City of Chicago
Policy Recommendations Framework
Using the following four categories, MPC has cataloged the top challenges and opportunities facing the City of Chicago and prioritized urgently needed policy solutions to:
- Keep: Initiatives that are generally going well, and should be continued. They can certainly be improved, but they have served Chicago well and have a lot of positive momentum.
- Build: These are nascent activities which have seen some progress but have yet to truly flourish, and need improvements.
- Start: These are ideas that are past due, and that we need to get moving on. This category will likely require the most effort and fresh approaches and partners.
- Stop: These are behaviors and policies of the City of Chicago that do not serve us well. They should cease, and quickly.
Preparing Chicago for Climate Change
Implement the Resilient Chicago plan
The city should implement the Resilient Chicago plan for inclusive growth and a connected city. Resilient Chicago sets forth a framework for building urban resilience that addresses the chronic stresses—such as racial inequity—and acute shocks—like heat waves and severe flooding—facing the City of Chicago. It lists 50 actions focusing on building stronger, equitable neighborhoods, robust infrastructure and prepared communities. City departments and agencies are leading many actions, and will be a critical partner in multiple other actions led by civic organizations and community stakeholders.
Planning Chicago’s Riverfronts
Prioritize planning, project implementation and stewardship of Chicago’s rivers and its riverfront
The city should deepen its support for the riverfront planning vision outlined in Our Great Rivers. Chicago is fortunate to have three very different rivers—the Des Plaines, Calumet and the Chicago. All three rivers are located within City of Chicago boundaries and, if treated as an asset, have the potential bring a range of benefits, from recreational to economic to ecological, to Chicagoans. The rivers run through 20 of Chicago’s 50 wards, and more than 394,000 people (15 percent of the city’s population) live within half a mile of one of the rivers. The Our Great Rivers vision, co-created by the Metropolitan Planning Council, Friends of the Chicago River, and the City of Chicago and funded by the Chicago Community Trust, The Joyce Foundation, Arcelor Mittal and other corporate and philanthropic sponsors, outlines goals through 2040 to make the rivers more inviting, productive, and living. This vision represents the desires of more than 6,000 individuals who participated in surveys, town-hall style meetings, and experiential outings to give feedback. Many of the goals in Our Great Rivers are underway due to the hard work of various city and regional agencies, civic and community organizations, foundations, and private developers. Continued progress on these goals—including making important riverfront investments beyond downtown—needs support and coordination led by the Mayor and the city government.
A More Affordable Chicago
Increase the city’s financial commitment to affordable housing
The city should increase much-needed city funds for affordable housing, and begin to chip away at our shortfall of 120,000 affordable units. There are two ways in which we can do so: restore former levels of corporate funds by increasing resources by at least 90 percent and institute a graduated real estate transfer tax on high value properties.
Fair Transit Fares
Reform public transit fares to make them more affordable and accessible
The city should implement smart fare reforms to make public transit more affordable and accessible. Reducing economic barriers to transit will provide access to more opportunities for economically disconnected people, and will also encourage people to shift modes. Fare reforms would effectively expand the reach of our existing network by integrating separate services and making transit a more cost-effective option. Providing incentives via tax benefits would encourage more people to switch to transit, which is the most efficient, environmentally friendly and equitable form of transportation.
Equitable Transit-Oriented Development
Support equitable development near transit
The city should support development near transit that considers market context, leverages city resources to increase public benefit and considers the needs of local stakeholders. The city’s newly amended transit-oriented development (TOD) ordinance added a number of high ridership bus routes. Many of these routes are along critical commercial corridors that have languished from lack of investment and poor infrastructure inadequate to support transit demand. A key component of the ordinance change is the creation of an Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Implementation Plan. This plan calls for the city to develop recommendations for implementing TOD by applying a place-based approach that considers market realities and address such issues as access to affordable housing and commercial spaces, targeted investment in communities of color and appropriate levels of density and parking that meets local needs and fit the neighborhood context. The city should utilize the implementation plan to guide the development of TOD projects and to test innovative models that layer incentives with other programs.
