Nobody wants to think about zoning laws (boring!), but in times of out-of-control growth, they’re crucial. At their most basic level, zoning laws give assurances that homeowners won’t wake up one morning and find, say, a gas station being built next door. On a higher level, zoning laws determine the shape of a neighborhood and how it feels to live in it. It’s the whole idea of a planned community.
Gentrification and “upzoning,” or increasing the zoning areas to levels that allow for more intense development to fulfill the latest Land Use Planning trend, are real threats to Gladstone Park. If the community has any one mantra about its future growth, it would be “Stick to the Zoning.”
And why shouldn’t it? In designating every square foot of its 234 square miles of city lands for development many decades ago, Chicago deliberately zoned for different sorts of living conditions south, east, north, and west in order to create the diverse communities of which the city is so proud today. Neighborhoods mean something in Chicago. They give all the peoples who move to the Windy City, whether they’re Poles, filmmakers, Muslims, gays, Ukrainians, or techies a place to live that feels like home. Character is what residents of different neighborhoods treasure…while trends come and go.
Residents who come to Gladstone Park, a community long set up for low-rise, spread-out development, sign up for a lifestyle that’s easy-going and family-friendly even if it isn’t as exciting or culturally rich as other closer-in, more built-up areas of the city. If too much unwanted growth starts surrounding them, they will feel forced out of their beloved homes and into the suburbs for the same lifestyle they now treasure where they are.
Of Chicago’s nine major zoning categories, Gladstone Park is set up with designations for the least intensive uses. For example its N. Milwaukee Avenue Business Corridor is nearly all earmarked B3-1, requiring storefronts along it to have the biggest lots (2,500 square feet per dwelling unit, if any) as compared to four other B3 zones that reduce required lot area per unit all the way down to 200 square feet that allow for 18 times the number of households. While increased density may be desirable in some Chicago neighborhoods such as the Loop with its spectacular skyscrapers, it is perceived as overcrowding in communities such as Gladstone Park with most of its residential zoning RS-2 or RS-3 for single-family districts. The community’s Industrial Corridor, too, is a mix of M1-1 and M1-2 for business parks allowing only limited manufacturing and light industry, keeping pollutants and noise to a minimum. The public can examine the zoning designations for every lot in Gladstone Park (and the whole city) on the interactive Chicago Zoning and Land Use Map.
As was discussed in Development Threats, Gladstone Park has had a much more difficult time recently managing its growth. One might surmise from the battles it has faced that the city has developed new goals for the community that differ from how the neighborhood was originally set up. Sometimes initiatives change with new political administrations, empowering developers to push the envelope harder against existing masterplans with the thought that the implicit approvals for nonconforming projects are already there. Other times, different ideas evolve in an effort to meet modern sensibilities about what makes livable, healthy, equitable, and economically-viable communities. While Gladstonians champion progress as much as any other group of people, they know that all growth isn’t smart growth. When it becomes too difficult for the community to protect its residential character or to revitalize its business and industrial districts in positive ways that suit the area, there’s grave dissatisfaction.
Many decades ago, Chicago planners zoned Gladstone Park as a low-rise, low-density, spread-out community as part of a design to develop many diverse neighborhoods for which the city is rightfully proud. Residents who move to the community know they are giving up the built-up, fast pace of downtown culture in order to live in a safe, easy-going, family-friendly enclave still within the city limits. In recent times, however, they feel like the city is not listening to their voices when they object to developers coming in with plans to upzone with taller and more dense structures than are allowed by their long-standing zoning laws. They also can’t seem to get the same amount of attention when it comes to infrastructure improvements or beautifying its sidewalks and crosswalks on its N. Milwaukee Business Corridor. Cartoon by Stu’s Views [https://stus.com/Environmental-Impact-of-Zoning-Amendments-cartoon-cuu0020].
It’s not like Gladstone Parkers don’t know they are merely one small far-out cog in the huge wheel that is Chicago. Living in one of 226 recognized communities within 77 “official” neighborhoods with a location 10 to 11 miles from the Loop, they sometimes find it hard to gain the city’s understanding of and respect for their one square mile territory. Regarding housing, they often have to wonder if officials have ever actually stepped foot into their enclave as it tries to force taller, denser buildings into an area that has always staked its claim on its low-rise, low-density character. And residents have seen the city doing little to add infrastructure improvements to attract interest to the business district akin to the fancy brick sidewalks or new lighting that has gone into other neighborhoods closer to downtown. Instead the Milwaukee Avenue Commercial Corridor has been left with unmaintained, dangerous planting bed bumpouts loaded with weeds and litter at crosswalks, degrading its appearance for local shop owners.
So how can Gladstone Park go about reversing this dynamic? Governmentally and politically, it has no legal or financial power to plan its own future. It doesn’t have its own town planning board to forge its future growth. There’s no dedicated zoning board within its borders to adjudicate building proposals. Plus it has no budget of its own to fund beautification or infrastructure improvements. Every request must be funneled through through their alderman into city channels with all the associated red tape. Much gets buried in oblivion.
And no one yet knows if it will get even harder to have their voices heard after the century-old unwritten tradition of aldermanic prerogative was breeched in December, 2021 over an affordable housing battle in the nearby O’Hare neighborhood. When the 50-member City Council voted for a project the local alderman had deemed not suitable for his ward’s constituents, it set a precedent that cast Gladstone Parkers and other smaller communities adrift wondering if they had any home rule left.
For Gladstone Park to have any kind of self-determination in this climate, it must first and foremost stay on top of the city’s new planning initiatives, the most important of which are outlined below. By keeping up-to-date on the specific zoning problems the Far Northwest Side could face, the community can continue to respond appropriately while developing positive strategies to regulate growth. Too, residents can endeavor to improve on their image of who they are as a community, dispelling the old stereotypical, disparaging narratives that have been bandied about by others who don’t understand that the area has evolved. That will give Gladstone Park a more formidable chance to forge into the future with progressive new standards for housing and businesses while maintaining the kind of community the city planned for it in the first place.
BUSINESS DISTRICT UPZONING
Many neighborhoods in Chicago have been gentrifying over the past ten years with wealthier people moving farther out of downtown into less-well-off areas. While their money improves down-on-their-luck neighborhoods, boosting property values and attracting new business investment, it also has the negative result of raising real estate costs and forcing out smaller local businesses and long-standing residents.
With gentrification occurring just south and east of the Far Northwest Side, land values have been skyrocketing. Spurred on by the real estate crashes of the Great Recession of 2008 (and to some extent, the pandemic), investors have set their eyes upon Gladstone Park. Many little-used commercial properties and vacant lots on its Business Corridor are now in the hands of speculators who are only biding their time until the price is right.
With the winds that have been blowing in Chicago, these speculators are betting that they can hold onto their properties and wait for a big return on their investments. Their only intent is to get in and get out. So they have no interest in renting or leasing their storefronts or office buildings. So there’s no need to put money into improving or even maintaining them beyond the bare minimum. Instead they leave the properties sitting vacant without investing a cent in the community. As buildings start to look derelict, they pull the whole commercial corridor down, discouraging further investment. These speculators score the most by selling to big developers with the pull to win zoning variances from the city to get the properties “upzoned” in order to tear down the smaller buildings to build tall, dense apartment complexes that otherwise would not have been allowed.
