Rebuilt from the ground up after a fire ravaged downtown in 1871, Chicago can feel younger than East Coast cities like New York or Boston. A giant Statue of Liberty may not mark it as a national port of entry, but this place has been a destination for diverse migrants going all the way back to its founding. More than half a million southern blacks relocated to the city during the Great Migration, the Mexican-born immigrant population is the second-largest of any metropolitan area in the country, and locals say (incorrectly, though they're not far off) there are more Poles and Americans of Polish descent in Chicago than in Warsaw. It’s a mix that brings vitality to a metropolis that, as much as anywhere else in the country, finds itself torn between a history of progressive activism and the relentless lure of modern capital.
The vibrant immigrant and working class legacies have given the Midwestern hub a no-nonsense, tireless reputation. Community organizers—this is where Barack Obama got his start, after all—and labor unions hold real power here and can be a thorn in the side of big business-interested leadership who see people-power as an assault on their bottom line. White-collar workers and the well-to-do classes have a long history in the city and its suburbs, too, of course. But echoing shifts in other urban centers across the country, a newer breed has gained traction locally in recent years: high earners of the Millennial variety, who not only work downtown, but want to live as close to the action as possible.
According to the Census Bureau's most recent five-year estimate, median gross rent across the city (which includes utility and fuel costs) was around $1029 per month. And in the downtown-adjacent West Loop, where Millennials are said to make up 73 percent of residents, it’s tough to find a two-bedroom for anything less than $2400/month. Median household income in the West Loop is also more than $100,000, which may be what passes for "middle-class" around here.
“The city definitely looks affordable relative to other large cities,” said Geoff Smith, executive director of the Institute for Housing Studies at De Paul University. “But it’s really when you break down geographically within the city, you see that there are distinct market types. In downtown, for example, there’s been a ton of new development, all of it oriented towards high-cost rental housing, and those rents are probably not going to be affordable, definitely not for someone earning minimum wage and definitely not someone earning median income.” It’s outside of downtown and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods where more affordable options can be found, he said. But the struggle is real on the city’s North Side, where housing costs soar much higher.
According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), you’d have to earn at least $40,650 per year in order to afford what it described as a modest one-bedroom at Fair Market Rent in Chicago (estimated in 2018 by that group at $1014 per month). That’s a lot more reasonable than, say, the Bay Area, or Seattle, but still: At the city’s current minimum wage of $12 per hour, you’d need at least 65 hours per week of work (with no vacation time all year) for your own digs.
For every gleaming luxury [Emanuel] brought in, something else made life harder for those just scraping by.
Laborer Derrick Lyons said he can’t even average more than 30 to 35 hours a week at the food processing plant where he has tended to earn close to minimum wage—there isn’t enough work to keep him on. Until he can put around $4,000 away, he lives in interim housing, a longer-term shelter provided by Breakthrough Urban Ministries. “It’s gonna be quite a while,” Lyons said.
Meanwhile, a substantial shift was taking place in the city, Smith said, with existing affordable housing stock quickly diminishing thanks to new high-density developments and the conversion of the city’s historic two- and three-flat brownstones into large, single-family homes, particularly in Downtown, on the North Side, and along the Chicago Transit Authority's (CTA) Blue Line corridor (and to some extent, Pilsen and Hyde Park on the South Side). While the demand for affordable housing was decreasing as wages showed signs of growth, Smith noted, the shrinking stock was outpacing the reduction in need. “The rental supply is growing, but the nature of those rental units is changing,” he added.
This isn’t exactly an accident. For the past eight years, the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel—that hopey-changey president’s former chief of staff—has courted entrenched financial interests of all stripes. Most relevant to the housing scene, he’s worked with investors and real estate developers to transform the meat-packing district into a corporate headquarters corridor, the Friendly Confines baseball neighborhood into Cubsland, and at least one of the 50 schools shut down in 2013 into a luxury school-themed apartment building.
