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Homes for a Changing Region series: Planning for results

Housing planning needs to be done with long-term projections and individual communities' needs in mind.

This post is the final post in a series of five that Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is running on its Homes for a Changing Region project, a collaboration with Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Metropolitan Mayors Caucus that uses demographic projections and housing stock studies to inform housing plans for various Chicagoland municipalities. To view the other posts in the series, please click here.

This series has highlighted many ways in which the Homes for a Changing Region housing policy plans have begun to be successfully implemented in five of its early participating communities. We’ve seen positive trends that have stretched across the Chicago region and we’ve seen towns finding unique solutions within their own distinctive characteristics. Our retrospective paints a very encouraging picture of the progress that has been made.

But no plan is perfect from the start, and Homes is no exception. MPC and its partners have continued to improve upon the early Homes studies as we work with new communities, from smaller tweaks like including more data about each town’s workforce to larger overhauls like studying communities in regional “clusters” to get a broader sense of how neighboring towns can work together on common challenges. As an ongoing project, Homes seeks to learn from the shortcomings of previous studies and incorporate them into future plans.

Of course, some problems are easier to overcome than others. One problem that every community has had to face is the global recession of the past five years. Simply put, new development has dramatically decreased because there is dramatically less money to fund it. This makes things difficult for municipalities, but in a way it can be viewed as an opportunity to plan proactively and selectively.

“When you don’t have money, you can still talk,” said Adam Dotson, the community development director for south suburban Oak Forest. “During the recession, it was a good opportunity to create some really good relationships with some of these property owners.”

Dotson said that a lot of communities will cut their planning budget when money is tight, but that’s precisely the time when planning can be most useful—if you can take in the new circumstances, predict how they’ll affect the future and get a plan in place, development will be much easier and more directed once there is money.

The economy has been a major problem in implementing housingplans, but it hasn’t been the only roadblock for Homes communities. While some developers got fully behind the Homes recommendations, in other cases developers had to rework their plans to bring them in line with Homes recommendations. “You can’t just be led by the developers,” said Gurnee Mayor Krysti Kovarik, who said she had to be adamant against large-lot developments which her town did not need. “They’re only worried about what they’re going to build, how much money they’re going to make, and then they’re gone. When you’re planning, you really have to look forward, and people don’t really grasp how the demographics are changing.”

And, as this series has stressed, the demographics are indeed changing. The population of Chicagoland will not look the same in 2030 as it does now, and Homes for a Changing Region has shown that the housing market will need to particularly accommodate increased numbers of senior citizens, “millennials” and Latino families. The towns that can get ahead of these shifts and plan for future populations will be the ones that thrive, and that is why the Homes communities have been proactive in responding to these future occurrences.

Of course, unexpected town-specific problems came up as well. South suburban Blue Island had a site picked out, a plan in place and a developer secured for transit-oriented development near its train station when it was discovered that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District had a sewage pipe under the site to which it needed access. That doesn’t necessarily preclude future TOD on the site, but the plan needed to be completely reworked to allow for MWRD access. North suburban Gurnee had a unique water-based issue as well—the town’s Homes plan called for mixed-use development along its Old Grand Avenue corridor, but flooding issues have prevented that and forced the focus on mitigation instead of development. Again, this doesn’t mean that the planning behind these projects was wrong, but the projects must be altered to accommodate these problems.

If there is a silver lining to these setbacks, though, it’s that communities have time to solve them. That’s one of the main benefits for planning 20 to 30 years in the future, rather than simply reacting to what a developer proposes. Even the oldest of these Homes plans is just six years in. So while we are extremely encouraged by all of the physical developments we’ve highlighted so far, perhaps more important is how Homes has changed mindsets.

“It was a huge eye-opener, and it’s not the typical way that you think of your land uses,” said Kovarik. “Most of the time we’re very focused on the here and now for zoning, but going through the process kind of opened up our eyes to 10 years and 15 years and 20 years out. So it made us realize that we had to think differently if we wanted to keep our community viable.”

“You only have so much land. And if you use it all up on what you need today, and it doesn’t meet the needs of your community in the future, you’re a white elephant.”

 “I think it helped change some mindsets too, [with regards to] affordable housing,” said Blue Island’s Jodi Prout. The report said we needed housing for people both on the lowest end of income earning and the highest end, and I think [having that information] has helped. Particularly with the lower income side, it [gave us] a different perspective. Whereas before, [people] wanted to get rid of that housing, now we have a better perception of it and we’ve worked to clean up the areas [instead of demolishing them]… we need to have more respect for the people who live in that type of housing.”

These quotes offer an apt description of Homes for a Changing Region as a whole. Through innovative housing strategies and an eye on the future, we can help communities adapt and thrive. But at its core, Homes is not about planning for zoning or development or buildings: It’s planning for people.

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