Chicago Cityscape's '1909' newsletter

Comparing houses & apartments is one use for new “Amenities”

It’s no mystery that Chicago Cityscape is an effective property research tool because of how it integrates data from dozens of sources. Today, I’m announcing that a brand new dataset has been added that helps homebuyers, apartment shoppers, small business owners, and property developers gain a better understanding of what they or their tenants will have access to.

It’s called “Amenities” and it summarizes and maps where there are grocery stores, doctor offices, restaurants, cafés, bars, and parks within a one mile walk of any address that you look up in Chicago. It’s similar to WalkScore, which measures and compares the ability for one to meet their daily and lifestyle needs by walking, but Amenities’s primary function is to quickly show whether the category of place you need (grocery store) is close by.

This screenshot shows how the Amenities tool summarizes how many businesses, of varying selected categories, are within walking distance of the Spoke apartments, at 727 N Milwaukee Avenue.

Based on feedback from our members, we would consider increasing the walking distance limit, and broadening the types of businesses our system looks for. Should we symbolize the map markers by category, or leave all the businesses looking the same? Leave a response on Medium, on Twitter, or by replying to this email.

Look up an address now or use our example, the Spoke apartments at 727 N Milwaukee Ave.

Data sources

With any service like this, that looks for nearby local businesses, it’s only going to be as good as where the information comes from. Most websites use Google’s Places database, because it has gobs of information about all kinds of businesses and places around the world. It also costs gobs of money to access.

In much of Chicago, we’re using data from OpenStreetMap, the world’s only free database and map of places, maintained by local volunteers.

In other parts of the city, we’re using data that we purchased from MAPSCorps, a non-profit organization based in Hyde Park which employs teenagers each summer to develop and update a census of businesses.

The following two maps clearly indicate why OpenStreetMap was insufficient for the new Amenities service to rely on; having a partial dataset of businesses in Chicago is also part of why it took so long to develop this functionality.

OpenStreetMap places are shown in light red/pink on both maps, and the MAPSCorps database of places is shown in green on the right map. The MAPSCorps data fits snugly into the OpenStreetMap gap.

The city’s business licenses database, which Chicago Cityscape maps separately, doesn’t have the kind of categories the Amenities service needs; for example, it’s not possible to distinguish a grocery store like Aldi, Jewel, Cermak Produce, or Pete’s Fresh Market which sell a full range of items, from a corner store or bodega which also sells groceries.

Contact us if you notice a missing or miscategorized business.

Note that for the time being, in community areas near the Loop, there may be some double counting of places because they may be stored in each of the two datasets.


Looking at properties? See how many supermarkets & other amenities are near was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Find a place where zoning allows your idea

If you’re looking to open a new business, or build a new building, the first problem is knowing what zoning districts allow your idea. The first step is matching your idea (a specific business or building) to a “use”. The zoning code will then list which zoning districts allow that use.

The second problem, after determining one or more zoning districts that allow that use, is finding where those zoning districts exist in Chicago.

We created Site Locator to help you locate a place in Chicago where your proposal is allowed.

Essentially, the Chicago zoning map indicates areas where a group of rules applies, but it doesn’t say what those rules are. For example, the map will show where “B3-2” and “RT-3.5” zoning districts are located, but doesn’t explain what’s allowed in either of those districts.

Site Locator is a zoning map and rules explainer in one. Give Site Locator a keyword that represents your proposed business or building and it will match it with an officially-defined use in the zoning code and show where in Chicago that business or building can be located.

Teal areas show where a townhouse development is allowed “as of right” and orange areas show where it’s allowed if the owner can obtain a special use permit.

Site Locator has hundreds of keywords that are mapped to uses defined in the Chicago zoning code, which are then connected to specific zoning districts. Then, Site Locator maps those specific zoning districts to highlight exactly where the proposed use is allowed “as of right”, or with a special use permit.

