Mix It Up: More Housing Options Would Strengthen Our Neighborhood

After the DNA Info article about Main Street Beverly was published last month, I received a number of insightful, thoughtful comments and messages, but one in particular spoke strongly to the future of our neighborhoods.

Through the blog’s Facebook page, a woman reached out to say that at age 24, after being born and raised in the area, she was preparing to move away to a North Side neighborhood where she could easily walk to shopping and dining, a place where the sheer number of people out and about doing the same would practically guarantee she would meet new people. Our area, she said, just isn’t supporting the lifestyle she wants.

Her comments have a lot in common with data showing that millennials — and people in other age groups — are increasingly looking for walkable communities, often in large cities rather than suburbs.

Many see the conventional components of the American Dream, such as a single-family home and two cars, as burdens — constrains, even — to living a fulfilling life. And in places like Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood, you often have few options besides those conventions due to restrictions we have placed on development in the area and our choices for shaping our transportation networks.

We live in a very attractive part of town where crime rates are low, parents can send their children to good schools and downtown workers can access the Loop easily and affordably via the Metra Rock Island train line. However, we have few reasonable housing options for people who want access to all our neighborhood offers but might not be in the position — or simply not want to — purchase a single family home. Despite the presence of some multi-family housing, such as apartments, townhouses and condos, our neighborhoods are overwhelmingly zoned for detached, single-family homes. In other words, without jumping through hoops with the city and working with neighbors to receive a zoning variance, a builder could not go to most parts of our neighborhoods and build anything other than a conventional house.

In the zip codes that primarily make up our corner of the city, detached, single-family houses are overwhelmingly the only options available for people who want to live here. U.S. Census data shows 79 to 88 percent of residents in our area living in this type of home (citywide, only about 28 percent of people live in detached, single-family houses). It also shows that our housing stock was mostly built pre-1979, suggesting that we have been doing very little to diversify our offerings.

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Houses in North Beverly are plentiful. Apartments, townhouses and condos … not so much.

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(Chicago blogger Daniel Kay Hertz, a master’s student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, writes about this phenomenon often. In many Chicago neighborhoods, zoning, he argues, has actually led to a decrease in population in many neighborhoods over the past 65 years, even in those places that we hear are booming today. Even as a neighborhood becomes more attractive, the city does not allow for an appropriate influx of new development to keep up with demand. Instead of building multi-family housing, which is either illegal or fought tooth and nail by neighbors, the only development that ends up making financial sense is luxury single-family homes. The results are areas of expensive housing that are only accessible to the very-well-to-do. While Hertz is primarily talking about “hot” North Side neighborhoods like Lakeview and Wicker Park, I believe that some of the characteristics he mentions apply to places like Beverly, as well. We might not get brand new luxury homes like Lincoln Park gets, but we do get house flippers. I highly recommend reading this piece. And this one.)

What does that all mean? Well, if you are a 24-year-old who was born and raised here and want a place in the neighborhood to live affordably, you settle for an apartment that is likely outside of walking distance of most amenities. That means you’ll probably have to buy a car just to run daily errands, which will eat away at the money you are saving by living in a modest apartment. This is the reason transit-rich neighborhoods like Logan Square look so attractive to younger people. Given the train, bus, biking and walking options in Logan Square, there is less need to own a car if you live there. It’s also the reason why a place like Logan Square — or Lakeview, Edgewater or a number of other neighborhoods — looks attractive to older people who don’t want to be chained to an automobile or have a mortgage.

What has happened in places like the Beverly area is that we have constrained our housing supply so much that the vast majority of people who do move here are primarily those who can afford a $240,000 house (the median price in Beverly, according to real estate sire Trulia.com — the average listing price recently was $356,000) and at least one car that will cost about $7,000 to $11,000 per year (according to AAA — depends on the type of vehicle), once you factor in monthly payments, gas, insurance and maintenance. While our median home prices in Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood are below the citywide average, other neighborhoods offer other, more affordable housing options beyond their expensive single-family homes. Aside from a handful of blocks, non-single-family houses are scarce around here.

Throughout history, as neighborhoods have grow in popularity, they have grown in population through the construction of a variety of different housing types. All those courtyard apartment buildings you see around Chicago? Many of those were built in the 1920s as communities from Uptown to Hyde Park became fashionable. There was a demand for housing, and it was supplied. Today, those apartments offer affordable alternatives to single-family homes. They also house a population that can support the types of shops, restaurants and amenities we want to see in our own community — the types of businesses that one can walk to conveniently and are owned by our neighbors. Even though a University of Chicago student cannot afford a house in Hyde Park, he or she can still live in an apartment (maybe with a roommate) near campus and all of the shopping and dining options the neighborhood offers. Plus, many of the buildings are just gorgeous.

