CHICAGO'S HISTORY OF ZONING AGAINST AFFORDABLE HOUSING
Housing in Uptown Chicago, August 1974
(Source: U.S. National Archives)
On May 20th, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced an ordinance that would legalize various forms of accessory dwelling unit (ADUs) in Chicago. The introduction of the ordinance was highly anticipated. Since launching its ADU initiative in August of 2019, Chicago’s Urban Land Institute had been pushing for zoning changes to improve Chicago’s affordable housing stock. If the ordinance passes, the construction of ADUs can begin as soon as August 1st of this year. For many in the city, the ability to access more affordable units cannot come soon enough. Despite having a declining population, the cost of housing in Chicago remains stubbornly high. This has to do with a long history of the City using zoning laws to exclude affordable housing units, and thus create and sustain class and racial divisions. Since zoning was first introduced in Chicago in the early twentieth century, it has been utilized by privileged groups to maintain the city’s socio-economic divisions. To a large degree, Chicago’s zoning history has ensured that wealthy and overwhelming white residents have easy access to the luxurious neighborhoods in the city’s northeast, particularly the beaches and parks of Lake Michigan to the east, while more disadvantaged residents—predominantly Latino and African American—are concentrated in its troubled and polluted west and south corners. In this essay, I present a historic overview of such practices to illustrate how the current affordable housing gap stems from a century of exclusionary zoning and housing policies that has led to a concentration of low-income, predominantly African-American communities in under-serviced neighborhoods and to the removal of more affordable and dense forms of housing.
A Century of Exclusionary Zoning
In 1923, Chicago passed its first comprehensive zoning ordinance. At the time, proponents championed the legislation as a necessary step in modernizing and rationalizing Chicago’s urban landscape, but these lofty proclamations were often accompanied with racist and classist objectives. Dana M Caspall and Joseph P. Schwieterman, in their book The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago describe how just prior to the passage of the 1923 ordinance, the Chicago Real Estate Board, led by realtors from neighborhoods south of Chicago’s central business district in Hyde Park, Kenwood and Oakland advocated for the enactment of racial zoning regulations that restricted African-Americans residents to certain sections of the city. Concerned with profit losses, the realtors argued the dispersion of African Americans would result in a more than $250 million depreciation in property values.
Fortunately, Chicago never adopted the Real Estate Board’s plan. The city was prevented from doing so by a 1917 Supreme Court ruling—Buchanan v. Warley—and by opposition from African American residents. During the 1920s, the National Urban League had become a leading organization for civil rights in Northern cities. The Chicago chapter of the Urban League launched an aggressive campaign against racial zoning. Its activism ensured that Charles S. Duke, a prominent African American developer, was included as one of the initial members of the city’s first Zoning Commission. Duke kept the Commission from supporting blatantly racially motivated policies that would compromise the city’s Black Belt, but he was unable to stop subtler forms of racial and class exclusions. Supposedly racially neutral zoning rules disproportionately concentrated manufacturing and high-density buildings in areas occupied by African Americans and recent immigrants.
Both the Great Depression and the housing boom after the Second World War had a tremendous influence on Chicago’s zoning practices. In 1937, Congress passed the nation’s first Housing Act. Instead of leaving access to housing solely to the prerogative of the market, the federal government now played an active role in providing housing to low-income residents. That same year, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was established. Immediately, the CHA sets to work on slum clearance and the creation of four major housing complexes for low-income residents. These included the Jane Addams Houses on the Near West Side, the Julia C. Lathrop Homes on the North Side, and Trumbull Park Homes on the South Side, all established in 1938. In 1941, the CHA built the Ida B. Wells Homes in the historically African American neighborhood of Bronzeville.
While the first Housing Act prompted the provision of low-income complexes, when Congress passed its second Housing Act in 1949, Chicago used the opportunity to undertake bold redevelopment projects that involved dramatic forms of government-sponsored gentrification. In the name of urban renewal, the residents living in the areas around Chicago’s Central Business District were pushed westward. In one example, Noble Square, a 12-acre housing project located in West Town, was supposed to be available to current residents who had their original homes razed as part of a slum clearance program. However, when the apartments became available, the rents were far higher than expected. Soon, poor residents of West Town and other neighborhoods located near the city’s downtown core were finding that Chicago was being rebuilt for wealthier and exclusively white newcomers.
This gentrification and uninhibited building spree were partly motivated by overly optimistic population forecasts. At the time, forecasters predicted that the city would grow to over 4 million people by 1980. In 1957, under the guidance of Mayor Richard J. Daley (1955 – 1976), the city passed a major Planned Development ordinance with the intention of directing the majority of this growth toward Chicago’s high-end downtown areas, with the expectation that the city would eventually build outward toward the adjacent neighborhoods and moving the low-income populations further south and west. To achieve this goal, Mayor Daley’s 1957 Planning Development ordinance up-zoned areas in the downtown, allowing for Chicago’s luxurious high-rises and skyscrapers, but also restricting certain forms of development—specifically banning accessory dwelling units and giving single family homes “right of way” access—in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The legacy of the New Deal in the postwar period also saw changes allowing the Chicago Housing Authority to expand its operations. After the passage of the second Housing Act, the CHA was positioned to introduce new public housing projects throughout the city. Elizabeth Wood, the first executive director of the CHA, believed that public housing should play an active role in racially integrating Chicago. Her vision for public housing favored modestly sized units that were evenly dispersed throughout Chicago’s multiple neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this vision of public housing in Chicago was stymied on multiple fronts. Most white aldermen were opposed to locating public housing units in their areas. Reluctantly, the CHA adopted a public housing strategy based on building large isolated high rises located in predominately African American neighborhoods. Because of this, more than 99% of the city’s subsidized family units went in Chicago’s south and west neighborhoods.
