Chicago Hopes to Center Equity in Its Transit-Oriented Development

Chicago's transit-oriented development ordinance has produced good results, but also displacement.

(Photo by Matthew Hamilton / Unsplash)

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In 2017, a coalition of civic groups joined forces to create Elevated Chicago, an advocacy and policy organization that works to promote transit-oriented development in Chicago. At the beginning, says Roberto Requejo, the group’s program director, the organization was “very placed-based,” investing most of its attention on seven station stops on the city’s famous elevated rail lines. But over the course of the last few years, Requejo says, as dense new development around certain transit nodes continued to increase rents and contribute to the displacement of Black and brown families, it has become clear that transit-oriented development shouldn’t be a standalone goal. The group realized it needed to adopt “a systems-change agenda that was citywide,” Requejo says, and now, instead of focusing all of its attention on transit-oriented development, the group has added racial and economic equity as a specific focus. And with the support of groups like Elevated Chicago, the City of Chicago has recently released its first plan for promoting equitable transit-oriented development.

“TOD without the ‘E’ in some of our communities definitely is a symbol of gentrification and displacement,” Requejo says. “They see all of a sudden these tall buildings that take over the intersection and they don’t offer anything to them. And not only do the rents go up for renters, they go up for restaurant owners and small businesses and social service providers.”

The City of Chicago passed its first transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinance in 2013, with the intent of encouraging dense, mixed-use projects in the immediate vicinity of the city’s abundant commuter-rail and elevated train stations. The city expanded the ordinance in 2015 and 2019 to include more districts, including areas along busy bus lines. But the last four years have revealed a troubling trend, according to a new report. Since 2016, 90 percent of new TOD projects in Chicago have occurred in a small handful of majority-white neighborhoods where market pressures were already high, the report says, while TOD-eligible neighborhoods with proportionately more people of color are not seeing much new investment. And, the report adds, the new development projects that are happening are seemingly contributing to a pattern of Black displacement.

“Where new TOD development is occurring, white population has increased, Black population has decreased, and Hispanic/Latinx population has increased in some areas and decreased in others,” according to the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (ETOD) Policy Plan, a draft of which was released in September. “These demographic shifts point to displacement patterns.”

Displacement is occurring from high-activity areas as prices rise, says Chicago Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara, but the reverse is also happening — residents choosing to leave disinvested neighborhoods because of a lack of amenities. For that reason, the city still wants to incentivize new housing and jobs near transit nodes, Novara says, but the TOD ordinances from 2013 and 2015 failed to make racial and economic equity their focus, so it’s no big surprise that they have played into existing disparities. The 2019 expansion did focus on equity, and required an evaluation of its impacts that is included in the new report.

“[This report] is a call to evaluate the results and not just the intent of the ordinance,” Novara says.

The report contains a new policy plan — which is not a law itself, but a draft set of recommendations for updating the TOD ordinance — was created through an 18-month engagement process with more than 70 “neighborhood, citywide and regional stakeholders,” according to the report. It notes that since 2016, transit-oriented developments in Chicago have created some concrete benefits for their neighborhoods, like reduced car ownership, less off-street parking, and better access to jobs than non-TOD areas. New TOD projects from that period are expected to produce 75,533 new jobs, the report says. But outcomes have been unequal and led to displacement. Neighborhoods with TOD projects had bigger rent increases than TOD-eligible neighborhoods without new projects and than the city as a whole during the same period, according to the report.

The new policy plan reflects the city’s commitment to put racial justice at the center of its development plans, Novara says.

“The benefits of TOD have really largely accrued to wealthier and whiter areas,” Novara says. “We’ve got some very deliberate work to do.”

To reorient the city’s TOD ordinance and other related policies to racial equity, the plan recommends hiring a full-time Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Manager, establishing a framework for evaluating the impact of the ETOD policy, and publishing annual reports on its outcomes. It recommends creating incentives for more equitable outcomes in ETOD zones, changing zoning rules to permit more uses, allowing small-scale multifamily housing in all ETOD areas, prioritizing ETOD projects for city funding, and promoting public space in ETOD districts. It also recommends new rules, like maximum parking ratios to limit car ownership, and requiring that parking costs and apartment rents be paid separately, to keep housing costs down for people who go without private cars.

Novara says the city wouldn’t be able to improve its policies without independent groups like Elevated Chicago that can both hold officials accountable and participate in reform processes with them.

“They are focused ostensibly on seven station areas, but really they hold us accountable citywide on how we are looking at transit-oriented development,” Novara says.

The ETOD policy plan says that over the last century, “transit has served both to liberate and isolate Chicago’s Black and Brown communities.” And it comes as the city is renewing a much broader set of its policies with an eye toward racial equity. In August, the Lori Lightfoot administration announced “We Will Chicago,” a three-year process to update the city’s comprehensive plan, which dates to 1966. And earlier in September, as Next City noted, the city’s Inclusionary Housing Task Force released a report on the city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance recommending changes that would require deeper affordability and larger units, so that the Black and Latnix families who are most in need could actually afford them.

“What we know about this country,” Novara says, “is that race-neutral policies do not give us race-neutral results.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: chicagogentrificationequitytransit-oriented development

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