The TOD Ordinance has become a powerful force influencing dense, pedestrian-oriented development throughout Chicago. However, the distribution of development reveals disparities in growth patterns and development attraction between neighborhoods on the North and Northwest Side and neighborhoods on the South and West Side, reinforcing existing racial inequities. In disinvested areas, we have failed to prioritize areas near transit as opportunities to leverage multiple resources for community-driven development. In gentrifying markets, the need for more protections to mitigate residential and small business displacement remains. An equity focused framework is needed to enhance the TOD ordinance so it can be a tool that will work across all Chicago neighborhoods.
A Stronger Transportation Infrastructure
Support sustainable state funding for transportation, especially for transit
Since transportation capital is largely funded at the state level, the city needs to be an advocate for sufficient, sustainable funding in the Illinois General Assembly, especially for transit. Plain and simple: investing in transit is good for our economy and results in economic growth. Chicago-region studies show that for every dollar invested in transit yields between $1.21-$3 in economic returns, and has significant benefits to residents, employers and communities including more jobs, less traffic, higher property values, and improved air quality to name a few.
Currently, 31 percent of the Regional Transportation Authority’s transit system is beyond its useful life. We need sufficient, sustainable funding to bring our mature transit system into a state of good repair and to expand our network so transit remains an attractive choice in Chicago.
Smart Stormwater Management Solutions
Invest in green infrastructure to address urban flooding, especially in the region’s poorest neighborhoods
The city should create new green infrastructure and invest in existing infrastructure to address urban flooding. Many communities in Chicago, especially those on the South and West Sides, flood repeatedly. A single severe rainstorm in 2013 caused 2,500 “water in basement” and 800 “water on street” complaints, damages to businesses, and flooding at train stations and bus stops across the city. Flooding disproportionately affects minority and low-income neighborhoods: many of the zip codes with the highest amount of damages correspond with census tracts identified as economically disconnected. Additionally, the city’s drinking water source Lake Michigan is increasingly at risk of pollution from sewage and stormwater overflows. Area waterways also suffer from water quality impairments affecting aquatic and riparian habitats.
Neighborhood Opportunities by Leveraging Downtown Development
Expand equity and opportunity in communities that have experienced underinvestment
The City of Chicago maintains multiple financial instruments for leveraging investment across the city to benefit communities. Passed in May 2016, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund (NOF) ordinance is an innovative tool to leverage investment from high-density areas for commercial corridor and small business improvements in disinvested communities on the South and West sides. In its first 18 months, the fund received $47.8 million and secured commitments totaling $203 million. After two rounds, approximately $12M in grants have been awarded to 90 small businesses on the South and West sides. The Emanuel administration appropriated $12M for Neighborhood Opportunity Bonus programs in 2019.
Created in 2017, the Industrial Corridor Fund allows the City to mitigate the loss of industrial space in parts of industrial areas that are being converted to non-industrial zoning, such as the North Branch Industrial Corridor. These fees are allocated to a fund used to support and expand the city’s industrial base in other industrial corridors that are not experiencing rezoning.
Open Space Impact Fees are used for open space acquisition and capital improvements in areas experiencing new residential development. Over the years, these fees have been used to provide valuable park space in growing communities.
All three of these programs have positives, but also some significant limitations. We propose changes to the NOF that allow more locally-owned small businesses and start-ups to access this resource and prioritize broader investments across the South and West sides. We propose changes to the Industrial Corridor Fund that will promote transparency and a framework for how the funds are allocated. For Open Space Impact Fees, we propose revisions that would make the fees portable to adjacent communities as well as able to fund activities beyond acquisition and capital improvements.
Comprehensive Planning at the Department of Planning and Development
Create a citywide, transparent, community-driven planning process
Chicago needs inclusive, comprehensive planning efforts across the city. We need to improve the structure and capacity of DPD so that there is a focus on comprehensive planning, community engagement, and project implementation in neighborhoods across the city. This will require centralizing some of the current functions that Aldermen are actively engaged in, like zoning, as well as reorganizing the department and providing additional staff resources.