Section of a large one-story brick building for sale at 5398 N. Milwaukee on Gladstone Park’s Business Corridor. Vacant for some time, the mid-century structure has been allowed to fall into derelict-looking condition, dragging down the appearance of nearby properties and the whole community. Photo by author.
The beauty of the investors’ strategy is that residents get worn down seeing dilapidated storefronts on their streets, making them more amenable to approving plans for buildings they otherwise would not have wanted. It can be tempting to conclude, “Well, anything would be better than what’s there now.”
But if Gladstonians give way to big housing projects along their commercial corridor, they would be confronted with a double whammy. Not only would big apartment buildings pack more people with needs for city services into a smaller area, but also they would replace the small, low-rise business buildings that provide residents with stores, offices and restaurants…essentially their “downtown” conveniences and pleasures. Put together, such development would change the entire fabric of the community from a working village to a soulless bedroom community populated only with high rise housing complexes with all the stresses of traffic congestion and parking woes that go with it.
It’s not just a cautionary tale; it’s a pattern. Gladstone Park need look no farther than Jackowo, the nickname for Chicago’s last great Polish neighborhood in Avondale/Irving Park just to its south. Real estate authorities had been predicting for 15 years that the community would be the next hot market, spurring investors to snatch up properties, tear down smaller buildings, and erect expensive condos and apartments, as recounted by Mary Wisniewski and Joanna Marszalek in The Death (and Possible Rebirth) of Jackowo in the February, 2022 Chicago Magazine. Rents rose throughout the neighborhood, forcing long-time Polish residents out.
The gentrification of wealthier people moving in led to parallel rent increases on business properties, pricing out local shop and restaurant owners while paving the way for a few deep-pocketed national chains (and fancy boutiques and chic salons) to come in. Meanwhile, storefront vacancies along the once vibrant Milwaukee Avenue business corridor soared to 40 percent as investors waited for the next Starbucks to move in and upgrade their lots’ values.
Ethnic and income diversity in the neighborhood suffered. Same-old, same-old stores and franchised eateries opened up. The vicious cycle left a blandness that Wisniewski and Marszalek conjectured could leave people without a reason to want to live there.
When properties are bought up by speculators, particularly if they are real estate trusts or out-of-state landlords, there is no thought for what the neighborhood actually becomes, the authors say. They caution that the only remedy for successfully transitioning communities like Jackowo is for the city of Chicago to step up with the right combination of zoning changes and tax policies to balance free market forces that otherwise focus solely on profits.
The gentrification of Logan Square yields a similar story. Two decades ago it was gang-infiltrated and one of the deadliest police beats in the city until investors began snatching up decrepit old greystones for cheap, repairing them, and spurring a turnaround. Pretty much all the working class and immigrant families who once lived there, along with their unique businesses, were displaced by the higher costs of living, as detailed in The Chicago Tribune’s “Logan Square, this pinch hits home”. Ironically, the online representation titled it “As Logan Square reinvents itself, the spotlight on affordable housing has never been brighter,” but in both cases, the same article ended with a discussion of the efforts of several nonprofit groups to build a couple of affordable apartment complexes to replace what had been available to locals earlier. Advocates deemed the effort “a drop in the bucket” compared to what had been lost.
The problem is, there are many schools of thought on how to do what’s best for communities such as Jackowo (or the South Shore or Gladstone Park). On one side of the Jackowo debate is Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), who promotes downzoning to preemptively prevent speculation and teardowns. In other words, if an older, but perfectly good two-story building is on a lot zoned for four stories, downzone the lot for two or at the most three stories to protect it. Otherwise, investors might buy it and keep it vacant while waiting for a buyer to knock it down and replace it with a four-story building to match the upzoned lot.
On the other side is Alderman Ariel Reboyras (30th Ward), who actively recommends upzoning because, he says, the numbers of extra people who come into five- and six-story buildings bring their wallets and footpower to support more neighborhood businesses. The authors quoted him as vowing, “The only way to rebuild the business community is to add density. How do you do that? Allow them to build up.”
Community activists hit upon a different solution in Chicago’s Logan Square when the wealthy started snatching up decrepit greystones in the gang-ridden, violent neighborhood some 20 years ago, creating a wave of gentrification that forced out thousands of Latino immigrant tenants and businesses. In order to keep some of its cultural identity, they supported nonprofit redevelopment companies dedicated to restoring older houses, three-flats and apartment buildings. Affordable units were carved out and preserved for its long-term residents.
Speculators banking on gentrification in Gladstone Parkers put the community between a rock and a hard place with their aims so disparate from what is good for the neighborhood. Are there any ways such commercial building owners can be persuaded to upgrade and lease their existing structures rather than hold them in abeyance for some future payoff? Can they be instead convinced to make improvements that increase the vibrancy of the Business Corridor even as they wait for a return on their investments? Knowing that speculators’ objectives are all about money, can Gladstone Park further that aim by tapping into incentive programs that make it worth developers’ whiles to buy into revitalizing the commercial district? Can it further help by setting up some sort of special shopping zone to give the area the kind of cachet that will make more business owners want to gravitate to operating in the community? Could private capital through the federal Community Reinvestment Act, for example, be used to start businesses and support entrepreneurship in building a more economically sound commercial corridor while maintaining the working and middle class populations of Gladstone Park? How about establishing a city-supported Special Service Area like the nearby Six Corners Chamber of Commerce manages in funding beautification, promotional, and maintenance elements in its business center?
While perhaps controversial in some areas, Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) has so far been very helpful in keeping the Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association informed about all building projects and requests for zoning variances that have come across his desk. Unlike the ward’s former alderman, John Arena, who went behind the community’s back in foisting a too-tall building onto it that most felt didn’t belong, Gardiner acts differently. He described his zoning review process in the November, 2019 Nadig Newspapers as initially seeking GPNA input before holding community meetings to hash through building proposal details. “I was voted in to represent the interests of the community,” he was quoted as saying the night after the Chase Bank redevelopment meeting, “and if the community doesn’t want it, I’m against it.”
As for businesses traditionally considered undesirable, Gladstone Park has some in the form of pawn and payday loan shops, tattoo parlors, and vaping and tobacco stores. It also has a number of car lots on its main drag that some residents feel might be better placed elsewhere. But it is apparently about to say goodbye to the pot shop just across its border, approved by the city in 2016 over strenuous objections of the local community. On May 23, 2022 The Chicago Tribune reported that while cannabis dispensaries had at first opened in unobtrusive, out-of-the-way sites (such as in Norwood/Gladstone Park), they were increasing seeking to relocate to vibrant, upscale areas (like River North). While it’d be tempting for Gladstone Parkers to take umbrage over remarks that the “flourishing” cannabis industry was looking to expand to “pricier, high-profile sites,” it might be at the same time be beneficial to look at the situation from the other side. Maybe it isn’t so bad a big pot corporation wants to leave because it doesn’t want to continue selling weed in the community’s low-rise, spread-out, family-friendly community.