This impulse is most acutely visible in the controversial Lincoln Yards plan. A crucial aspect of the city’s failed Amazon HQ2 bid, the project was slated to plop more than 12 million square feet in residential, office, retail and entertainment space (including a 20,000 seat soccer stadium, five Live Nation music venues, and a handful of 500-foot-plus residential towers) on the former site of a steel mill and other industrial companies. It would also connect two expensive, well-regarded, and majority-white Northside neighborhoods, Lincoln Park and Bucktown. Despite the desirable location, the Emanuel administration offered the developers $900 million in tax increment financing money to build the massive, $5 billion-plus development. (Thanks to outcry from community organizers, plans for the soccer stadium and music venue were recently axed to add more green space.)
Aside from the former steel mill, a fleet facility for garbage trucks and other city-owned vehicles is also on the Lincoln Yards site—along with a tiny, beloved independent music venue. The city has already started work on relocating the facility: In a move that couldn’t be any more telling in its symbolism, it is being sent from the Lincoln Yards site to South Side’s Englewood, the beleaguered mostly black neighborhood known too well for its gun violence.
Emanuel’s push to assert Chicago’s “world-class” status has long invited critics who argue many of the development initiatives from the mayor’s office have focused on areas that already serve the city’s wealthier class while divesting from low-income neighborhoods most in need of revitalization dollars. “Investment in big business, tourism and amenities for the already-affluent (have been) at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable,” Chicagoan and VICE contributor Kim Bellware wrote in the New York Times of Emanuel’s two-term legacy. For example, the aforementioned fleet management move to Englewood was spun as win for the disinvested South Side neighborhood, even if the greatest benefit in the deal may lie with Lincoln Yards developers Sterling Bay.
In a surprise announcement last September, the mayor said that he would not seek reelection this month. The local tale of two cities, which Emanuel denies, could have added to his fatigue with the gig. After all, for every gleaming luxury he brought in, something else made life harder for those just scraping by. “Not every black neighborhood is poor,” Natalie Moore, South Side bureau reporter for WBEZ and author of the South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, told me when I asked whether the racial makeup of a neighborhood affected its affordability. “But there are no poor white neighborhoods in Chicago.” (Which isn’t to say that there aren’t poor white residents in the city, she noted.)
Still, neighborhoods thrive all over the city, not just the ones with an Orange Theory or a rooftop vegetable garden that supplies upscale restaurants. The Red Line is the main artery on the CTA train line that runs on both elevated and underground tracks from Howard Street up North down to 95th Street on the South Side. Going north alongside it, a little further west along the elevated Brown Line, or northwest toward O’Hare along the Blue Line, there are trendy neighborhoods dotted with occasional high-rises, but mostly two-, three- and four-apartment buildings, as well as vintage courtyard layouts. While single-family homes are not unheard of, if you go far enough out from downtown in any direction, you’ll hit a ring of single-family housing stock built in the 1920s for working-class people just inside the city limits. These days, the historic homes range in price: You'd have to spend around a half million or more for a home in Ravenswood Manor. But while it may need work, people can find a similar-style home with fewer bedrooms for less than $100K in a South Side neighborhood.
“When I go back home, it’s crazy, because someone is picking up all the trash on the ground and mowing all the lawns." —Stefania Gomez
Despite the swift rise in rents, proliferation of expensive luxury developments, and increase in high-income renters, Moore believes Chicago is still an affordable city to live in—at least for potential homeowners. After all, there’s plenty of housing stock available at or around the median home price ($250,000); it just comes down to location, location, location. “Chicago bungalows, the historic rehabbed, HDTV-worthy homes, are triple the price in white neighborhoods,” she said.
Where Do They Live?
Due to decades of disinvestment, neighborhoods on the West and South Sides, where your dollar will go much further, often don’t attract young people with money to spend. Which was just fine with Stefania Gomez, who tried to make it work on an intern’s pay in gentrified Pilsen, where she shared a $1200 per month one-bedroom with her then-partner. She later moved west to Little Village, where she rents a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate. They each pay $400 per month. Between the lower rent and the two $20 per hour, 25-hour-per-week jobs she works, she said she feels rich compared to when she was trying to get by on minimum wage.
“In Pilsen, there are a lot of young people. There’s a lot of art and culture, coffee shops and places to eat,” Gomez said. “In Little Village, it’s a lot more residential. It’s not as disinvested as places on the West Side like North Lawndale and Garfield Park. There are abandoned buildings, but not blight.”
