When Mayberry Becomes Too Expensive

Three times a year Lincoln Square throws big street festivals. It’s how most people discover the neighborhood. (Credit: Pete/Flickr)

I adore my neighborhood. I’m such a Lincoln Square booster, that my friend, WGN Radio host Justin Kaufmann, recently interviewed me on air to talk about how great it is to live in “Mayberry in the City.”

You don’t need to know why the neighborhood is so great, but let’s just assume you agree with me that it’s walkability, great parks, library, public schools and access to rapid transit make it idyllic, and that plenty of people want to live here. But actually, I don’t have to convince you, since Lincoln Square now has single-family home sales well north of $600,000, a number unimaginable even during the 2008 real estate boom.

Despite the high home prices, it’s hard to characterize Lincoln Square as a wealthy neighborhood – yet. Most of my neighbors bought-in fifteen to twenty years ago, before home sales overheated across the country. But, when new homes are renovated and put up for an open house, my wife and I tend to take a walk through. With Viking ranges and high-end washer-dryers, these new homes don’t seem made for us. Then, when new owners plunk down $1 million to move in, we know the homes weren’t made for us.

What happens to Mayberry in the City when it becomes a place just for the well-to-do?

Boo-hoo, me. Because really, I’m the first wave of gentrification, complaining about the second.

Take a look at the graph below, and you’ll see that much of Chicago’s middle class has been pushed out since 1990, including Lincoln Square. For my neighborhood, I’m part of the first wave of gentrifiers that came in fifteen to twenty years ago (sound familiar?), fixed up the schools, encouraged more local retail and made it a generally fun place to live. Now the people with lots more money want in, and I’m seeing the change.

Chicago median incomes 2000 and 2010.
In Chicago, there’s much less space for the middle class, and more devoted to the wealthy and the truly poor. (Images from Chicago Central Area Committee)

And this isn’t the first time I’ve been a part of the first wave. Back in 1978 my mom and step-dad bought a brick three-flat in Lincoln Park, which was then a working class, Puerto Rican neighborhood. My parents renovated the house – one of the first on the block – and turned it into a single-family with a garden level apartment for rent. As a younger kid I played streetball with the other kids on the block (“Car!”) but by the time I graduated high school the kids didn’t play out front any more and the streets were lined with cars too expensive to get caught slamming into when you catch a football.

Over the years, Lincoln Park got even more expensive, and more exclusive. My parents’ block was landmarked, and then after my mom passed, my step-father declared the neighborhood’s property taxes too high (he was paying more than I paid in rent for a one bedroom apartment in Chicago) and he sold the house in 2005 for nine times more than he paid in 1978.

A first wave gentrifier, it’s hard to see how my step-father did well for himself. But there was no way I could ever afford to own a home in the neighborhood I grew up in – and for many Chicagoans, there was no way they could ever rent an apartment there either.

And so I look at where I live now: Lincoln Square. Who will be able to afford to live in Mayberry in the City?

For now, not many. It has been a struggle to add density the neighborhood. Most of the two-flats that characterized the area have been converted to single-family homes (we hope to do the same one day) and there’s few areas where there’s enough space for five or six-story apartment buildings, the height needed to make such a project profitable for developers.

Our new City Council member, Matt Martin, ran on platform that included adding affordable housing to Lincoln Square, but that means getting developers that want to do it. Oh, and they’ll need to purchase land that is relatively low-cost.

Western Avenue, one of the main north-south thoroughfares through Lincoln Square, was once covered with used car lots, car repair and other light industrial businesses. Those have mostly shuttered in the last ten years, to be replaced with drive-through Starbucks, high-end shopping or land banked, until a developer buys the land to turn into condos. Those new two-bedroom (never three or four) condos in three-story buildings tend to have prices starting around $400,000. With those kinds of prices, how could Lincoln Square ever be home to affordable housing?

The answer is density. Lincoln Square needs more six- and seven-story buildings, so more units can be built more cheaply on the same piece of land, and developers can be forced to offer more affordable housing units.

Imagine seven stories! Two years ago a new six-story building was slated for the end of my block on Western Avenue. The community opposition was significant – it was cut down to five, and still the neighbors grumbled.

I’d really like my Mayberry in the City to be more inclusive, because I just don’t want it to end up like Lincoln Square. But to get there, me and my neighbors are going to have to give up some of the “Mayberriness” and build some tall apartment buildings.