Although many commercial properties are currently sitting vacant in Gladstone Park’s Business District, Propertyshark, a real estate listing conglomerator, was advertising only three as available in the Gladstone Park area as of June 15, 2022. An .18 acre piece of vacant land at 5360 N. Milwaukee was for sale at $499,000. Two other retail properties were available for lease: a 12,900 square foot space in the Associated Bank Building on .31 acre at 5200 N. Central and a 1200 square foot retail opportunity on .07 acre at 5717 N. Elston. A few buildings or lots also have for sale signs on their holdings through exclusive (unadvertised) listings. The big question is: what are the owners of all the other commercial storefronts obviously sitting vacant in Gladstone Park planning to do with their buildings?
THE INFLUENCE OF COMMERCIAL PROPERTY TAX POLICIES
Gladstone Park isn’t the only neighborhood in the city tangling with how to plan for the future of its commercial corridors. On the clear opposite end of Chicago, the South Shore Coordinating Council (SSCC) is similarly debating how to economically, educationally, culturally, and environmentally improve its commercial landscape for its residents. A coalition of business owners, faith-based institutions, educators, elected officials, chambers of commerce, social service and artistic foundations, the SSCC has the advantage of being able to coordinate action with and obtain financial support from Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s signature INVEST South/West plan, one of the lasting legacies of her administration. Geared to reverse decades of disinvestment in 10 communities and 12 commercial corridors on Chicago’s South and West Sides, the program is funded with $2.2 billion of private, philanthropic and public grants.
Gladstone Park doesn’t pretend to suffer from the chronic underinvestment that has taken place over many years in the city’s Black/brown disadvantaged sister communities. Nor can it claim to be fighting the same high rates of poverty and violence. But it does have much in common with South Shore neighborhoods when it comes to the cascading effects that result from some of the city’s public tools that, inadvertently or not, can damp down rather than foster business vibrancy. It’s not only zoning ordinances that can impose sometimes onerous regulations. It’s also the city’s tax policies. Perhaps Northside communities could take a page from SSCC’s Quality of Life Plan book as it has begun examining to some of Chicago’s ill-thought-out tax policies that affect the commercial corridors in all city neighborhoods.
Detrimental tax policies have long been acknowledged to contribute to the rash of vacancies in Chicago’s neighborhood commercial corridors. Illinois Representative (now Senator) Robert Martwick, tried to get a statewide prohibition against the practice of commercial properties being deliberately kept vacant in 2019. The Vacancy Fraud Act proposed allowing complaints to be filed and penalties assessed through County Boards of [Tax] Review if property owners were found not to be “actively attempting to lease, sell, or alter the property.” Unfortunately, statewide business lobbyists doomed the bill to failure.
That’s why SSCC’s organization, which serves Oakland, Kenwood, Washington Park, Hyde Park and Woodlawn, stepped up and went after the local Cook County Assessor’s Office (CCAO) that administers property taxes in the city of Chicago. In an effort to decrease absentee ownership of chronically vacant commercial buildings, it proposed more helpful tax policies as outlined in The Chicago Tribune’s November 14, 2022 article “South Shore facing its future.” In urging Cook County to enact legislation against commercial property owners who deliberately keep their storefronts vacant, the Coalition seeks to more firmly support established businesses and seed the development of new ones. Because while CCAO Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s current practice is to cap the number of times a business owner can receive tax breaks for keeping their properties vacant at two years, that policy is not enshrined into law and can thus change at whim.
Admittedly, the Cook County Assessor’s Office (CCAO) treads a fine line when it comes to vacant commercial properties, especially considering its goals for encouraging responsible ownership while discouraging abandonment due to regulations too tough to meet. Yet by relying too heavily on the position that “some level” of commercial property vacancy is “normal and expected,” it is more likely to excuse buildings that are not serving their intended purposes “due to conditions out of the control of the property owner, such as casualty events or other localized factors.” And while CCAO also reduces tax assessments for some vacant or abandoned properties in an effort to promote economic development and neighborhood vitality, commercial and industrial properties qualify only if they are environmentally-contaminated.
While not all commercial building owners take advantage of current Cook County tax policies that make it more profitable to maintain vacancies than to utilize their buildings for businesses, enough do to affect the vitality of entire Chicago neighborhoods. Small business advocates along Chicago’s blighted South Shore commercial district point to the fact that half the storefronts along 79th Street and three out of five on 75th Street are shuttered…easier to stay closed than to open back up. In “Some landlords keep their storefronts empty for years—and get tax breaks for it,” Maxwell Evans of Block Club of Chicago documents and details how business leaders want to reverse that trend.
There are understandably many reasons for empty storefronts. Commercial landlords legitimately may not have the money to bring their properties up to code so that they can be opened for business. But does it really help to give speculators tax breaks that make it more worth their while to do nothing with these storefronts–or tear them down–rather than helping them make them useful again at reasonable rates for Mom-and-Pop businesses?
What about other commercial landlords who look to save themselves from the hassles of leasing by purposely demanding rental amounts too expensive for local entrepreneurs to sustain commercial activity? Does it pay to give them tax breaks to maintain their vacancies as they leverage their investments for the greatest profit? And what good does it do to foster or even just tolerate absentee business landlords as they play the waiting game, staying out of reach of potential entrepreneurs looking to lease storefronts, with intentions only to resell their properties once they increase enough in value?
Empty storefronts on the west side of the 5300 block of N. Milwaukee. Vacant commercial properties like these on Gladstone Park’s main Milwaukee Avenue Business Corridor tend to cluster in the blocks in between the community’s main shopping hubs at the intersection of W. Foster at its extreme south, W. Bryn Mawr and the merger with N. Elston in the center, and W. Devon at the extreme north. Part of the reason for scanter business activity in scattered blocks like the one pictured above may be due to their spread-out nature that eliminates easy walkability from one isolated enterprise to another. The community would do well to try to assess just why storefronts such as these are shuttered. Is it because the property owner can’t afford to bring the building up to code so it can be leased out? Or are leases priced so high that entrepreneurs can’t pay them while sustaining successful business operations within? On the other hand, are the properties owned by absentee landlords not at all interested in investing in the community, but merely waiting for gentrification to enhance property values enough to sell at a hefty profit? A key question to answer is whether the Cook County Assessors Office should keep granting tax breaks to commercial property owners who deliberately keep their storefronts vacant…even as CCAO tries to balance the promotion of responsible business ownership while discouraging complete abandonment. Unfortunately, as the above picture reveals, once one property is shuttered, adjacent properties tend to follow, here leaving three stores in a row empty with a vacant commercial lot to the left. Photo by author.
While single commercial property owners do have the opportunity to apply for grants of up to $250,000 leading to the construction or rehabilitation of new stand-alone and existing commercial spaces from the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF) as administered through Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, eligibility requirements limit their use. At the current time, such projects must be located in specific areas of the city’s South, West and Southwest sides that have been identified as disadvantaged. Although it might and does have many vacant commercial properties, a neighborhood such as Gladstone Park in the Far Northwest Side simply doesn’t qualify.