“As of right” means you don’t need additional permissions from an alder, neighbors, or the Zoning Board of Appeals to open a business or construct a certain building type on that land. (Other permissions, including a license and building permits, may be needed.)

This animated GIF shows how to search for a keyword (“coffee”) and select one of the matching “use” results to show where in Chicago a coffee shop, café, or restaurant can be opened.

In the other situation, a special use permit requires review by the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Opening a hair salon, barber shop, beauty shop, or nail salon in a “B” zoning district within 1,000 feet of an existing hair salon, barber shop, beauty shop, or nail salon would require a special use permit. Site Locator will tell you where complex rules like that apply.

As always, you can order a zoning report for any location or get help with the site selection process from our partner MAP Strategies.

Other new features on Chicago Cityscape include:


Site Locator solves two zoning problems for business and property owners was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


The City of Chicago has sold 1,245 vacant lots that it owned to nearby property owners for $1 through the Large Lots program*. The new owners of 536 of those lots have paid property taxes for the 2017 property tax year. The rest of the owners will start paying property taxes in 2019 for the 2018 property tax year.

In addition to property taxes, Large Lot owners are responsible for other costs: mowing grass, clearing weeds, installing a fence if the lot isn’t adjacent to the owner’s house, and, in some cases, insurance.

If you’re going to install your own fence beware that whatever building used to stand on the vacant lot was likely buried there when it was demolished; digging holes in this condition is very difficult. I’ve been helping a friend enclose their Large Lot and buried bricks are an unwanted surprise that triple how long it takes to dig a hole.

How much are the taxes?

For the 2017 property tax year, the average property tax bill across the 536 lots was $0.19 per square foot. The average tax bill was $780.32. The average lot size is approximately 4,012 square feet.

Our improved Zoning Dashboard makes it clear what you can build on any given property, including how many residential units.

If you’re a Large Lot owner and you want to know what you can build on your lot, look up your lot’s Address Snapshot report and check out our revised Zoning Dashboard.

You don’t need to be a Pro member to access this information; you can purchase individual Address Snapshot reports for $9.99. If you look up more than three reports per month, however, it’s more cost effective to become a Cityscape Pro member.

High and low end bills

The smallest and cheapest Large Lot purchased, on South Kimbark Avenue in Woodlawn.

The lowest property tax bill was $70.84 for a 329 square foot lot in Woodlawn, adjacent to multiple vacant lots—at least one of the adjacent lots is owned by the same owner.

The cheapest property taxes for a property that can actually be built on was $229.46 in the 2017 property tax year. That property in Englewood has 1,779 square feet in an RT-4 residential zoning district that requires a minimum of 1,650 square to be able to build one unit.

The largest and most expensive Large Lot purchased, on South Vernon Avenue in Woodlawn.

The most expensive tax bill was $4,412.13 for a 18,633 square foot lot in Woodlawn. The owner is Greenline Development, a home builder in Woodlawn and Bronzeville.

Tax bills across community areas

The 2017 property tax bills can also be broken down by community areas. Looking at the Large Lots in five of the 25 community areas, the average bill was:

Looking at all vacant land and sideyards in the same community areas, the average property tax bill in 2017 was (for non-tax exempt properties):

  • Woodlawn: $945.44 (672 properties)
  • East Garfield Park: $797.44 (1,431 properties)
  • Englewood: $518.39 (2,520 properties)
  • West Englewood: $472.20 (2,514 properties)
  • Austin: $703.16 (1,360 properties)

Only one of the properties sold in West Garfield Park had a property tax bill in 2017, so that community area is excluded from the sample.

New Large Lot owners can expect to pay about $700 in property taxes in their first year of ownership, but the data shows that this amount varies by community area. In the sample of five community areas, lot owners in Woodlawn clearly pay the most.

The assessed value on these properties may go up for the 2018 tax year, as Chicago properties are currently being reassessed. The tax bill might also go up as a result (tax bills are also based on how much each government an taxing body is levying that year).

