Category Archives: Housing/Property

Chicago’s Leadership Role in Suburban America

I just started what is so far an excellent book by Elaine Lewinnek,  an associate professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. The book is called “The Working Man’s Reward,” and I wanted to plug it here. It grabbed me from the introduction, which proclaims that “Chicago’s first product was real estate.” She promises to examine how the dream of homeownership—heavily shaped in many ways by people and events in Chicago—has affected the urban and suburban landscape throughout America.

Lewinnek nicely summarizes some of her ideas at the end of the book’s introduction:

[R]eal estate is a particularly interesting product, offering to produce further profits while providing shelter, class status, community, access to jobs, and investment equity. Real estate decisions can affect health, educational opportunities, physical mobility, and ultimately class mobility. Real estate matters, so much so that riots erupted over it. [See Lewinnek's blog post about Chicago's 1919 race riots tied to property values.] As Chicagoans sorted out what a modern city would look like—through land speculation, boosterism, two riots, and many barely conscious, often-constrained choices—they developed a city form that affects the sprawling and often racially divided spaces that all Americans have inherited.

I’m eager to dig into many parts of this book, but one that stands out at the outset is its study of how innovative local initiatives often quickly spread to other municipalities—an idea I’ve written about before. Whet Moser, interviewing Lewinnek for Chicago Magazine, paraphrased her thesis as being about how Chicago “invented” the suburbs. In that interview, she describes how some of the first zoning laws were “fire limits” that came out of the great Chicago fire. The new building rules forbade wooden houses in the city, and that forced workers to live further from their places of work. Usefully, she “reject[s] monocausal explanations” for why the Chicago model spread, arguing that it was a complex combination of different social and political forces at work at the time. She also sees lessons for the future from her study, as summarized in this part of her interview with Moser:

At the end of the book, you argue that learning from this past is a way of preparing for the future. What did you learn in researching the book that you think we should learn from?

The things that people developed on their own—the real struggles to own humble, small houses, were things that they clung to. With the institutionalization of public housing, the small houses were bulldozed and people were put into huge towers that didn’t end up being good places to live. Now we’re going back to public housing that looks more suburban, more dispersed. Part of what working-class Chicagoans invented in the late 19th century and the early 20th century is some of what we might be coming full circle to.

And some of those possibilities, too, of living in diverse spaces; being conscious of the whole range of suburbs. To me those are kind of exciting possibilities.

Lewinnek blogs at Elaine’s Blog.

What Affordable Housing Should Afford: Housing for Resilient Cities

This post’s title is the title of a new paper in HUD’s Cityscape journal, Volume 16, Number 2, page 21. In it, a group of urban-planning experts from MIT argue, “Well-designed affordable housing involves more than the provision of safe decent, and inexpensive shelter; it needs to be central to the resilience of cities.”

They then list four goals for affordable housing:

  1. Support the community social structure and economic livelihoods of residents.

  2. Reduce the vulnerability of residents to environmental risks and stresses.

  3. Enhance the personal security of residents in the face of violence or threats of displacement.

  4. Empower communities through enhances capacities to share in their own governance.

I like the concept of city “resilience,” and the paper spends a little time usefully describing that idea. The rest of the paper gives detailed accounts of efforts to design housing to meet these goals.

 

Renting versus owning: how homeowners come out ahead

I’m doing more digging into the 2011 American Housing Survey, as a follow up to this weekend’s post about the age of American housing.

The survey breaks down “owner occupied” versus “renter occupied” units, and the differences between them are compelling. In particular, the survey hints at public-health downsides to renting, though these results are likely tied more to poverty than to the fact a person is renting as the data does not account for socioeconomic status. Nonetheless, here are some interesting statistics.

1. Renters share bedrooms more often.

chart_1

As you can see, around 50% of households in either category have .51 to 1 person per bedroom. But for households with 1.51 or more people per bedroom, the renter category jumps to more than 20%, while only 6.7% of owner-occupied households are that crowded.

2. Renters are more likely to have unsafe drinking water.

Frankly, it’s amazing to me that nearly 10% of people in the United States are without safe drinking water, but it’s worse for renters than for homeowners.

3. Renters have more problems with pests, bad wiring, and holes in floors and walls.

chart_4

As you can see, homeowners have more mice problems, but that’s about it. Renters have more problems with rats and much more problems with open cracks or holes, exposed wiring, and cockroaches. I’ve experienced that last one while renting in the Deep South, and it’s terrible.

4. Renters are less healthy.

Maybe it’s because of all the other things mentioned, but renters report being in “very good” health less often than homeowners. Although both categories of people have the same number of people who reported “excellent” health, renters also report “poor” health more than homeowners.

chart_5

Let me know your thoughts on the comments below.