The hostility toward public housing was a clear attempt by wealthy white leaders and property developers in the city to maintain the racial and class cohesion of their neighborhoods. But, in several respects, the political tides during the post-war period were turning against them. Unable to secure racial zoning laws in the late 1920s, the Chicago Real Estate Board encouraged neighborhoods to adopt racial covenants that prevented minorities—specifically African Americans—from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods. At the time, racial homogeneity within neighborhoods was considered a social good by the federal government. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) encouraged racial segregation by labeling geographic areas dominated by ethnic minorities as risky for mortgage support and produced reports that ranked ethnicities based on their supposed effect on land values. However, the courts eventually recognized these racial restrictions as unconstitutional. In 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that racial covenant agreements were unenforceable. Shortly after, the FHA revised its policy guidelines to no longer support racial segregation. By the 1960s, the CHA’s policy of concentrating public housing units in African American neighborhoods was challenged. Relying on the language of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal judge ruled in Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority (1969) that the CHA could not isolate public housing units to select neighborhoods based on race. The case was followed-up with a Supreme Court ruling in 1976 that affirmed the federal court’s ruling.
Despite the legal ruling in Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, the integration of public housing units throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods never occurred. The CHA lost its visionary mandate of desegregating Chicago’s neighborhoods after Wood was fired—at the urging of white aldermen—as its executive director in 1954. By 1968 the federal government has ceased funding for public housing projects, weakening the CHA’s ability to invest in new units.
In response to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, throughout the 1970s, community groups in the wealthy neighborhoods of Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Uptown and Edgewater advocated for downzoning residential buildings throughout Chicago to prevent market forces from providing new affordable units in their neighborhoods. Unlike in previous periods, where the racial and class biases behind zoning campaigns were obvious, downzoning activists adopted subtler arguments. These neighborhood groups often rhetorically wailed against “bigness” of luxury high-rises and how they interfered with their area’s community character, but the focus of their campaigns was rarely luxury high-rises. Instead, they went after modestly priced rental units that appealed to working-class and low-income residents. For example, an aggressive campaign was launched against four-plus-one apartment buildings. Four-plus-ones were hardly high-rises. These were four-story residential apartment buildings built atop a parking garage.
Nevertheless, they were ferociously attacked by downzoning advocates. Dan Crowe, leader of the organization South East Lake View Neighborhoods, accused four-plus-ones of being “blighting time bombs” and chastised the city for “trying to get rid of [urban slums] but building new problems.” It did not take long for community groups to zone four-plus-one apartment buildings out of existence, and by the end of the 1970s, they managed to add enough amendments to Chicago zoning laws that all neighborhoods outside of the downtown core were downzoned.
The effect of these exclusionary zoning practices on gentrification was apparent. West Town—located just west of the wealthy neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Old Town, and Near North—hemorrhaged housing units after Chicago’s post-war urban renewal projects and downzoning era. Between 1950 and 1990, West Town lost 30% of its housing units, and in recent years has served as the city’s epicenter for two- and three-flat apartment conversion From 1980 to 1990, the value of owner-occupied homes in the neighborhood increased from 50% of the city’s median to 96%.
The housing policies of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s processors Mayors Richard M. Daley have aggravated these trends. Mayor Richard M. Daley’s (1989 – 2011) housing policies cannibalized the city’s affordable housing option. His “Plan for Transformation” promised to tear down Chicago’s troubled public housing buildings, such as the infamous Cabrini-Green Homes, and replace them with smaller mixed-income units. Still, while the teardown process was rapid and efficient, the rebuilding process proved to be slow and bureaucratic. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel (2011 – 2019), who briefly served on the board of the Chicago Housing Authority, the situation only worsened. Mayor Emanuel’s myopic focus on encouraging luxury development projects near Chicago’s downtown meant that no strategic plan ever emerged regarding the city’s neighborhood affordable housing stock. As a result, developers took the opportunity to tear down the city’s unique two- and three-flat apartments and replace them with expensive single-family homes. As a consequence, the current housing stock in Chicago is the lowest it has been in thirteen years, with a third of the city’s residents considered housing cost-burdened while homes worth $1.2 million or more are experiencing a glut.
While the legalization of ADUs under Mayor Lightfoot is a step in the right direction, it must be acknowledged that it is also a modest one. Market-based solutions, such as upzoning to increase the supply of affordable housing units, can improve access to affordable housing options by driving down the overall cost of housing, but such strategies constantly contend with other socio-economic factors. The effects on affordability of moderate upzoning strategies can be completely negated for neighbors experiencing rapid gentrification, especially if they are not sensitive to promoting infill development and maintaining the traditional housing stock. Similarly, in neighborhoods that have a long history of chronic under- investment—such as Chicago’s southside—upzoning provides little relief. Chicago’s poor and working-class residents are in desperate need of more affordable housing units, but without a more comprehensive approach—one that addresses the underlining racial and class divisions in the city—that need will remain unfilled. In the meantime, the city’s painful legacy of socio-economic segregation will continue to be embedded into Chicago’s architectural and geographic design.
Marco Rosaire Rossi is a political science PhD candidate at the University of Illinois-Chicago, studying urban politics. His previous articles have been published in The Humanist Magazine, Z Magazine, and ROAR Magazine.