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Is Chicago’s zoning code broken?

This may sound crazy, but I’ve never been to Chicago. It’s on my list, but I just haven’t gotten around to it and I’ve never had a specific reason to go. Hopefully I can make it this summer.

Lately though, I’ve found myself reading more and more about the city. Given that it’s also a Great Lakes city and it’s of comparable size, Chicago is an interesting case study for Toronto. But one thing that seems to keep coming up, is the need for zoning reform.

About a month ago I wrote a post called “The tale of 2 Chicagos”, which was inspired by the blogging of Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) and Daniel Hertz (City Notes). The discussion was around the prevalence of single-family zoning in most parts of Chicago and how it’s creating a supply constrained market (driving up prices).

But there’s another outcome. Here’s what Daniel Hertz recently argued:

When places in and around downtown become more desirable, developers build more housing, and more people get to live there. But when non-downtown neighborhoods become more desirable, developers can’t build more housing: it’s against the law. So instead, they profit by tearing down old two-flats and building mansions in their place. And as a result, fewer people get to live in those neighborhoods, even as more and more people want to.

Effectively, his argument is that gentrification leads to a loss of housing units. Developers can’t build more housing, so they replace housing. And it all stems from a restrictive zoning code that aims to maintain the character and scale of established neighborhoods. I get that, but you could easily argue that it exacerbates the negatives of gentrification.

It strikes me that Toronto and Chicago are in somewhat similar places in terms of their growth. Without any real natural barriers, both cities had the luxury of being able to develop through horizontal sprawl when they were younger.

But with people now returning to city centers, we’re faced with a series of difficult decisions: How do we balance preservation and growth? How do we balance low-density with high-density? How do we maintain the character of what people love while still creating an inclusive city?

It absolutely can be done, but it’s going to mean embracing a certain amount of change. And that’s not always an easy sell. 

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