Chicago population continues to decline

South Side neighborhoods shrink while downtown flourishes

The Chicago area saw a population decline for the fourth year in a row, according to census data, raising questions as to why people continue to leave and what the potential consequences could be down the line.

Between 2017 and 2018, the Chicago metropolitan area’s population decreased from 8,651,392 residents to 8,628,040 – a 0.3 percent decrease. The area has seen a 0.5 percent decrease since the 2010 census.

According to DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies, population changes are important because they impact the distribution of federal dollars, school enrollment and the health of labor markets. 

Kathleen Cagney, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, said the decline has been “starker” on the city’s South Side, particularly among predominantly African American neighborhoods. She said violence, school closures and job availability have all played a role.

“We have to think, ‘Are there ways to incentivize the kinds of employment that would appeal to entry-level workers?’” she said. “We have to bring jobs in.”

In 2013, then-mayor Rahm Emanuel and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, closed 49 elementary school programs and one high school program to help deal with a $1 billion deficit. The closures were based on under-enrollment and poor performance. Most of the children who were uprooted were from low-income, African American backgrounds, according to a study from the University of Chicago.

“Schools are an institutional structure that allows for building of a community,” Cagney said.

Englewood, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and South Chicago each lost households from all levels of income, according to the DePaul Institute for Housing Studies. Each neighborhood saw a loss between 10 and 20.

Englewood, West Englewood and Austin used to have a combined 188,992 black residents in 2000. By 2015, the neighborhoods saw a 28 percent decrease to 135,851 black residents. The city overall had just over 1 million black residents at the start of the century; 15 years later, that number was at 840,188.

Meanwhile, neighborhoods surrounding the downtown core – the Loop, Near North Side, Near West Side and Near South Side – saw increases in the total number of households driven primarily by high-income households, according to the institute’s report.

“That many of these communities are primarily African American raises concerns about the disproportionate impact of these trends on Chicago’s African-American population,” the institute wrote in a report. “These neighborhoods have been challenged by decades of disinvestment, long-term population loss as well as the recent foreclosure crisis and increasing demand for housing continues to be a priority for many neighborhood organizations and agencies.”

Some residents have been getting out-priced from their neighborhoods, influencing their decisions to leave the city. 

Michael Gillam and Mary Green told the Chicago Tribune last month that while they enjoyed living in Ravenswood in 2015 and 2016, they chose to move  to Houston, Texas in February 2018 in search of more affordable housing and a warmer climate.

“We just wanted to move somewhere where our money would stretch further,” Gillam, 29, told the Tribune. “The housing market here is fantastic, it’s exploding. In Illinois, it seems like people are leaving.”

Cagney said that while in many cases people are getting priced out of their homes, Chicago’s housing structure is also changing. She said many buildings have been redeveloped with fewer units. 

“People are out-priced for sure, but the structures also aren’t built for more people,” Cagney said.

However, John McCarron, a DePaul College of Communication professor who specializes in urban affairs, said he doesn’t think gentrification is generally part of the problem.

“Gentrification is the reason the [population decline] problem isn’t worse,” he said. “It’s bringing middle- and upper-income people back to the city.”

McCarron said that in past decades, particularly around the 1970s, the city saw “total disinvestment” in African American communities. And Chicago lost a lot of its housing stock because of the foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession. He said that those properties need to be recycled, rather than keeping them stuck in the court system.

“The problem is not one of size, but one of balance,” he said. “We want affordable housing, but you need some middle class housing in order to stay healthy. Otherwise you’re in a downward spiral.”

Brian Harger, a research associate at the center, said that Chicago’s population decline is “negligible” in a city with over 2.7 million people.

“The Chicago area actually acts as a buffer for the rest of the state,” he told the DePaulia. “Rural areas have been declining for decades, and that’s been getting worse in the last decade or so.”

He attributes the decline to the state’s slow recovery from the last recession, saying that there are fewer job opportunities for young professionals.

Harger said the population decline in the state is a concern because of congressional representation. The state could lose as many as two seats in the House of Representatives, he said.

McCarron said that in some ways, the population decline is inevitable because of more people retiring and a lower birthrate. 

Chicago demographer Rob Paral told the Tribune that he doesn’t believe the population loss is a crisis in Cook County.

“There’s not some mass exodus going on,” he told the Tribune. “I think this is important, because for many years there was a worry that somehow the county was just going to have accelerated loss, but that’s not what we see.”