable housing efforts are often “siloed from one another,” according to the report, Smith and Saunders propose a set of policies to help municipalities align the two. Suggestions include inclusionary zoning, density bonuses, lowering parking mandates and a host of funding mechanisms, from land trusts to low-income housing tax credits.
“We wanted to create a step-by-step guidebook showing how to tackle segregation within a community — showing all the different rules and regulations that go into the planning process,” Saunders says.
“When housing is added, it’s critical that it’s central and not ‘out of sight, out of mind,” he adds.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.