In the latest edition of our series, “Housing Across America”, we venture to Chicago to explore the city’s Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policy plan and its goal of encouraging denser housing growth near the ‘L’ (heavy rail) and Metra (commuter rail) lines. 

Chicago launched its TOD density bonus program in 2013. The program upzoned parcels near mass transit and reduced on-site parking requirements for new housing, in return for new housing projects setting aside some units that are affordable to lower-income households. The goal is straightforward: build dense, mixed-income projects closer to transportation routes so Chicagoans of all walks of life can rely less on cars and more on buses, light rail, bikes, and walking.  

The 2013 TOD plan has had some success: within 5 years, Chicago approved over 15,000 homes near transit, including over 2,000 affordable units.  But while TOD was successful in sparking denser housing development in high-income neighborhoods, its effectiveness in lower-income communities in Chicago’s West Side and South Side neighborhoods was very limited. Nearly 90% of TOD projects occurred in the more affluent North Side, Northwest Side, and Downtown Loop neighborhoods, as well as in gentrifying pockets peppered throughout the city.

In response, Chicago partnered up with Elevated Chicago, an innovative collaboration of local community and region-wide organizations, to create the Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Initiative (eTOD) in September 2020. eTOD is a three-year policy plan designed to help expand transit-oriented affordable housing options to low-income communities of color on Chicago’s West and South Sides.

The policy plan includes three strategic priorities: 

  • Build Chicago’s capacity to support eTOD policies: Inter-agency coordination, provide accountability, strengthen community engagement: The city created a task force consisting of cross-sector and inter-agency coordination efforts, to oversee the development and implementation of eTOD’s policy goals. 
  • Make eTOD required, easier, and more equitable: eTOD is intended to ensure that  development projects near transit zones benefit local lower-income communities, and communities of color, while supporting anti-displacement strategies. This includes implementing a flexible eTOD overlay zone, aimed at increasing housing density and affordability near transit, reducing parking requirements, and pushing for more flexibility in permitting residential uses on the ground floor of buildings in business and commercial districts.
  • Embed eTOD into Chicago’s Citywide Plan: Chicago is in the process of updating its general plan over the next three years. This effort, known as “We Will Chicago”, will incorporate the eTOD policy initiative into a broader effort to achieve greater equity in housing and economic development. From building health and equity assessments, to establishing a framework for neighborhood land use plans dedicated to increasing diversity within TOD opportunities, the eTOD policy plan would serve as a blueprint for how peer cities should include all communities in planning for the future of their neighborhoods.

More specifically, Chicago’s eTOD revises the existing TOD program to allow for more flexibility in building usage, small-scale multifamily housing in TOD zones, parking maximums to reduce car dependency, and the prioritization of eTOD projects for city funding. While details are still in development, policy measures would include:

  • Expanding eTOD areas to a ½ mile radius around rail, up from a ¼ mile radius under today’s TOD rules.
  • Strengthening affordability and accessibility requirements for city-supported housing development in TOD zones, including through updates to the Affordable Requirements Ordinance.
  • Creating a flexible eTOD overlay zone to strengthen requirements for density, parking, and other equitable, climate resilient development near transit, tailored to neighborhood context (such as market strength).
  • Requiring developers of TOD projects to unbundle parking and housing costs, charging for each separately.
  • Prioritizing the preservation and modernization of existing 2-4 unit housing stock located in TOD areas.
  • Improving pedestrian infrastructure in TOD zones by prioritizing and targeting resources based on need, starting with an inventory of current sidewalk infrastructure.
  • Making more elements of the TOD incentive program usable “by-right”.
  • Developing a comprehensive strategy to leverage publicly owned land and vacant lots near transit for public benefit.

Why does all of this matter? And why now? 

Like many other cities throughout the United States, Chicago has a long history of marginalizing communities of color through structurally racist exclusionary zoning regulations. We’ve seen the consequences of failing to invest in marginalized communities and excluding people from new housing opportunities: increasing unemployment rates, ongoing displacement, poverty, and lack of access to high-opportunity neighborhoods with good schools.

The eTOD policy plan is intended to address concerns around gentrification, displacement, and inequality in housing opportunities. Local families want their voices heard at public hearings to help decide how the city leverages publicly owned land and vacant lots located near transit for their benefit.  As rising land values continue to increase, local families want to be reassured they have an opportunity to live in the affordable, small multi-family housing units the city plans to encourage near transit.

The concerns of marginalized groups in Chicago are no different than those often heard in Los Angeles. As in Chicago, housing activists in Los Angeles also want to promote equity alongside strong housing growth near transit. 

In 2017, Los Angeles introduced the Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) program, a landmark density bonus policy that encourages new mixed-income housing near transit by updating zoning for parcels near Metro. Like Chicago’s TOD, TOC provides incentives, like a large density bonus and reductions in on-site parking requirements, in return for setting aside affordable units. Many TOC projects are also approved “by-right”, which allows homes to be permitted more quickly and eliminates political interference in the approval process. 

TOC is generally considered a major success at encouraging transit-adjacent, mixed-income housing production: since its inception in 2017, over 30,000 housing units have been proposed or permitted, of which 21% are affordable to lower-income households. 

There are notable similarities between Los Angeles’ Transit-Oriented Communities (TOC) Program and Chicago’s eTOD policy plan, and there’s much that supporters of equitable housing growth in both cities can learn from one another’s programs.

First, both L.A.’s TOC and Chicago’s eTOD policies apply to a ½ mile perimeter around rail, while Chicago’s current TOD incentives only apply within ¼ mile of transit.  Here, Los Angeles leads the way – Chicago is wise to propose expanding its TOD radius, so that all locations within walking distance of rail can qualify for incentives.

Second, Chicago’s eTOD housing incentives apply to several high-frequency bus corridors, in addition to rail. This will encourage more housing production near major bus stops, which is helpful to lower-income communities who often rely on the bus. L.A.’s TOC, on the other hand, only applies to a few major bus stops. TOC should be amended to apply to all high-frequency bus stops, similar to Chicago’s eTOD.

Third, both Chicago’s existing TOD program and L.A.’s TOC reduce the amount of on-site parking that must be included in new housing projects. This is a positive step in the right direction that reduces car dependency, lowers housing costs, and improves air quality. In Chicago, developers had already reduced off-street parking spaces by 74% in TOD zones, making use of the optional parking reduction benefits. 

But Chicago’s eTOD would go even further: the plan may introduce parking maximums (which caps the number of on-site parking spaces that a building may provide), and will require new TOD projects to “unbundle” parking fees and rents, charging the renter for each separately. These steps would further encourage mass transit usage and help renters who don’t drive save money. Los Angeles could benefit by amending TOC to eliminate on-site parking requirements altogether, and to unbundle parking fees from rents.

Cities across America can learn from each others’ policy initiatives. Both Chicago’s eTOD and L.A.’s TOC incentive programs could both be strengthened by adopting the best aspects of each others’ plans. This would further common goals of encouraging equitable housing growth near transit, job centers, and high-opportunity neighborhoods.