The South Shore Chamber of Commerce (SSCC) thinks destructive tax policies can substantially contribute to community disinvestment in their commercial districts. Tonya Trice, SSCC’s executive director, vows that when the county grants reduced taxes on vacant properties, businesses are prevented from opening and providing services, amenities, and jobs. The organization’s solution is to lobby for a county ordinance to cap the number of times a property can receive a vacancy tax break to three times every 10 years with the hope it will be enacted in 2023. The proposal has the support of the Small Business Advocacy Council as well as the South East Chicago Commission, whose co-founder Elliot Richardson was quoted in the Block Club article as saying, “It’s crucial to revitalize commercial corridors now–especially coming out of this pandemic…” Other members supporting the ordinance are Logan Square, North Lawndale, Greater Englewood, Uptown, Cook County Black Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Building Strong Millennials. Maybe more communities on the Northwest Side of Chicago, including Gladstone Park in the Far Northwest, should get in on the action to help reduce the blight in their commercial corridors, too.
On the opposite end of things, some people think there are not enough tax incentives in Chicago to encourage those owning business properties to pull their properties out of vacancy status. They suggest programs that would, for instance, rebate property taxes in any one year to commercial property owners for the express purpose of applying the funds directly to repairs and improvements. Once those properties are brought up to code, they can then be reopened for active businesses. So far little on this line has been seriously considered.
TAX INCREMENT FINANCING PROJECTS (TIFs)
Although the City of Chicago’s Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) provides reimbursable grants to financially shore up permanent improvements for commercial buildings, the aid comes through the structure of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) that is often part of a much larger development project helmed by private builders. First allowed in 2010 through the Illinois Tax Increment Allocation Redevelopment Act, TIF districts are defined as “conservation” areas that are rapidly deteriorating, at risk of becoming blighted, and in need of extra monies in order to stop and reverse the decline. Of the many qualifying factors for setting up a special financing district of a TIF are excessive commercial vacancies with tax delinquencies, advanced dilapidation of industrial structures, ill-maintained housing that doesn’t meet zoning and/or safety codes, obsolete or inadequate community facilities, and environmental cleanup needed for polluted areas. In plain terms, all of the elements that stem from what the law labeled as a past “lack of sound community planning.” Combined, the law described the deleterious conditions as discouraging private investment, making the blight become self-perpetuating.
While a complicated piece of legislation, the TIF concept is simple. The idea is that once a Tax Increment Financing district is set up, a base assessed value of properties there is established (frozen) for the purposes of tax collection. This does not mean a property owner in the TIF doesn’t pay increased taxes as the value of his land or buildings rises. What it does means is that his taxes are put in different pots. While the base value continues to go to the normal governmental tax-collecting bodies, the increase in taxes (the “increment”) is plowed back into the planned improvements in the tax-defined area. These projects can range from infrastructure improvements such as road repairs, innovative lighting, and better pedestrian crosswalks to new community facilities such as sports fields and senior citizen centers to environmental cleanups to abandoned industrial properties to rehabilitation of housing complexes.
Where it gets confusing is in the two different ways a TIF can manage its funds: pay-as-you-go or through bond financing. The pay-as-you-go policy relies on rising property values to parcel out funds for improvements over time. Meanwhile, bond financing can jumpstart a project when a local government borrows ahead by issuing bonds based on a percentage of the projected higher tax collections in the future. Either can be arranged by linking up with private developers. The difference is in risk. Private developers who operate under the pay-as-you-go method have to absorb more risk, fronting their own capital for infrastructure costs at the outset with the forecast of being reimbursed after the projects are completed. Meanwhile, private developers operating under bond financing get the money for improvements up front with the government assuming the risk. In either case, the hope is that one or two such contracts make the TIF district that much more attractive that other commercial entities are incentivized to become part of it. Because it’s a community effort, it is an easier row to hoe than what individual commercial landlords could achieve for themselves.
By 2018 there were 138 TIFs occupying one-third of the city’s land running for up to 23 years each. But because the financial vehicle is relatively new, it has been loosely regulated with little transparency and quite a bit of fiscal maneuvering. This has been especially true in Chicago in regards to what is supposed to happen to all of the increment money that isn’t used for its intended purposes during the timeframe allowed. Although any surplus is supposed to be refunded to the tax bodies and schools that would have otherwise been the recipients, recent investigations have identified cases where monies were instead passed onto developers who were never part of original plans without any community oversight, as in the recent cases involving TIFs in Lincoln Yards and the 78. Accordingly, 2022 (losing) Chicago Mayoral Candidate Paul Vallas called the TIF surpluses “slush fund(s),” and proposed new regulations for the financial vehicles in his The Chicago Tribune opinion piece Five Key Ways TIFs Should Be Reformed for Chicago’s Benefit.
There have been no TIFs as yet in Gladstone Park although there was a small one in the larger Jefferson Park neighborhood to the community’s south that aimed to improve roadways and spruce up some sports fields. Perhaps if Gladstonians could manage to attract a commercial business such as Trader Joe’s to establish itself here, it could wrap the development around a TIF geared to improve the whole business district, including addressing the problematic bumpouts at its commercial corridor crosswalks.
No matter what mechanisms for improving communities are pursued, policy makers must always remember that zoning and tax regulations affect real people living in real neighborhoods. With the realization that even the most fundamentally sound approaches can be capable of producing unintended consequences, they must look to constant reassessment and flexibility as the keys to better and better practices.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING UPZONING
So, if it’s all about sticking to the designated zoning in Gladstone Park, how did the upzoned 5150 project and the GlenStar complex turn it into an affordable housing issue?
The situation is multifaceted.
Part of the problem stems from confusion about the terminology and methods Chicago employs to address its low-income housing programs which now fall under the newer term “affordable” as opposed to the “fair” housing lingo of past times. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) first defined affordable housing in 2006 as that in which the occupant pays no more than 30 percent of gross income for, including utilities. Although HUD created the benchmark, every city factors in specifics to its own formula, tinkering with earning equations and different forms of implementation. Another wrinkle is when affordable levels in a well-to-do area are based on area median income (AMI), the “affordable” level may be defined as those with household incomes of $100,000 or more.
Chicago has an unusually complicated system set up to provide rental housing to low-income households at rates they can afford. On its online platform Medium, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability describes the city’s setup as divided into two main vehicles Of the 89,000 rental households in the Windy City that participated in affordable housing programs in 2018, some are managed and regulated by the 85-year-old Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) while others arise through the city government’s Department of Housing (DOH). Both entities use different means to create and manage rental housing opportunities with some overlaps.
It is instructive to note that CHA was founded upon the passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1937, and began its mission owning and managing the city’s first public housing projects (Jane Addams, Julia C. Lathrop, and Trumbull Park Homes built by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration) in the late 1930s. CHA is the agency at the source of the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly known as Section 8, the federal law that authorizes rental housing assistance for low-income households by paying subsidizes to private landlords to make up the difference between what clients can pay and market rates.