Note: Many of our ideas in this regard are aligned with and adapted from the Shriver Center’s report “A City Fragmented.”
Tackling Water Supply Issues
Protect Chicagoans, capitalize on our water wealth, and address significant inequities
We need to remediate our pervasive lead pipes and adopt rates, policies and programs for water service that protect all Chicagoans. The City of Chicago has a significant freshwater advantage over many of its national and international counterparts. Yet we risk not capitalizing on this resource due to critical water infrastructure and service issues: lead in drinking water and water affordability. These two critical issues also underscore systemic inequities in our city—thus taking action on our water issues will also improve quality of life and trust in government.
Racial Equity Framework for Chicago
Commit to racial equity in Chicago
The only way our region and its residents will reach their full potential is by dismantling the barriers that create disparities and inequities by race and income. It is essential for our growth and our shared prosperity. The government sector has a constitutional obligation—and statutory powers—to end the segregation of people, power and resources, and demand it of others as well. This means a commitment to not only creating new mechanisms to address disparities, but to changing the institutional systems that perpetuate them through ongoing staff training, equity assessments of any proposed initiatives and investments, and public accountability to progress on goals.
The legacy of individual and systemic racism in metropolitan Chicago continues to have devastating impacts. Black and brown communities are disproportionately harmed by lack of opportunity, exclusionary development and unjust policies. Private and public policies and programs built our divides and therefore bear a responsibility to correct the course. Research has shown that prioritizing equity and inclusion yield greater economic and social benefits for all.
Going It Alone in the Region
Act regionally to improve outcomes for Chicago
The city needs to think and act more like the regional partner it is. Chicago’s pursuit of increased transit funding, better transit performance, sustainable water management and other critical issues suffer from Chicago’s reluctance to partner with other regional actors. By reengaging in collaborative efforts locally and regionally—such as the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus—Chicago stands to benefit.
Unfettered Aldermanic Prerogative
Establish limits to—not eliminate—aldermanic prerogative when it comes to affordable housing
Direct aldermanic power toward the community good, not against it. Unfettered aldermanic prerogative—the custom in Chicago’s City Council to allow each alderman to direct zoning and permit decisions within his or her ward—perpetuates segregation, creates disparities in how we invest in communities and invites political corruption.
As a result of this abuse, over the past year Chicago has experienced a federal complaint and lawsuit against the city, proposed legislation to curb its excesses, and an FBI investigation into two longstanding aldermen. The city needs systemic changes to upend this system, but first, note that these changes only work in the context of a full-scale revamp of how zoning, planning and community investment functions for the good of the entire city. See “Start Comprehensive Planning at the Department of Planning and Development” for more detail on this needed transformation to how the city of Chicago plans.
Second, as MPC noted in a Chicago Tribune op-ed co-written with Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, the antidote to too much power is not zero power. Aldermanic prerogative doesn’t need to be eliminated but does need common-sense limitations. Community residents and their elected officials should have a say in shaping their neighborhoods, but when it comes to affordable housing, community input should be in the form of how, not if.
Racially Inequitable Fines, Fees, and Ticketing
Stop excessive traffic fines and fees
Stop excessive traffic fines and fees that disproportionately penalize poor and working class people of color. The City of Chicago must stop penalizing low-income drivers through inequitable fees by eliminating the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid parking tickets. The city should also assess the current fee structure and adopt an income-based sliding scale fee schedule so low-income people are not crippled by fees they will never be able to pay off.
Excessive court fines, traffic tickets and compounding fees that people simply cannot afford to pay regularly lead to lost opportunities, whether through lost jobs or housing, suspension of driver’s licenses and even incarceration. A recent investigation by ProPublica found that debt from traffic tickets alone disproportionately burden African Americans in Chicago, leading to crippling debt that most often results in bankruptcy.
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MPC 2019 Policy Priorities
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