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On Bryn Mawr Avenue in Edgewater, multi-family and single-family homes exist side-by-side. Image from Google Streetview. Click to explore.

By excluding multi-family housing from much of our community, we are cutting out valuable populations of people, from the recent college graduate just starting out in the workforce, to the single parent who wants a safe neighborhood with good schools, to the senior who wants to downsize and live in a place where daily needs can be met on foot (some call this “aging in place”).

Our community’s population is getting older. In the 60655 zip code, which encompasses Mount Greenwood, the population of 20- to 49-year-olds declined by 13 percent between 2000 and 2013, while the population of people 50 and older increased 18.5 percent. In 60643, which encompasses much of Beverly and Morgan Park, the 20- to 49-year-old population declined by 12.1 percent in that same period, while the 50-plus population increased by 25.6 percent. Given our demographic changes, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of community do we want to be? I believe our growth should reflect people’s increasing interest in walkable communities while also serving the needs of those who might be driving less frequently as they grow older. We would more fully cater to a range of age groups as people choose to live here for the convenience it offers at all stages of life.

One thing that strikes me as an overwhelming positive for our neighborhood is the strong ties people have to it. Many people talk about how they grew up here and moved back. Others talk about never having left. But what also strikes me is the number of people I hear who say they’d like to move here — someday. That “someday” is usually a point when they can afford one of the homes here or they have children. In other words, as lovely of a community as we have, it does not offer something for everyone. Not all people want a single-family home, but everyone does want to live in a community with the types of positive attributes that the Beverly area has. If we can offer more housing options, we can attract the types of people who want to make the neighborhood their home now, and we will afford them the opportunity to live here comfortably through different stages of their lives.

So how do we accomplish this? First, change the zoning. That doesn’t mean we replace everyone’s single-family home with a high-rise apartment building. What it means is that when obsolete properties do go on the market, a new owner could decide to renovate the building and keep it a single-family home or build a new structure on the property that perhaps adds two to five more units to the neighborhood. Maybe an obsolete house is combined with a vacant lot, and we get a contemporary variation on the classic Chicago courtyard building — some of which can be seen on some blocks in our neighborhood already, sitting side-by-side with single-family homes. By changing what we allow, we send a message to developers about how we want our neighborhood to evolve so there are fewer hoops to jump through when someone does want to redevelop.

We don’t even need to apply this type of zoning to every place in the neighborhood, at least not right now. Start where there is the most opportunity for infill (vacant parcels and parking lots) and where this type of housing would be most effective: Along our commercial corridors and near our transit hubs. Multi family housing should certainly be permitted within at least a quarter-mile of Metra stations. (A half-mile is even better, but I suspect that a quarter-mile is more likely to have broad support. One step at a time.) Every additional person we have living near the stations is one more potential rider for Metra.

Second, where appropriate, this type of development should occur in the form of mixed-use buildings: Commercial space on the first floor and residences on the floors above. This would make the most sense near our Metra stations as well as on commercial corridors like Western Avenue and 111th Street. In encouraging this type of development, we build an environment where the pedestrian’s needs come first and put potential customers right within walking distance of shopping and dining. We start to build a neighborhood where daily needs can be met by traveling on foot rather than by car.

(To some extent, this set-up already exists near some Metra stations, but we can do better by extending the multi-family zoning to a slightly greater radius and encouraging more mixed-use development. The new condos at 103rd Street and Hale Avenue are a step in the right direction. There’s a lot of potential for similar development on 95th Street and even along Western Avenue.)

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On Western Avenue, some might see a vacant building and parking lot. I see the potential for mixed-use buildings. Across the street from a grocery store, no less! How convenient for future residents! Image from Google Streetview. Click to explore.

This is a common development pattern we see across Chicago, even in lower density neighborhoods in the Bungalow Belt and inner-ring suburbs. Some streets are still lined with single-family homes, but multi-family housing is located at key places where you need a higher intensity of activity, such as along commercial corridors, near high-volume bus stops and adjacent to train stations. Many of these locations also include commercial, office and civic space, and when you throw all of these ingredients together — with properly scaled streets, of course — you get a healthy, pedestrian friendly environment.

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The busy intersection of Belmont and Central avenues on the far Northwest Side. A bustling district of shops, restaurants and apartments…
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…surrounded by a mix of single- and multi- family housing.

This strategy goes beyond simply attracting specific demographics (i.e. Millennials) and the amenities they seek (i.e. hip bars and organic grocers) to our neighborhood. It’s about creating a place that thrives because it is accessible to a wide variety of people and is designed in a way that the automobile is one of many ways people can get around easily rather than the default way.

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