Meanwhile, City Hall has more recently relied on governmental laws with a carrot/stick approach to bring more affordable housing units into Chicago. The city began incentivizing developers of private apartment complexes to set aside affordable units in exchange for valuable commodities such as zoning relief and tax exemptions. But when it gave builders an out…letting them pay large buyout fees to keep all their rentals at market rate and void each “required” unit of affordable housing…too many developers rejected the sweeteners to take the penalty. That led former Mayor Lori Lightfoot to tweak the ordinance in 2021, forcing developers to raise the affordable housing quotient to 20% in new complexes while curtailing buyout possibilities. The City Council toggled that with a substantial new tax relief package geared to compensate developers for building more non-market rate units for low-income applicants, particularly in areas they determined to be “low-affordability” such as the O’Hare neighborhood.
It was no coincidence that the new sweeteners were gears to apply to the 7-story tall 297-unit project GlenStar had been seeking to obtain a variance on in just that neighborhood despite vehement protestations of residents maintaining the complex was out of character to their community. Crafting a clever media campaign, housing advocates ignored the neighborhood’s real concerns to dredge up racism from 50 years in the past to turn the tide of popular opinion to its side. Riding roughshod over locals, a pressured City Council took the unprecedented action of breaking with aldermanic prerogative to deny the wishes of its own local politician and his constituents. GlenStar’s controversial O’Hare was approved and a gloating Lightfoot announced it to great fanfare. Yet two years later, GlenStar hadn’t yet broken ground for the project, citing unfavorable marketing conditions. One couldn’t help wonder if the developer had stalled the project after its former tax attorney determined the costs for setting aside 59 of the 297 units (the obligatory 20%) as affordable at $52 million over 30 years while it would have gotten back less than half of that, some $23.5 million, back in public tax relief over that same period.
Getting apartment complex developers to build taller and denser buildings than would normally be allowed by zoning laws in some neighborhoods in order reserve a set number of their units as affordable might seem to be the best way to reduce housing inequities. After all, rather than segregate lower-income renters together into dedicated buildings—the type of public housing that failed in the past—the initiative has the advantage of mixing people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic brackets together. And it lets the city outsource the physical task of construction to private corporations, changing its role to that of regulator (and funder). But by itself it’s not necessarily a creative or even practical solution. Firstly, when affordable housing requirements cut into developers’ profits too much, nothing (like the GlenStar project) gets built. No amount of incentives will convince builders to build unless they know it demonstrably benefits their bottom lines. Secondly, putting “affordable” units in one overbuilt complex that doesn’t fit into and isn’t readily accepted by the surrounding neighborhood could turn out to be counterproductive rather than helpful in the long run. Like the 10-story Veterans Square Office Building plopped into the center of low-rise Jefferson Park, complexes of such size can turn into boondoggles that disrupt skyscapes, traffic flow, and parking, making the area a less desirable place to live. Thirdly, city governments as well as developers, will not know for many years whether all the tax incentives currently being offered will turn out to be cost effective. At what eventual cost per apartment? Would it have been more effective to front that money to low-income renters right now to apply to their choice of market-rate apartments?
What we do know is that so far the city been unsuccessful in supplying anywhere near the amount of affordable housing needed with all their programs operating. Waiting lists extend for years if not decades…particularly for disabled applicants. Although Chicago Housing Authority spokesperson Matthew Aguilar counted 170,000 families on waitlists for all types of public housing assistance at the end of 2021, the number is not definitive because some people are on multiple lists. (There is no central list.) All 47,000 Housing Choice Vouchers CHA currently receives from the federal government go to low-income households, but there are 32,000 more families waiting for them. They can only get into the program if others currently receiving vouchers drop out and stop using them.
The problem with Chicago’s most recent approach to providing new affordable housing is that relies only on multiple-storied apartment complexes of large scale. Upzoning properties for this purpose comes at the expense of increasing neighborhood density to degrees not previously seen, particularly in the low-rise areas of the Far Northwest. Is there a benefit for granting higher and higher tax rebates in exchange for each affordable housing unit these builders include in their complexes in areas where there are no other tall buildings like them? Even some affordable housing advocates such as Lisa Yun Lee, executive director of the National Public Housing Museum of Chicago, has recommended thinking beyond the over-reliance on high-rise buildings for low-income residents in her October 17, 2022 The Chicago Tribune opinion piece Ignoring the need for affordable housing is no longer an option. She recommended the urgent need for equitable housing opportunities could be met equally well or better with alternatives such as sustainable prefab single-family homes.
Meanwhile, Gladstone Parkers know there’s a critical difference in types of affordable housing. Many in the community who firmly believe that every person has the right to fair and equitable housing are nevertheless against affordable housing as it is now implemented by the city and its agencies within small neighborhoods like its own. Most of them would like these concerns to be addressed:
- Does all housing for low-income households in Chicago have to fit City Hall’s one-size-fits-all plan of high-rise, densely-filled privately-built apartment developments despite whether it’s in a dense urban neighborhood or a sparsely-developed city community? For while outsourcing the building of huge housing complexes to private developers who agree to add affordable units may be the path of least resistance, it’s not an appropriate path for many Far Northwest communities such as Gladstone Park.
- Couldn’t Gladstone Park instead corral its abundant stock of two/three flats and modest two-bedroom starter homes to use for easing disadvantaged earners into affordable home ownership in its community? Setting up dedicated loan programs could help people from low-income households buy existing multifamily housing and escape the cycles of poverty while building generational wealth. After all, what better situation is there than living in one unit while paying the mortgage with rentals from the others? Creating innovative programs to help people buy one of the community’s two-bedroom raised ranches – more reasonably priced than in most areas of the city – is another option. Since such homeownership is in the DNA of Gladstone Parkers, putting affordable housing candidates and their children in such dwellings would put them on the path to settling successfully into the culture of the more suburban-like community.
It turns out there’s a crucial balance between numbers of rentals and home ownership that contributes to the stability of a community. Gladstone Park champions home ownership in its low-rise, spread-out community for the common-sense reason that when people have money invested in their own properties, they develop the pride to care for them. On the other hand, rental housing of any kind – market rate or not – brings with it the reality of tenants who are not for the most part putting down permanent roots. Which is why it’s easier for Gladstone Park to encourage homeownership while weaving its renters into the community interspersed in two/three flats here and there or in small apartment buildings that anchor the corners of blocks of single-family homes.
With the right balance of permanent versus temporary residents, there are still enough people on every street motivated to go on litter patrol, watch packages on front porches, keep gardens blooming and lawns neatly trimmed, even take care of neighbor’s children in a pinch. One simply can’t maintain that same level of community cohesiveness and involvement if there are too many people concentrated in any one location. Dispersing rental housing among single family homes throughout the community is what has always allowed residents to more easily absorb even the transitory residents into becoming true Gladstone Parkers. They just can’t do it when 100, 200 or more people are all slapped down together in one huge building.
As it is, about one-third (34 percent) of the neighborhood’s residential stock is now in rentals, close to the national rate of 36 percent, according to Pew Research. And anybody who actually lives in Jefferson Park/Gladstone Park is aware that the community already has perhaps more reasonably-priced quality rental housing than just about anywhere in the city.
