Chicago remains a segregated city by race and income – and government deserves much of the blame

Chicago remains a segregated city by race and income – and government deserves much of the blame

City zoning policies serve to keep many neighborhoods segregated. These rules also keep lower-income residents of all races out of popular areas, allowing city officials to shape who can live where and making housing more expensive.

Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in America, according to new studies by the Chicago Urban League and researchers at American University. But the city’s segregation is not just the legacy of a racist past: Chicago-area governments continue to actively pursue policies that were originally intended to prevent racial integration.

A quarter of Chicago’s neighborhoods have both a majority-black population and a poverty level of over 40 percent. Moreover, approximately 80 percent of blacks live in “isolated” neighborhoods where they have little contact with people of other races. This arrangement did not occur by accident. Historically, Chicago and its suburban municipalities explicitly pursued racial segregation through a collection of policies known as exclusionary zoning. Although lawmakers no longer use racial justifications for segregationist policies, many of those same policies remain, prolonging and exacerbating racial and class segregation.

Zoning rules

Exclusionary zoning restricts development of the kinds of affordable housing that are used by low-income residents, many of whom are minorities. Some zoning rules require developers to build more expensive homes than the market demands, so that only wealthier residents can afford to move into certain areas. For example, Chicago and many of the surrounding municipalities set inflexible size restrictions called maximum housing densities, which require homes to be built on larger lots. The city also favors single-family homes over apartment buildings that can house more people at a lower cost. And minimum parking requirements force developers to add additional parking spaces to new properties, providing benefits to wealthier residents who drive, but raising the cost of real estate for poorer residents who do not.

Historic districts

The city also relies on subtler techniques that achieve the same end. Chicago designates historic districts that ostensibly protect the character of distinctive neighborhoods, but in practice are used almost exclusively to restrain development in majority-white neighborhoods. Similarly, municipalities “over-engineer” their building codes to make new development more expensive, requiring items such as the installation of sprinklers in single-family homes or brick façades. These requirements may provide some benefits, especially to wealthier residents who prefer their homes built to a higher standard, but they also price out poorer people, including many minority residents.

Even as Chicago’s population remains stagnant, the city continues to pursue policies designed to keep out certain kinds of people. Lincoln Park, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, has seen its population decline faster than the population of some South Side neighborhoods. Exclusionary policies have prevented developers from responding to demand by building more densely, so when the wealthiest residents demand more space, less affluent residents are forced to move out. As a result, Chicago’s most popular neighborhoods become even more exclusive, and instead of reducing segregation, the city exacerbates the problem.

These policies were originally introduced to keep neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast white and affluent, and multiple studies have shown that these practices continue to significantly increase the cost of housing and drive out low-income and minority residents. Yet these policies persist and contribute to Chicago’s status as one of the most segregated cities in America. Indeed, officials continue to add to the city’s restrictive policies through increasingly stringent building codes and the expansion of historical districts.

Just recently Mayor Rahm Emanuel claimed a new plan to invest in depressed and minority communities was a “win-win” for developers and residents of low-income neighborhoods. But the new plan relies on charging developers to exceed maximum building densities in the downtown area, effectively imposing a tax that increases the impact of exclusionary zoning. Instead of perpetuating restrictions on building, the city should focus on reversing decades of segregationist building policies.

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