Flickr user Ann Fisher (CC)
Focusing on gentrification downplays the reality that many Chicagoans increasingly live in communities struggling with entrenched poverty.
It will be no surprise to you when I say that Chicago is a segregated city. In fact, a 2012 study by the Manhattan Institute went so far as to say that Chicago is the United States’ most racially segregated city. Last week, the Reader called Chicago’s segregation “The most important issue no one’s talking about in the mayoral race.”
The emphasis is important. Just as it seems that editorial boards and candidates would rather talk about pensions and potholes, it seems that everyone else would too. Recently, WBEZ ran a weeklong series on gentrification. Two Harvard researchers created an app to study Chicago’s gentrification all the way from Cambridge. Curbed Chicago has a page dedicated to ”Gentrification Watch.”
And yet, the biggest problem facing the biggest number of Chicagoans is definitely not gentrification. As my colleague Breann Gala recently noted in her post about the University of Illinois’ Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement December 2014 report, “The Socioeconomic Change of Chicago’s Community Areas (1970-2010),” the number of Chicago neighborhoods of low and very low socioeconomic status has grown from 29 community areas in 1970 to 45 community areas in 2010. During that same 40-year period, just nine neighborhoods have gentrified or are gentrifying. A 2014 study of the country’s largest metros found that for every one neighborhood that’s gentrified since 1970, 10 have remained poor and another 12 have slipped into poverty.
This is not to minimize where gentrification is really happening. In 2014 we worked closely with community residents in Uptown and Logan Square, two neighborhoods with booming development potential that are wrestling with the results: changing demographics, sharply rising property values and longtime residents fearful of being displaced.
When we focus on gentrification as our major—perhaps only— neighborhood change issue, we ignore two-thirds of our city.
But here is what’s at stake outside the gentrification debate: When we focus on gentrification as our major—perhaps only—neighborhood change issue, we ignore two-thirds of our city. As blogger Pete Saunders notes, the “two Chicagos” meme is not only overplayed but inaccurate. His analysis shows that “Chicago may be better understood in thirds — one-third San Francisco, two-thirds Detroit.” In our two-thirds that is Detroit, many experience what Brookings calls the "double burden" of poverty; essentially, that your own problems are compounded when everyone you’re surrounded by is in the same or worse situation. Elizabeth Kneebone writes in a 2014 brief that “the challenges of poor neighborhoods—including worse health outcomes, higher crime rates, failing schools, and fewer job opportunities—make it that much harder for individuals and families to escape poverty and often perpetuate and entrench poverty across generations. These factors affect not only the residents and communities touched by concentrated disadvantage, but also the regions they inhabit and the ability of those metro areas to grow in inclusive and sustainable ways.”
That last point is a big one: Such concentrations of people by income and race not only negatively impact those living in concentrated poverty. A 2014 study on intergenerational mobility found that racial and income segregation highly correlates with mobility; the more segregated the region, the less likely children living there will be upwardly mobile no matter their race or ethnicity. A Chicago child raised in a family earning in the bottom fifth of all earners only has a 6.1 percent chance of ever earning an income in the top fifth, a finding which, according to this 2013 study, places Chicago well behind its peer cities. In 2011, researchers Berg and Ostry found that countries with greater levels of inequality tend to have fewer periods of sustained economic growth. Is it a coincidence that Chicago is ranked in the bottom third of the world’s largest economies for GDP growth and employment—behind Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis? President Obama summed up these findings in a 2013 speech: “It is not simply a moral claim that I’m making here. There are practical consequences to rising inequality and reduced mobility.”
In other words, it costs us to live this way, and it will cost us real money to change it. The Reader article provides a few ideas, from cracking down on housing discrimination to no longer concentrating affordable housing in neighborhoods that already have plenty. While locating affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods makes sense economically since land values are lowest there, a city that prioritizes reducing residential segregation would take a broader view on the numbers. Affordable units in profitable housing markets with higher land values will cost more up front, but what are the costs of maintaining, or even compounding, our segregation?
Change that displaces people may be more popular to talk about. But change that entrenches people is Chicago’s bigger issue.