It may surprise people from outside the Far Northwest Side to find out that Gladstone Park has always had its own brand of low-income housing. They have to. Recent figures from the neighborhood rating site niche.com tell us 15.6 percent of those with annual earnings under $25,000 live in all of Jefferson Park (including Gladstone Park), along with another 16.9 percent with incomes between $25,000 and $49,999, as detailed on Better yet, Gladstone Park’s two/three flats, two-family houses, and small apartment buildings are immersed within bucolic areas of single family homes and can be had for an average market rate of $1233 monthly. Which of course means that some half of them rent for less.
In addition, the community, classified as “dense suburban,” has steadily been diversifying. With little fanfare, the “official” Jefferson Park neighborhood in which Gladstone Park is situated saw a doubling of its Hispanic population to 25 percent of the total in the last 20 years, according to August, 2021 data issued by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s Community Surveys (CMAP). Outsiders also probably don’t know that in the last five years the Gladstone Park Neighborhood Association has welcomed in congregations of Moroccan Muslims and Ethiopian Christians to local religious centers.
Gladstone Park also continues to serve as the present-day epicenter of the Polish diaspora with large numbers of immigrants from that country migrating north into the community from their original abode in Avondale. The Polish population in Chicago and in Gladstone Park in particular is so significant that The Illinois House just recently designated Milwaukee Avenue from Sangamon Street in Chicago to Greenwood Road in the suburbs of Niles as “The Milwaukee Avenue Polish Heritage Corridor.” The idea is to recognize the undeniable impact of Polish culture on Chicago and, in doing so, promote existing businesses and attract new ones to fill empty storefronts on the map of Chicago’s tourist attractions that includes all of Jefferson Park in general and its northern Gladstone Park enclave.
The Far Northwest Side and Gladstone Park is particular is also one of the most affordable of the city communities in which to buy a single-family home. Even at the height of the pandemic’s real estate frenzy in May, 2022, the median price of a home in the community was $355,000 as compared to $594,000 in Lincoln Park, according to realtor.com. But if you’re comparing apples to apples, you’ll find most prospective homebuyers are aware that brick bungalows five miles out of downtown that go for $800,000 can cost just half that when you get five miles further out to the Far Northwest Side. Which, of course, is the reason why so many city employees, including teachers, police officers, and firefighters live in Gladstone Park and its surrounding communities.
So it’s obvious Gladstone Park already does its fair share when it comes to housing people of all income levels and many ethnicities. Maybe moreso when you compare it to the nearby Chicago community of Sauganash/Forest Glen on Jefferson Park’s northern and eastern borders. Categorized as “sparse suburban,” its dwellings are even more spread out with only 9 percent of their housing stock in rentals, as detailed in niche.com. In other words, Sauganash/Forest Glen has a home ownership rate of 91 percent with the few rentals there costing an average of $1638.00 a month.
Further, if one were to explore Sauganash/Forest Glen’s affordable housing options in LowIncomeHousing.us, which bills itself the country’s “premiere online resource of affordable housing options,” one would see only four choices. Funny thing, all of those are outside its community borders and are located in Mayfair, North Park, Portage Park, and Jefferson Park. Where, then, are Sauganash’s/Forest Glen’s responsibilities for supporting Chicago’s affordable housing?
The question is, how does the City of Chicago not know about Gladstone Park’s and Sauganash/Forest Glen’s demographics when it claims it has to impose more housing for low-income earners in the former but not the latter? Must Gladstone Park engage the services of the well-respected DePaul Institute for Housing Studies to compile statistics and present evidence to City Hall that it are being unfairly singled out with policies that do not benefit either affordable housing candidates or the residents of the local community?
And why is City Hall blind to the fact that residents of the community aren’t, for the most part, against fair and equitable housing so much as they are against Chicago upzoning their properties for rich developers to build one-size-fits-all high-rise, high-density apartment complexes that don’t suit Gladstone Park?
TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT (TOD) UPZONING
But affordable housing upzoning isn’t the only kind of denser building growth Gladstone Park has to be concerned about. Transit Oriented Development (TOD), one of the most significant development trends nationwide, was embraced by Chicago in 2013. The city’s original ordinance was revised in 2021 as Equitable Transit Oriented Development (eTOD) and was again retooled in July, 2022 to incentivize builders to take advantage of its provisions in less wealthy neighborhoods. That was because, despite all its good intentions to combine Transit Oriented Development with affordable housing in Chicago’s Black and brown communities, statistics available from the Chicago Department of Planning and Development revealed that 90 percent of TOD projects by June 18, 2021 had either been built downtown or in well-off or gentrifying neighborhoods on the North and Northwest sides. Further ideas suggested prohibiting single family homes and three-flats from being built in areas around transit centers altogether while reducing parking requirements for TOD apartment complexes even further.
While the city’s interim TOD law added actions to “advance racial equity, wealth building, public health and climate resilience goals,” the gist remains the same as in the earlier ordinance. The whole basis for TODs has always been the wildly optimistic notion that people renting apartments near transit centers (or major streets with bus and train hubs) would ditch all their cars and exclusively walk, bike, and use public transportation. Assuming no tenants would want to drive paved the way for permiting developers of TOD housing projects to build larger, denser complexes while reducing (or eliminating) requirements to provide resident parking. The “equitable” part of the ordinance, amongst other efforts, encouraged the inclusion of numbers of affordable housing units, particularly in Black and brown communities.
TOD’s current incarnation expands the areas eligible for transit oriented development housing to 2,640 feet from a CTA or Metra rail entrance or exit and within 1,320′ of a CTA bus corridor. One space of bike parking is now required per unit and spaces for car parking are limited with new maximums, not just minimums. If ground floor units are constructed as accessible, further bonuses would be granted. Other regulations make it more difficult to convert existing two- and three-flats into single-family housing to maintain a minimum housing density in the TOD area.
Right from the beginning the city targeted the Jefferson Park Transit Center, a multimodal facility serving Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses and Blue Line “L” trains, the Metra train and Pace buses at 4917 N. Milwaukee, as an ideal site for a comprehensive mixed-use TOD development. As early as 2016 the city’s Planning and Development Department commissioned a study of the location under former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Located 0.2 mile from the southern border of Gladstone Park and the 5150 N. Northwest Highway housing project, Jeff Park Transit is only a five minute walk.
By the time there was a concrete Transit Oriented Development proposal on the table, the COVID pandemic was in full force with community input made difficult. A November 5, 2020 online Zoom meeting on a plan for a four-story 36-unit TOD building at 5071 N. Northwest Highway near the Jefferson Park Transit Center malfunctioned with unmuted participants asking questions and making comments over the presentation project officials were trying to make, according to Nadig Newspapers. The meeting had to be postponed.
At the rescheduled meeting December 3, 2020, more details emerged. As an economic disincentive to owning cars, tenants of the 3 studio, 21 one-bedroom, and 15 two-bedroom apartments would have to pay $150-300 a month more to rent one of the 15 parking spaces the developer was putting in, reported Nadig Newspapers. When one resident complained that homeowners living near the proposed complex were already playing musical chairs parking their cars even though street parking was permit only, the promise was made that tenants would not be eligible for those parking permits.
