By JEANNE GANG and GREG LINDSAY
RECENT efforts to fix the housing market — including Thursday’s $26 billion settlement with five of the nation’s biggest banks — have focused purely on the financial aspects of the slump. A permanent solution, however, must go further than money to address issues that have been at the core of the crisis but have been wholly ignored: design and urban planning.
... Take Cicero, Ill., a Chicago suburb that we studied as part of a new exhibition on the housing crisis at the Museum of Modern Art. The town may be infamous as the base of Al Capone or the site of anti-integration protests in the 1950s and ’60s, but today 80 percent of its residents are Latino, half of them foreign born.
Cicero is representative of a suburban transformation that went little noticed during the housing bubble and bust: suburbs have replaced inner cities as the destination of choice for new immigrants.
Indeed, nearly half of all Hispanics now live in suburbs, and new arrivals favor them over cities by two to one. Immigrants are one reason the number of suburban poor climbed 25 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2008. They’re also why Cicero was hit so hard by the housing crisis, with 2,049 foreclosures in 2009 alone — the second highest in Illinois, after Chicago.
Here’s where design comes in. Most of Cicero’s housing is detached, single-family homes. But these are too expensive for many immigrants, so five or six families often squeeze into one of Cicero’s brick bungalows. This creates unstable financial situations, neighborhood tensions and falling real estate values.
Too often, we see such mismatches as a purely financial issue. But instead of forcing families to fit into a house, what if we rearranged the house to fit them?
This doesn’t mean bulldozing Cicero’s housing stock. Instead, it means using existing, underused properties that might be renovated to provide a better fit. In Cicero’s case, that might mean turning to the scores of abandoned factories around it.
Such buildings are often no man’s lands thanks to fears of industrial contamination, which have left older suburbs pockmarked by blight while jobs and homes sprawl outward. But new techniques like “phytoremediation” — using plants like poplar and willow trees to absorb toxins — open the door to safer, less-expensive rehabilitation.
What remains is a wealth of steel, masonry and concrete that could be recycled into flexible live/work units. Rather than force Cicero’s residents to contort themselves to fit the bungalows, their homes can expand or shrink to fit them.
There’s one problem with such a plan: it’s illegal under Cicero’s zoning code. The town’s rules are typical of most suburbs, including the segregation of residential, commercial and industrial facilities; prohibitions on expanding and reusing buildings for new homes and businesses; and tight restrictions on mixed-use properties. Cicero’s code also defines “family” in a way that excludes the large, multigenerational groupings now common across the country.
... But new housing forms also demand new types of financing. Starting in the 1990s, subprime lenders targeted low-income and minority suburbs like Cicero, even when many residents would have qualified for prime loans. Latino homeowners tend to disproportionately invest savings in their homes, and as a result they lost two-thirds of their wealth between 2005 and 2009.
Jeanne Gang and Greg Lindsay are, respectively, an architect and a visiting scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.
Coming next? Perhaps Tyler Cowen will revive his call for America to be covered by vast Latin American shantytowns because they are so creatively vibrant.