*Large Lots sold as of March 23, 2018. A new round of applications was completed this summer and those should close in the fall.


How much are Large Lot owners paying in property taxes? was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


If a ward doesn’t have enough affordable housing, then a project that meets the on-site AH requirements could not be blocked

Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Planning Council released a study called “The Cost of Segregation” detailing the effects of racial and income segregation in Chicago, and outlining necessary institutional reforms to address the effects of racism in the city. By ending segregation, Chicago would have a stronger economy, higher earnings for Black residents, provide residents access to better schools, and lower crime rates.

A key recommendation to reduce segregation in Chicago’s housing market is to counterbalance the negative effects of “local control” by automatically approving certain multi-family housing proposals.

MPC’s specific suggestion is that “when a residential development with at least 10 percent affordability is proposed in a ward with less than 10 percent affordable housing, the proposed development can no longer be rejected or delayed indefinitely by the Alderman alone”. The purpose of this recommendation is to prevent “aldermanic prerogative” from blocking affordable housing on the North Side. Aldermanic prerogative is a longstanding tradition that gives aldermen the final decision on a proposed project in their ward.

The city’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) was intended to increase the amount of long-term affordable housing in the city. However, developments that include affordable housing can face stiff resistance from residents and aldermen. Such proposals have been delayed or blocked, therefore not meeting the demand for affordable housing in a ward. Chicago’s Office of Inspector General investigated where 1,623 affordable housing units, built and generated from fees paid by developers to avoid building affordable housing, were located in the city. The OIG found that “there were zero in nearly two dozen North, Northwest and Southwest side community areas”.

The ability for aldermanic prerogative and community residents to defer housing needs is why 47th Ward Alder Ameya Pawar, cowriten by MPC, introduced the Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance. Sponsored by 26 other aldermen, the purpose of the ordinance is to desegregate many predominantly white neighborhoods in the city, by increasing the amount of multi-family affordable housing in these neighborhoods. Ald. Pawar recognizes that this is an incremental step, but this is a big first step for the city to address its history of segregation.

The ordinance aims to create an “Affordable Application” process to increase the amount of dedicated affordable housing in the city, particularly in “Underserved Wards” that have less than 10 percent of their multi-family housing being affordable to households earning up to 60 percent of the region’s median income. According to the ordinance, an “Affordable Application” process applies to:

  1. A residential or mixed-use Planned Development (PD), located in an Underserved Ward, that activates the ARO and will provide the required affordable housing units on-site
  2. Any application for a zoning change that activates the ARO, regardless of the ward, and provides all affordable housing units on-site

The ordinance also proposes changes to the PD review process, where there is now prioritization to approve developments with multi-family rental housing in an Underserved Ward. This is important when considering PDs in wards that have a significant portion of their housing stock as single-family homes. When a 100-unit mixed-income development was proposed for the 45th Ward, the proposal faced backlash at a community meeting over concerns of being out-of-scale of Jefferson Park’s suburban-character. This was in addition to a crowd of local residents outside the meeting yelling bigoted chants, while expressing fears that “poorer neighbors will draw crime and drive down property values,” (DNAInfo). Neighboring 41st Ward Alder Anthony Napolitano also opposed the building.

The proposed development has now shrunk to 75-units, and is still waiting for financing. When a group of residents are able to oppose affordable housing over fears of density and crime, attempts at desegregation in these wards becomes more difficult.

The above map, created by the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), shows the percentage change in affordable housing from 1970–2016. Source: CAFHA

Although there is not yet a map of which wards are considered underserved, wards that lost the most amount of affordable housing in the past couple of decades will probably be considered underserved. The Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA) created a map which shows the percentage change in affordable housing from 1970–2016. Areas that have lost the most affordable units are predominantly on the North Side, Northwest Side, and Downtown.

