Six facts about people leaving Chicagoland and solutions to keep them - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Six facts about people leaving Chicagoland and solutions to keep them

Flickr user Michael Kappel (CC)

Many people blame the winters for Chicago's sluggish population growth, but that isn't the whole story.

I’ve been writing a lot about Illinois and the Chicago region’s slow population growth and am searching for answers—last year the City of Chicago that I love grew by a measly 82 people, the Chicago metropolitan region was 18th in population growth out of the top 20 metros and Illinois was one of only six states to lose population.

Where are people moving? Surprisingly, it’s not the weather. We all tire of the long winter but my analysis of Illinois migration found that statewide, most people are leaving Illinois for the border—Wisconsin and Indiana.

Focusing on northeastern Illinois, Census migration data shows that annually, from 2008 to 2012, the seven county region—Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kendall, Kane, McHenry and Will—had annual net migration loss of 80,000 residents for other places. (This analysis only considers people moving to and from northeastern Illinois and other counties. It does not account for births or deaths.)

From 2008 to 2012, about 525,000 people a year moved to and from the seven counties in northeastern Illinois. Of those, 123,000 simply moved around Cook, DuPage, Lake, Kendall, Kane, McHenry and Will. 245,000 people left for other counties and 136,000 moved to northeastern Illinois from other counties. Those who left the state went most often to Indiana and Wisconsin, then the sunny states—Texas, Arizona, California and Florida.

Are people leaving for retirement to their Wisconsin lake house or Arizona? Are they looking for lower taxes in Indiana? What’s the deal?

Here are six surprising, heartening and disheartening conclusions:

One: School

Many people leaving northeastern Illinois are simply going to college. Some of the largest out-migration was to other Illinois counties with state universities.

Two: Northwest Indiana

Northeastern Illinois has a net migration deficit with northwestern Indiana. The majority of those moves were residents of Cook County crossing the border—about 5,400 people leaving annually. Some reasons for these moves could be lower cost of living, lower taxes, perceived safety and access to education. Ridership on the South Shore line has not increased, meaning if people are commuting back to Chicago, they’re doing it by car.

Three: Kenosha and Milwaukee

Lots of people are also leaving northeastern Illinois for Milwaukee and Kenosha counties in Wisconsin. Ridership on the Amtrak Hiawatha line, which runs from Chicago to Milwaukee in about 1.5 hours, is up and touted by Amtrak as one of its highest ridership routes. Wisconsin taxes are actually higher than Illinois’, but the cost of living is lower. For example, housing in Chicago costs 31 percent more than in Milwaukee.

Four: Sunny retirement

Yes, some people are moving to warmer climates, likely due to retirement—Maricopa County, Ariz. (Phoenix), San Diego County and Clay County, Fla. (Jacksonville).


Top five destinations (by county)


DuPage; Will; Lake, Ind.; Lake, Ill.; Kane; Champaign


Cook; Kane; Will; Kendall; Champaign; Maricopa, Ariz.


Cook; DuPage; Kendall; McHenry; DeKalb; Maricopa, Ariz.


Kane; DuPage; Will; Cook; DeKalb; LaSalle; Clay, Fla.

Lake, Ill.

Cook; Kenosha, Wis.; McHenry; San Diego, Calif.; Norfolk, Va.


Cook; Kane; Lake, Ill.; Maricopa, Ariz.; Champaign


Cook; DuPage; Kendall; Grundy; Kankakee; Maricopa, Ariz.

Five: Texas

Texas is the number one state people move to that doesn’t share a border with northeastern Illinois—Austin, Dallas and Houston, all places with significantly lower cost of living (and no snow). The data also shows if the people moving are employed or unemployed. Of people moving to Texas, only 35 percent reported being employed when they got there. The rest could be moving due to retirement, lower cost of living, or because a former two-income household in the Chicago region becomes a one-income household in Texas.

Six: Positive migration

The states with the top positive net migration to northeastern Illinois are Michigan, Alaska, New York, New Mexico and Hawaii. If one thing is certain, the data shows that clearly climate isn’t the top reason for a move. (Hawaii to Chicago???)

Northeastern Illinois had a negative net migration of 80,000 people annually. While some of those people are leaving for reasons beyond our control—school, retirement—we must find solutions to keep people from considering a move to Texas. Northeastern Illinois is a sustainable region, with one of the best transit systems in the country and access to the largest freshwater system on earth. And we need these people: When they leave, so goes with them federal funding for housing, community development, roads and bridges, education... the list goes on. Those funds are doled out based on population.

What are the solutions?

Last month, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) unveiled Grow Chicago, an initiative to add to our city’s population by increasing the opportunity for housing and commercial development near public transportation. Transit-oriented development is an effective and efficient growth strategy that would include reforming the zoning code to allow denser development with less parking near transit, identifying a transit-oriented development “point person” in City government who can shepherd major projects, focusing City funds on areas near transit and ensuring that homes remain affordable so that growth benefits everyone.

Our interactive website includes a calculator that allows people to “design” a project and see how it will impact the surrounding community.

MPC supports Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal for a reformed transit-oriented development ordinance that would accomplish many of the changes MPC is pushing for. The ordinance is likely to be reviewed by City Council at its September meeting.

If the Chicago region wants to keep people from leaving, it must improve opportunities for all people. MPC and partners across the region are leading housing initiatives that reduce housing costs and expand transit access for low-income families. We’re also building municipal capacity to address the suburbanization of poverty and housing market instabilities, giving more people a chance at moving up economic and social ladders. The truth is that people stay in places where they see opportunity, instead of looking elsewhere for a chance at success.

The region also has the most units of local government—over 7,000. Warranted or not, the perception is too many: too much bureaucracy, too many layers for business.

As I’ve said before, the answers are right in front of our state and local leaders. Pass a balanced state budget that doesn’t decimate opportunities for low-income people. Invest in infrastructuretransit, schools, roads, water pipes and sewers—to improve transportation options and education and stop wasting Lake Michigan water so we can instead use it as an economic development opportunity. Work together to provide affordable housing in opportunity areas. Eliminate fragmentation of governments so residents can decipher their property tax bills—and therefore feel invested in their communities.

Northeastern Illinois has so much to love; leaders just need to act.


Data Points


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