The age of housing in the United States

The Census Bureau recently released the results of the 2011 American Housing Survey. One noteworthy point for me was how old housing is in the U.S. The data basically shows a rough bell curve peaking between 1950 and 1979. The median year was 1974, 34 years ago. This number has crept up since 1985, when the median house age was only 23, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

age of houses in the united states

For more analysis on this issue, check out this oldhouseweb.com article from a few years ago. It shows which states had the highest concentration of old housing at that time. A surprising amount of it is in the Midwest, with Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio all in the top ten.

Counting and housing the homeless: the great work of 100k homes

I recently learned that HUD requires cities to count their homeless population—once every two years in January—in order to receive federal funding. Yet as Joel John Roberts, CEO of People Assisting the Homeless, recently wrote in Huffington Post, instead of adding up the number of homeless sleeping in a given city on a given night, we should be counting down until every homeless person has housing.

This is exactly the aim of 100,000 Homes, a project of the nonprofit Community Solutions, that aims put 100,000 Americans in homes by July 2013. (HUD estimates around 111,000 people are “chronically” homeless, having lived on the street or in a shelter for a year or more.) They have a 5-step model involving (1) building a coalition of local citizens and organizations, (2) finding the homeless, (3) registering them, (4) moving them into housing, and (5) following through by providing support to ensure they stay in housing. Sounds simple enough in theory. They’ve provided a 22-page “playbook” discussing these steps in more detail. So far, the campaign has housed nearly 12,000 people in more than 110 communities.

This work is vital, and the more attention it gets, the better. See an inspiring video celebrating their two-year anniversary after the jump: Continue reading

Featured Website: LOVELAND Technologies

loveland technologiesLOVELAND Technologies is a neat project out of Detroit, Michigan, that is selling micro-lots of land in “microhoods” for $1 per square inch that people can track online. They focus on making these microhoods exciting by generating artsy urban-renewal projects. According to their website, they “aim to provide a fun, game-like ownership experience while creating entertainment fundraising, community collaboration, and social mapping tools that work at any scale.” They got started a few years ago through Kickstarter.

They have a few other projects. There’s online mapping projects (in collaboration with Data Driven Detroit) and a “LoveTax” system, a creative way for people to fund projects. They also have a cool online app called “Why Don’t We Own This?” that tracks more than 40,000 vacant properties owned by the city, state, or county. The Huffington Post recently reported that this year’s Code for America fellows in Detroit will be building off the momentum that project has created. Overall, a great Detroit project to check out.

For more info, the founders gave a presentation at a TEDx conference in Detroit in 2010 that I’ve embedded after the jump.

Continue reading

Which states have the most Section 8 housing per person?

I recently used open data from HUD about public-housing inventory and Census population data to examine which states had the most Section 8 housing units per person in 2010. (Section 8 is a federally subsidized program for low-income renters.) Here’s the top 6 and bottom 6:

which states have the most section 8 housing

I’m not surprised that DC is number one, since it has the nation’s highest poverty rate. Nor am I surprised that NYC, with its relatively well-organized housing initiatives, is number two. But what about Massachusetts and North Dakota? Any ideas? Here’s a visualization of this data:

Section 8 Housing per State Map

 

Could Chicago raise an additional $13m off of vacant properties?

vacant property chartI recently created this chart showing how many buildings, reported as vacant to Chicago 311 (and actually found to be vacant) were either open or boarded. The number of open properties (around 13,600) far outpaces the number of boarded ones (1,544). This info is interesting because Chicago’s vacant-property ordinance requires registration and boarding (and eventually more-intense security measures) for properties left vacant more than 30 days.

There is, then, a bunch of buildings in Chicago that are short-term vacancies or a bunch that are violating city code. My guess is that it’s the latter. The fee for registering a property is $250 (every 6 months), and the property owner is required to buy liability insurance and keep the property maintained. So most people are probably trying to fly under the radar until they get caught. And since city officials typically don’t have any way of telling how long a property has been sitting vacant, the 30-day grace period only starts running from the date they find the property vacant.

So how much money  could the city make?

Continue reading

My analysis of how often “vacant” buildings are actually in use (from Chicago 311 data)

occupied-abandoned-homesHere is an analysis I did using open data about 311 calls made in Chicago. It shows how often people were found to be using buildings reported as vacant or abandoned. The data file actually lists it as “Any people using property (e.g., homeless, children, gangs).” I’m not sure what they mean by finding “children” in the buildings.

To me, the most striking thing is just how many building reported as vacant were being used by someone. Chicago is a city known for its high level of homelessness, so them living in vacant buildings shouldn’t be that surprising. What is more surprising is that the number varies so little from month-to-month (the high level of “no info” in early ’09 is likely attributable to poor reporting), even given the volatility of the housing market and the variations in Chicago weather; I expected to see higher numbers of squatters in winter months. At the very end of 2011, there appears to be a dip, which I guess could be interpreted as a sign that things are getting better—i.e., more people finding housing outside vacant buildings, less people using vacant buildings for criminal activities—but the dip is far too small to draw any real conclusion.

Please let me know if you have any thoughts on this info.

As a note, I started with calls from August 2009, when there were only 60 calls made (as compared to 400+ in later months). The data before that date is spotty.