Ironically, the 11,749 square foot parcel had already been rezoned to RM-4.5 in 2007 for a 14-unit building with 14 underground parking spaces that had never come to fruition, according to the November 6, 2020 Nadig Newspapers article. The new project developer of 5071 N. Northwest Highway originally asked for a zoning change to B2-3 that would permit a maximum of 29 units with 29 parking spaces, or one per unit. But under TOD, the density of apartments would be allowed to increase to 39 units with no parking required (although 15 were still on the table). Project attorney Paul Kolpak maintained the market rate development was geared to the higher density levels the city wanted near transit hubs and would cater to young professionals who could be relied upon to take public transportation and not own cars. By zoning regulation, four affordable housing units would be required in the project, but the developer was considering a buyout of two of the units to keep them market rate, according to his attorney.
Due to residents’ objections, the developer came back with a new proposal February, 2023 to return to plans for a three-story building with 14 units and 14 parking spaces (dependent on a side yard variance for the parking provisions). As all parties acknowledged that eliminating tenant parking would significantly contribute to the congestion of cars in the immediate area of the Transit Center, they rejected the use of TOD provisions allowed by city code. Although Jefferson Park neighbors voiced opinions that the development was still out of character considering the single family homes nearby, they agreed the current proposal was the best possible solution for the situation.
Developer’s rendering of proposed Transit Oriented Development (TOD) at 5071 N. Northwest Highway near the Jefferson Park Transit Center, a hub for Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses and Blue Line ‘L,’ the Metra train, and Pace buses. The B2-3 zoning change the developer applied for would normally allow for a 29-unit complex with 29 parking spaces, but with TOD the project could be upzoned for 39 units with no required parking provisions. Despite the assumption tenants would walk, bike and take public transporation, the developer planned to provide 15 parking spaces that would be rented out for $150 to $300 a month as a further economic disincentive for tenants not to own cars.
In mid-2020 another proposal came in for a seven-story, 88-feet tall, 192-unit development on the TCF National Bank property at 4930 N. Milwaukee. On the corner of Gale Street in the heart of the community, the mixed-unit complex, directly across the street from the Jefferson Park Transit Center, would also include 5800 square feet of commercial space.
If built as proposed, “Gale Street Lofts” would be downtown Jefferson Park’s third tallest building, according to Nadig Newspapers. It would feature many amenities, including a landscaped rooftop with pool. Five of the 192 one- and two-bedroom apartments were to be designated affordable.
By virtue of it being a TOD project, only 86 of the 139 parking spaces the Gale Street Lofts developer planned to put in would be available to tenants instead of the 192, or one per unit, normally required for a building its size. Of the remaining parking spaces, 46 would be set aside for retail tenants with seven for the bank, which planned to relocate into a smaller facility at the south end of the property.
Developer’s rendering of the proposed Gale Street Lofts, a seven-story, 192-unit mixed use development with 5,800 square feet of commercial space at 4930 N. Milwaukee on the TFC National Bank property. At 88 feet high, it would be the third tallest building in Jefferson Park, after only the 10-story Veterans building and its proposed 16-story addition that would make it into one planned development. Directly across the street from the Jefferson Park Transit Center, the project would qualify as one of Chicago’s TODs, allowing it to reduce parking from the 192 spaces (one per unit) that would normally be required. Still, the building planned to offer 86 spaces for tenants, 46 for its retail tenants and seven for the bank, which would be relocated to the south end of the property. Out of the 192 apartments, five would be designated as affordable for low-income households.
The TOD ordinance continues to evolve. In July, 2022 a sweeping revision called Connected Communities passed the City Council as part of former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s initiative to further combat segregation and gentrification. By capping the amount of parking for new residential buildings within four blocks of transit centers to one spot per two units, the ordinance hopes to convince people to ditch their cars and turn to walking, cycling, and public transit. An added bonus, advocates said, would be less expensive housing costs resulting from builders not required to budget for all the extra land that tenant parking provisions would take.
But is it worth relieving housing developers of the need to provide parking through Transit Oriented Developments (TODs) on the assumption that tenants in any of the neighborhoods in the city won’t want to have cars? While eliminating parking provisions at a Transit Oriented Development housing complex may work in the center city, doubts have been raised whether it could work as well the further you get out into Chicago neighborhoods that are more suburban in character. Maybe it could fly near transit centers in the more built-up commercial sections closer to downtown, but it would be much less amenable in the more suburban-like community of Gladstone Park and others to its north and west. Would renters in the Far Northwest Side – already 9 miles from the center city – really want to give up their cars…or be willing to find and pay for parking their vehicles in independent lots or garages?
Interestingly, after a vacant parcel of land between 5338 and 5356 W. Argyle Street near the Jefferson Park Metra Station went up for sale in 2021, the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, fearing another TOD, lobbied for Alderman James Gardiner to downzone the property in November, 2022 so that the only allowable use would be for two-flats or single-family homes. So while previously-approved plans for “Carmen Corners” had called for the 28,000 square foot site to host two four-story buildings with 48 apartments (with an unknown number of parking spaces), it ended up geared for nine 2,100 square foot single-family homes with rear garages. Ironically, the property had long been earmarked for single-family homes until former Alderman John Arena – voted out of office in large part because of his advocacy for increased density in the community – had had the property upzoned for multifamily housing six years ago. Gardiner was quoted in Nadig Newspapers as declaring the change back was “perfect,” showing how Jefferson Park’s (Gladstonians’ greater neighborhood to the south) could come together and plan a future consistent with the wishes of the community.
There are at least one other approved, proposed, or potential TOD developments in Jefferson Park. An unnamed project at 5306 W. Ainslie has a building permit for a 200-foot, 16-story, 114-unit apartment building to be combined with the existing 10-story Veterans building on Veterans Square on N. Milwaukee, according to Nadig Newspaper’s Facebook Page. A lawsuit alleging the building is too large for the planned development has stalled the project, which includes a 200-space parking garage.
While affordable housing seems to get all the attention, homelessness is a much more critical problem requiring even more complicated solutions.
As far out as Gladstone Park is from the center city, it can be said to have a negligible homelessness problem. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. While there are no encampments nearby, an occasional adult, teen runaway, or chronically-unhoused veteran takes up refuge in a local bus shelter. But it is what is not seen that’s more critical: the single adults and families without homes who are doubling up in the community with relatives or friends in less than ideal conditions.