American Equality Versus Equity

Part of the American ethos is to promote the survival of the fittest. As a capitalist nation, we extend Darwinian values into our social fabric by celebrating the biggest and brightest, while marginalizing everyone else. We imagine our country as a level playing field where anyone can make it, and if you don’t make it on your first try, you’ll get another chance later.

A less heralded, but just as important component of the American ethos is that of neighbors pulling together in times of need. It comes in the form of volunteer organizations like the Cajun Navy, which responds with volunteer water-borne rescue teams in flooded areas. But it also comes in the form of the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, which uses the money from his posthumous legal settlement with the city of Minneapolis to pay the school lunch debts of local children.

Inspiring as these individual efforts are, they are piecemeal solutions to larger problems like a housing scarcity that forces the poorest Americans to live on floodplains and a benefits “donut hole” for families not poor enough to qualify for school lunch, but still unable to afford three square meals a day on their own incomes.

During my family’s spring break travel to the Northeast, we were struck by the economic growth of Boston and New York City versus the struggle for improvement in Buffalo and New Haven. Boston has a long list of gentrifying and growing neighborhoods that were once hardscrabble, including Roxbury, South Boston and the Seaport District. Similarly, New York City is experiencing a boom in almost every corner. Even The Bronx seemed vibrant in a way it wasn’t when I last visited twenty years ago.

Meanwhile, Buffalo and New Haven still struggle with large undeveloped blocks in their city core, hollowed out shopping centers, and other large parts of downtown that have almost no pedestrian activity after work hours – a sign that people would rather spend their time and money somewhere else.

When we compare Boston and New York to every other Northeastern city, the differences are obvious: Boston is the national’s capital of higher education and New York is the capital of the nation’s financial and media industries. There’s no doubt that resources and the best and brightest will flow to these places. Every town should aspire to be like Boston and New York City, we think, so they can get the best of everything.

The reality of America is that survival of the fittest always ends up leaving someone behind, and once you begin to fall behind a little bit – for instance you can only afford to live on a floodplain or can’t pay for three meals a day – you become part of a vicious cycle of disadvantage that never gets better.

The traditional American ethos, survival of the fittest, is founded on a concept of equality: Anyone can make it in America. But instead, we’re finding our nation’s biggest challenges are about access to the things we need to have good lives, such as economic opportunity, good education, regular health care, and increasingly access to a healthy environment in the form of not only clean air and clean water, but also stopping climate change before it immeasurably alters the world we live in.

This crack in our system, providing access, is about equity, which differs from equality in that a measure of fairness is employed in the distribution of resources. Equality gives everyone the same resources, while equity distributes resources based on need.

While there are certainly parts of Boston and New York that need more assistance than others, the resources available to their citizens are considerably more than in Buffalo and New Haven. For instance, both Boston and New York offer free school lunch (and breakfast) to any child who wants it. New York even offers free meals to kids throughout the summer.

The result should be no surprise: Boston and New York City’s graduation rates in 2018 were 75.1% and 75.9% respectively, while Buffalo’s was 64.5% (but up from 2012’s abysmal 48%). If you start life with a lack of resources, getting a leg up matters.

It turns out that concepts of equality and equity are split along conservative and liberal lines, writes Dan Meegan in The Atlantic. Conservatives favor equality, when asked to contribute more than they should expect to receive in return, while liberals favor equity, which benefits those whose needs are most urgent.

Meegan wants liberals (a.k.a. “Democrats”) to craft policies that will address conservative concerns, to win elections:

“One way or another, liberals must recognize that many Americans define “fairness” in terms other than aid to the neediest—and should craft their messages for 2020 accordingly. Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal includes cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Will Democrats be smart enough to point out that he’s threatening benefits that Americans have paid for and that they deserve?”

But I believe this is a route to oblivion. America’s failing communities have so many problems, that some need extra help just to catch up. For instance, some rural hospitals need supplemental funding because they will never get enough patients to afford expensive specialist doctors like surgeons. Without nearby specialists, rural patients are forced to travel hundreds of miles for care that’s easily accessible in cities. What’s fair? Equal funding to hospitals, which effectively gets rural patients nothing, or equity, which provides surgeons?

This equality versus equity problem is playing itself out in a thousand different ways across America in school lunches, daycare provision, police profiling, higher education funding and public transit availability. Until we shed social Darwinism from our political decision-making, America’s economic growth will be limited and our moral leadership will be eclipsed by Canada, Europe and every other Westernized nation.

American problem solvers should stop worrying about how to ensure equality, but should instead figure out how to explain why equity benefits us all.