Gomez grew up in Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago and a consortium of seminaries—and all of the coffee shops, places to eat, and the Whole Foods that tend to go with an academic crowd. “When I go back home, it’s crazy, because someone is picking up all the trash on the ground and mowing all the lawns,” she said.
The North Side does have affordable options, but your money will generally go far in the city’s northernmost neighborhood, Rogers Park, where Shanna Johnson lives.
Minimum Wage: Johnson’s yearly salary from a Loop-based nonprofit comes out to about $15 per hour, or three dollars more than the city’s current hourly minimum wage. But even if you reach that higher progressive benchmark for a living wage in a city considered affordable in relation to the Bay Area, New York City, or Seattle, getting by without going into debt in Chicago still requires some deft maneuvering.
After commuting by train to and from the city from her parents’ home in the Western suburbs, Johnson said, she moved into a Rogers Park studio for $775 per month. For nearly two years, it put the squeeze on her budget until finally she and her boyfriend, who earns slightly more, decided to split a moderately renovated two-bedroom with in-unit laundry in a vintage building, also in Rogers Park, at $1500 (which they managed to negotiate down from $1675). Her boyfriend pays $900 and she pays the rest to account for their differences in salaries. The approximately $200 she’s saving on rent for her studio each month goes back to her boyfriend as repayment for a personal loan she used to pay off a credit card.
Median Income: Carly Oishi, the sole income-earner for her family of three, managed to score a two-bedroom garden apartment in a classic Chicago two-flat (a dying breed thanks to all those new developments) in Roscoe Village for shockingly low monthly rent of $1025, which hasn’t increased in the two years she’s lived there with her partner and their four-year-old son. “We got really fortunate with this apartment,” she said. “We’re probably paying $200-$400/month less than the market rate for this neighborhood.” That seems about right, because at the time of this Zillow search, no listings for a two-bedroom were available for under $1200, and there were just nine for less than $1500.
What Do They Eat?
Chicago has been earning accolades for its high-level restaurant scene since well before the 1871 fire. But for every new chef-driven, Bon Appetit-approved hotspot are three neighborhood dining establishments that have long been slinging delicious community faves under the radar.
Minimum Wage: Johnson says her partner is diligent about making lunches for the two of them to take to work, so she’s able to avoid high lunch prices in the Loop during the week. She takes advantage of her apartment’s proximity to Loyola University and plans their four to six meals out around weekly specials (such as $4 beers and 89-cent chicken tenders at nearby sports bar Bulldog Ale House).
Lyons said he occasionally can find a decent 10 for $10 sale at local chain Jewel and stocks the shared refrigerator at the longer-term shelter where he lives. But smart shopping doesn’t stretch his paycheck significantly enough for him to save for his own place. He’s still got student loans from his time at Chicago State, bus fare, and he has to purchase expensive gear for work—clothes that keep him warm in the freezer conditions where he packs chicken for distribution.
Median Income: Oishi’s budget allows the family to get takeout or delivery twice a week. But they keep their bill to $30 or under, ordering from affordable neighborhood restaurants. “We have a Thai place, a Mexican place, and a pizza place that we kind of rotate,” she said.
Oishi, Gomez, Lyons, and Johnson all swear by Aldi—the German grocery chain that has been expanding like crazy in Chicago—as the only place to shop for people with limited food budgets. Despite the proliferation of grocery delivery services, bagging your own groceries is still one of the best ways to make food affordable. Although she’s earning more now thanks to the two 25-hour per week jobs she works, Gomez said she was “terrified to spend money” during her full-time paid internship (at $11.50 per hour) last year, so grocery runs would be buying a few pieces of produce at the discount chain.
How Do They Get Around?
The CTA’s train lines don’t serve the entire city. The main North-South artery (the Red Line) that reaches the city’s Northernmost point only goes as far as 95th street on the South Side, with distance increasing between stops south of the Loop. Though transit-oriented development (TOD)—an urban development philosophy centered around public trains and buses—has caught the imagination of the mayor’s office and affordable housing advocates alike, critics have argued that these disproportionally benefit the North Side.