It is difficult to get a handle on the population of Chicago’s unhoused since there are so many different methodologies on counting people who have no permanent place to live. Perhaps the lowest estimate comes from The City of Chicago 2021 Homeless Point-in-Time count & Survey Report directed by the city’s Department of Family & Support Services (DFFS). In its data snapshot taken on one day (January 29, 2021), DFFS counted a total homeless population of 4,477 people, 3,023 in shelters. Another 702 to 1454 were estimated to be living “on the streets,” which included encampments, 24-hour facilities dedicated for that purpose, and CTA buses and trains as well as area airports. Around the same time the US Department of Housing & Urban Development identified 5,390 Chicagoans as homeless, including those staying in shelters and those living in places “not meant for human habitation.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) documented 65,611 homeless people in the city in 2020 in its report. What was the reason for the disparity? CCH included 49,585 adults and children who had no place of their own but were temporarily doubled up in homes owned or rented by someone else. While technically providing a roof over their heads, these fly-by-night placements cause crowding and instability, bouncing people around while jeopardizing employment, schooling, and overall mental wellbeing.
During the same year, the Chicago Public Schools reported serving 16,663 homeless students, mostly doubled up in households that aren’t their own.
In an update, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless identified the number of people accessing homeless services in 2022 at 36,878, jumping from 27,913 the previous year. In 2023, the city counted the number of people “out on the street” at 6,139, a significant increase. Of these, 2,196 were migrants, attributed to the crisis created after the state of Texas started busing asylum-seekers to Chicago and other sanctuary cities to get rid of people illegally crossing their border.
Many Chicago and state governmental and private entities work to reduce homelessness. DFFS has a Rental Assistance Program and an Expedited Housing Initiative to serve the city’s homeless populations. The Chicago Housing Authority has long offered choice vouchers and currently is developing more housing for those who need it through a $35 million investment from the Chicago Recovery Plan along with additional investments through the American [COVID] Rescue Plan. Chicago is still working on its 2000 Plan for Transformation when it tore down failed public housing projects, pledging to rebuild units to house the many families that were displaced. But a significant wrinkle is the fact that recent trends have shown up to 75% of affordable units being constructed are studios and one-bedroom units too small to house families. (About 40% of people wanting affordable housing apartments are on the waiting list for one-bedrooms.) That keeps rental housing large enough to include children in limited supply.
But the Bring Chicago Home Coalition thinks more should be done to put roofs over the heads of the city’s homeless population. Its very ambitious campaign seeks to provide permanent housing and services to support the special needs of a homeless population sometimes resistant to housing intervention by raising the city’s real estate transfer tax. Estimates say that increasing the transfer tax by 1.9 percent on properties over $1 million would generate more than $160 million annually for homeless housing and support services as well as shelter for the very recent influx of migrants.
But the way to passage of the Bring Chicago Home initiative is steep, as it must be passed either through a city referendum or by approval by the Illinois General Assembly. Ironically, although Lori Lightfoot campaigned for the boost in the real estate transfer tax to benefit the homeless, once she assumed the reins as Chicago Mayor, she betrayed her supporters by calling the effort “flawed” and did everything to stymie the organization’s efforts to get the proposal on the city’s February, 2023 municipal ballot. New Mayor Brandon Johnson, firmly in favor of the Bring Chicago Home initiative, is expected to make a solid effort to bring it to fruition. Measures to refine the idea are one way to make it more palatable to constituents. Alderman Nicole Lee proposed exempting multi-unit apartment buildings with affordable rentals and others have suggested raising the amount when the extra tax kicks in. Johnson himself has proposed a three-tier structure, lowering the transfer tax on properties below $1 million and reducing the levy on homes between $1 and $1.5 million. (The current version sets the real estate transfer tax rate at $3.75 per $500 on sales of houses costing less than $1 million and tripling it to $13.25 for every $500 for those priced over $1 million.)
While there are many cohorts of homeless people, 73 percent of Chicago’s unhoused population is composed of Blacks/African Americans, mostly male. The city’s homeless veterans (some of whom, of course, are also Black/African American) in particular stand out. Defined as those who have returned from military service with disabling conditions that have kept them without access to permanent homes for at least 12 months, these chronically-homeless vets make up 7.7 percent of the shelter population. Another 5.3 percent of them live on the streets. Unlike the needs of families, their housing problems can be satisfied with studios or one-bedrooms.
After former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s Office of Veterans Affairs assembled a coalition of service agencies for its 2014 Ending Veteran Homeless Initiative, strides were made to help this population of unhoused people. During its first three years, it claimed to have reduced homelessness of veterans by 28 percent. At the same time, affordable housing slots have opened specifically for disabled military personnel by nonprofits such as Full Circle Communities with its new 5150 N. Northwest Highway apartment complex in the extreme southern part of the Gladstone Park neighborhood.
ACCESSORY DWELLING UNITS (ADUs)
In December, 2020, the Chicago City Council approved the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in what has come to be called “The Coachhouse Ordinance.” The idea was to restore the early 20th Century tradition of a homeowner being able to add a housing unit or two to his or her property for the opportunity to earn some extra income or to house multi-generational family members. This tradition died in 1957 when the American car culture grew staggeringly and Chicago felt the need to institute zoning changes that added parking requirements for new housing.
As of April, 2022, Chicago Cityscape detailed the activity spurred by the new ordinance in the five pilot areas of the city where the ADUs are currently being allowed. At that time, 39 permits had been issued for 45 units: 11 were for backyard/coachhouses (single units only) and 28 were interior permits for 1 to 4 units. Of the interior ADUs, 100 percent were for basement units although attic development is also allowed by the law. Another 246 more pre-applications for ADUs were approved by the Chicago Department of Housing, but were still in the planning stages.
Worrisomely, one of the interior basement unit permits was for the specific purpose of legalizing an existing unit; in other words to approve a unit initially built violating zoning codes.
Although Gladstone Park does not now fall into the ADU pilot area (the closest permitted neighborhood is southeast in Albany Park), its single family properties could be subject to multi-unit conversions if and when the city deems the initiative successful elsewhere. While almost no one’s against a family housing grandparents in a separate unit in their dwelling, say, not everyone feels that building and renting out extra units to unrelated people on what was once a single-family property would be beneficial. Not only would the initiative increase population density, but also it would increase the likelihood of additional vehicles on the roads. And since there are no parking requirements for ADUs, those cars would be seeking and occupying ever scarcer street parking.
In addition, the illegally-built basement units that already exist in the community could be legalized by this ordinance, rewarding property owners who initially violated the law. Whether that would cause additional problems is open for debate.
The unfortunate truth is that, because of the Far Northwest Side’s low density, spread-out nature, and proximity to the suburbs, it has always supported a strong driving culture. There is almost no need for private parking lots or garages, and they are few and far between. For this reason, there are many who believe that putting upzoned denser housing with inadequate parking in or near Gladstone Park would destroy the community’s easy-going nature defined by its lack of traffic and parking woes. The biggest fear is that the city would come in, forcing the community’s hand with Chicago’s dreaded parking meters, creating one-way streets and permit-only street parking.
There is middle ground. How about the city and the community coming to a better understanding of each other so they can explore more mutually-acceptable solutions for a neighborhood like Gladstone Park that doesn’t perhaps fit the traditional Chicago standard? And how about engaging some of the other organizations that support fair housing in myriad other ways? Housing Action Illinois, a conglomerate of some 160 nonprofit organizations, government agencies and corporations in the state, lists 64 with Chicago addresses. Their expertise and different ideas would be worth their weight in gold.