A City Residency Requirement That Works

LESLIE BALDACCI

August 15, 1993|By LESLIE BALDACCI

Chicago. --

Seven city cops, a firefighter, a paramedic and two public school teachers live on my city block in Chicago. There's also a streets and sanitation worker who goes nuts with a chain saw on the neighborhood trees. We call him "Edward Scizzorhands."

It is an integrated, middle-class neighborhood. It is safe.

It is all these things in large part because of Chicago's residency ordinance, which requires people who work for the city to live in the city.

"If you work here, you can live here. It's that simple," the late Mayor Harold Washington said 10 years ago when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the city law.

The ordinance dates back to 1919. Its intent was to keep revenue from city salaries in Chicago and increase protection by having off-duty police officers and firefighters close at hand.

It's more than money, though. It's investment, the kind that naturally flows when people can say "my town" and mean it.

It's an investment that earns us the right to sniff at suburbanitewho travel the globe claiming to live in Chicago (or Baltimore) when they really live in some distant, generic -- and usually white -- subdivision.

It is simple. And it's fair. When city taxpayers pay your salary, it's not fair to take the money and run, to bail out at the end of the work day and take the train to the "burbs."

People argue -- and you've heard this in Baltimore as the residency requirement is debated -- that a job's a job, and after work folks have the right to live wherever they please. But cities have the right to fight back with whatever means they have to keep people living within their boundaries.

No other culture in the world abandons its cities like Americans. In the 1980s, Chicago lost more than 221,000 people while five surrounding counties grew by 306,000, according to the Census. The dominoes fall: lost federal funding, blight, erosion of commerce and industry, spiraling vandalism and crime. The same thing happened in Baltimore.

People are the key to keeping a city livable.

The late Mayor Richard J. Daley apparently realized this. In 1975, at the height of white flight, he ordered a crackdown.

"We're not going to punish them," Daley said of suburban-dwelling employees in violation of the law. "We're just going to fire them."

The city called it a "payroll-trimming effort," and no one mentioned the racial angle.

Scofflaws complained they couldn't afford to live in the city. One police sergeant with 11 kids defended his illicit suburban residency by claiming he was unable to find city housing that would accommodate his brood.

A group of firefighters mounted a court challenge, charging that the requirement subjected suburbanites to "unreasonable living conditions and risks to lives and property" because of city crime. They said city living posed a risk to "health," and the schools were a risk to their children.

They collected $25,000 in three weeks from sympathizers and tried to hire F. Lee Bailey to represent them. In the end, though, their case fizzled when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Detroit's residency requirement. And in the end, a slew of city workers chose their paychecks over their "health" and "lives."

I have no doubt the requirement saved many of Chicago's middle-class neighborhoods. Some were reborn. Some have gentrified. The city, ultimately, is less economically polarized. Certainly, we have vast pockets of poverty, some within sight of the lakefront "Gold Coast." It is still one of the most segregated cities in America.

But because of the rule, 40,000 city workers who earn a combined $1.7 billion a year live in the city, along with 4,500 others who work for the Chicago Park District for $132 million.

Many of the 45,000 Board of Education workers who make an annual $1.8 billion off the city schools manage to skirt a 1980 residency rule through a grandfather clause and case-by-case exemptions by the school board.

One can only imagine how the city schools would improve if employees' own children attended, if they were invested with more than a paycheck.

In our city of 2.7 million, the earning power and tax base from city workers helps build and preserve neighborhoods like mine -- average households, black, white and brown, sending our kids to local schools, planning the block party, fighting the trash incinerator, swimming and playing at the local park.

Whether it's through altruism or by law, residency builds investment.

We've endured more than a decade of rough patch jobs to get our street on next year's repaving list. Edward Scizzorhands got himself elected president of the community organization. Like most Americans, we worry about crime and guns. Seven cops on the block didn't keep our lawnmower from getting stolen.

But each of us, whether by choice or by law, have earned the right to call this great big city of ours "My Town." We have an investment in its future.

Leslie Baldacci is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who grew up in Baltimore and visits often.

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