TOD projects are popular with developers for a reason, though: the city has added incentives for building housing near public transit stations like reduced parking requirements, plus greater height and density allowances. Many of the new buildings have been upscale apartment or condo buildings in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods. Particularly in Logan Square, the new crop of high-end TODs along the Blue Line, generally with 10 percent on-site affordable units, have been blamed for accelerating gentrification and displacement of longtime residents. The city says new development is planned along bus routes in order to serve a diversity of neighborhoods.
Minimum Wage: Gomez said that one of the interns she worked with was struggling financially and convinced HR to pay for a monthly public-transit pass (currently at $105 for an unlimited 30-day pass). But the rest of them were told that they should be thankful to have an internship that paid them at all.
"It all sounds fun, but it all sounds expensive." —Shanna Johnson
Like many cash-strapped Chicagoans, Johnson doesn't drive. Instead she mostly relies on the Red and Brown lines to get around—and METRA commuter trains when visiting the suburbs. She's reluctant to use ride-sharing apps like Lyft or Uber because of the cost, but she'll occasionally make an exception if she has someone to split the car with. "Most of the time I don't use it, unless it's really late at night," she said.
Median Income: Oishi’s apartment is within walking distance of a Brown Line stop, but she purchased a used Chevy Sonic hatchback in 2015 with the help of her dad, and paid off the loan in full in three years. Her work assisting high school seniors fill out forms to apply for federal financial assistance for higher education has her traveling across the city regularly. Her employer does reimburse for parking and mileage (over 15 miles from their downtown office), but for most travel around the city with her son, she tends to use the bus or train.
Parking is expensive in Chicago, and not just downtown, where parking in a lot can run you $50 a day. One last gift to the city from Mayor Richard M. Daley (Emanuel’s predecessor) was a notoriously bad parking meter deal in 2008: Since then, residents have been at the mercy of a corporate overlord who charges an average of $2 per hour for street parking—and up to $6.50 per hour in the Loop.
What Do They Do for Fun?
Over the years, Chicagoans have probably spent more time drinking in neighborhood bars than any other leisure activity, but today the entertainment options are almost limitless. There’s live music, professional and college sports, a thriving comedy scene, and dramatic theater and even ping-pong and shuffleboard clubs. (Sigh. Thanks, Brooklyn.) Of course, all those options require money. On a budget more creativity is in order.
Minimum Wage: “My idea of fun is going out to dinner with my boyfriend and then going home and binge-watching a TV show,” Johnson said. Chicago winters—this one has been unusually brutal and even deadly—help relieve the pressure to go out and do things, too. She has a friend who likes to organize adventurous outings for their mutual friends, such as kayaking on the Chicago River. “It all sounds fun, but it all sounds expensive,” Johnson said.
Median Income: Since Oishi’s actual job title is director of financial capability, she knows how to stretch her dollar. She makes good use of the Chicago Kids calendar where she finds free or low-cost ways to entertain her son and give her partner, who stays home and provides childcare, a break. (In Chicago, childcare can average up to $13,560 per year for infants in a licensed center, according to one study released in late 2017, and that's a low estimation in my personal experience.)
The mayoral election is just around the corner, and affordability is on the mind of candidates, even if the housing policies they support (or don’t) are still coming into focus. But with the field flung wide and no clear front-runner (despite one candidate’s major financial backing from Kanye and Chance the Rapper), how Chicago’s next mayor leads on these issues is anyone’s guess. (Or educated guess if the Sun Times map of where campaign contributions are coming from is any indication.) Even with proposed minimum wage hikes, money talks, and the most noise is coming from those downtown and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods, as well as those in the wealthier North Side zip codes along the lakefront.
Oishi gave a frustrated sigh when considering whether Chicago was affordable. In her day job, she regularly encounters people making what might be dubbed poor financial decisions, thanks to short-term economic need. “I think you have to be in a pretty good situation,” she said.
With a major black exodus and a growth strategy that continues to focus on “bright young people,” and policies that favor business, It doesn’t seem too far a stretch to say that, at some point, it might only be those in a “pretty good situation” who can call Chicago-proper home.
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