Chicago is classified as ‘rent-burdened.’ Here’s what that means.

by Meg White

In a report titled “Housing Market Conditions Across America’s Cities,” the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions recently classified 754 cities of at least 50,000 residents into six different categories to identify their main housing opportunities and challenges.

The National League of Cities' classification of urban areas in Chicagoland

The National League of Cities’ classification of urban areas in Chicagoland

Chicago’s classification was as a rent-burdened city, and it’s in good company in this regard; 27 percent of the cities studied fell into this category. Only one other category collected more urban areas, transit desiring cities at 29 percent. The other categories are high opportunity cities, growing cities, multi-family deficit cities and wealth pocket cities.

Being a rent-burdened city means that Chicago suffers from low levels of median income, owner occupancy, and population and income growth. On the plus side, Chicago and the 203 other cities in this category have a low gender income gap and some of the highest public transit access and numbers of single-family building permits in the study.

Some of the factors that played into the determination are whether each city’s permitting of single- and multi-family housing is meeting the income levels and job growth opportunities of its residents, as well as demographic and economic issues, wherein Chicago was determined to be suffering from low levels of median income and job growth alike.

Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities, emphasized the importance of tailoring strategies for promoting affordability to the conditions in each individual city. “Affordable, stable housing is currently out of reach for millions of Americans,” he said in the report. “Of course, there are certain housing policies that can have a positive impact everywhere, but we know that strategies and solutions in Seattle and Denver may not work for Charlotte, North Carolina, or Peoria, Illinois.”

Transit was a big part of what sets Chicago and other cities in this classification apart in terms of its potential to grapple with economic challenges, according to the report’s authors. “These cities deploy nearly twice as many public transit vehicles as the other cities, giving them the greatest advantage when it comes to accessing good jobs. So, while job growth and educational attainment could be improved, residents are better able to access jobs from various locations, meaning that housing cost burden is slightly less, on average, than in other cities,” the report noted.

As for suggestions for change, researchers suggest gaining deeper insight into the reasons people have difficulty paying their rent or mortgage and working to develop more multifamily housing. They also suggested adding rental assistance opportunities, homeowner education programs, first-time homebuyer help and shared equity housing models via community land trusts, which Chicago does have in place.

Several other Illinois cities joined Chicago in its rent-burdened status: Normal, Peoria, Springfield and Waukegan. The study looked at a number of other Illinois cities and classified them differently than Chicago. Naperville was the only city classified as a wealth-pocket city.

Champaign, Cicero, Decatur and Rockford were all defined as transit-desiring areas. Growing cities included Aurora, Berwyn, Bloomington, Des Plaines, Elgin, Joliet and Oak Lawn. As for high-opportunity cities, Illinois counted Arlington Heights, Bolingbrook, Hoffman Estates, Oak Park, Orland Park and Wheaton. And cities that registered in the study as having a deficit of multifamily housing in the region included Evanston, Mount Prospect, Palatine, Schaumburg, Skokie and Tinley Park.

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