Despite the growing national and global prominence of Chicago, the city lies amid a heavily suburban region—more than two-thirds of the Chicago metropolitan area’s residents live in upwards of 280 suburban municipalities. Many of these places are among the country’s most iconic suburbs—from the Frank Lloyd Wright bungalows of Oak Park, to the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, to the Highland Park settings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles.

Today, those suburbs have also become home to a majority of the Chicago region’s poor population. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of poor suburban residents nearly doubled, far outpacing the growth rate in the core cities of Chicago, Naperville, and Joliet (14 percent). Weak economic growth, new migration patterns, and the after-effects of the housing crisis contributed to the shift.

South of Chicago, a series of suburban municipalities today face the type of economic challenges that have been traditionally associated with inner-city Chicago’s neighborhoods. Collectively referred to as the Chicago Southland, these municipalities, including Blue Island, Dolton, Harvey, Lansing, Park Forest, and South Holland, were once home to heavy industry and steel mills. So when manufacturing and steel jobs began to disappear in the 1970s, the Southland communities were hit hard—incomes declined and poverty grew.

The recent housing crisis only exacerbated the challenges facing Chicago’s south suburbs. By the end of the 2000s, the area was home to 51 foreclosure filings per 1,000 mortgageable properties— the highest rate in the metropolitan area, outpacing other suburbs in the region and exceeding rates within the city of Chicago. But the relatively small size of many of these municipalities, years of economic restructuring, and sluggish population growth (or loss) meant that many of these suburbs did not have the capacity or resources to deal with the rapid spread of foreclosed and vacant properties threatening to destabilize their communities.

In response, 19 Southland suburbs banded together under the auspices of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association to apply for joint federal support under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, and to link those resources to broader economic development priorities in the sub-region. Yet they faced significant challenges in pursuing this model, described in further detail in our profile of Suburban Chicago Collaboratives.


  • Between 2000 and 2008-10, the poor population in Park Forest grew by more than 125 percent and the poverty rate jumped from 7 percent to 15 percent.
  • In South Holland, the poor population also more than doubled and the poverty rate jumped from 5 percent to 10 percent.
  • Over the span of just one year (2009 – 2010), the number of Southland properties with foreclosure filings increased by 20 percent.