In addition, allowing aldermen to stall proposals increases the overall cost of a project and the difficulty to build affordable housing as quickly as possible. This discourages small developers from requesting a zoning change to be able to build apartments, and instead incentivizes single-family homes, which are more likely to be aimed towards wealthier households, to be built on existing lots. This is why the Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance also places a time limit for City Council to take action on a proposal, in order to expedite developments with affordable housing and allow them to be built as soon as possible.

For the case where only a zoning change is necessary, if the Plan Commission and the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards doesn’t take action within 90 days of the application being filed, the zoning change is automatically approved by both committees. If the Affordable Application is for a PD, then the Plan Commission has 90 days to take action and the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards has an additional 90 days afterwards to take action; otherwise the application is automatically approved.

Once an application is approved by the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, it is sent to the next City Council meeting for final approval. If the application is not approved within two City Council meetings, the proposal is automatically approved.

To gain a better understanding of what would qualify as an affordable application, and here are some examples of how the Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance would apply to different proposed developments:

  • A zoning change to allow a 6-flat and a 4-flat on three lots, with one of units being affordable housing, would qualify as an Affordable Application and be expedited (via zoning change to RM-4.5)
  • A new 40-unit mid-rise with retail on a commercial street would have to provide 4 units of affordable housing (via zoning change to B- or C-5)
  • A mixed-use high-rise, with office components and 100 residential units, requires 10 on-site housing units. (via zoning change to DX-5, then submitting a PD)

Different wards have different ARO requirements. In 2017, the city passed an ARO Pilot program, to experiment with increases in the amount of affordable housing in wealthy and gentrifying areas of the city. Developments in the Milwaukee Corridor Pilot Area and Near West Pilot Area are required to have 15 percent of units be affordable, while those in the Near North Pilot Area required to have 20 percent affordability. No in lieu fees are allowed.

The new approval process would encourage more multi-family housing on the North and Northwest Side, where loss of affordable units over the past 16 years has exacerbated the housing crisis. This is good for affordability in North Side neighborhoods, such as Old Town and Wicker Park, where there are residents who’re resistant to new housing. Many North and Northwest Side neighborhoods are significantly below their peak populations, and the Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance would help add much needed housing to these neighborhoods.

However, for neighborhoods facing gentrification, removing community engagement of proposed housing increases the fear of displacement of working-class residents. Alder Carlos Ramirez-Rosa of the 35th Ward, which covers many Latinx-majority neighborhoods on the Northwest Side, has attempted to use aldermanic prerogative to keep his ward affordable and to allow working-class Latinx residents a say in community development. In spite of this, Ald. Ramirez-Rosa is a sponsor of the Affordable Housing Equity Ordinance, which will still allow aldermen the ability to influence proposed developments in their ward. MPC is currently developing assessment tools that address impacts of new and proposed developments on housing affordability and small businesses, so residents can understand how they will be impacted by new investments and better address changes in their community.

The ordinance will require an updated map of wards with affordable housing to be published as a part of the city’s Quarterly Housing Reports, which would outline which wards in Chicago need to be prioritized for the construction of affordable housing. Currently the Bureau of Housing is part of the Department of Planning & Development, and the current deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Housing is Anthony Simpkins. As part of the 2019 budget, the bureau will become the Department of Housing this year.


Aldermen start push to desegregate Chicago neighborhoods was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Emanuel & the Preservation Compact propose new loan fund to increase the affordable housing stock in Chicago

Update: Adopted by City Council on July 25, 2018

Update: Freddie Mac now offers a similar program called the Workforce Housing and Targeted Affordable Mezzanine Loan.

Two weeks ago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the creation of an “Opportunity Investment Fund” which the City of Chicago would seed with $5 million. The $30 million fund is predicted to generate 300 affordable apartments with low-interest mezzanine loans. The OIF’s intention is to increase the amount of affordable housing, in existing buildings, by filling a gap in the mortgage market for small and mid-size property owners and developers.

This six-flat in Andersonville (Edgewater community area) would be potentially eligible for a loan from the fund because it has the minimum number of units, and it’s in an “opportunity area” or “strong market”. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Investors, owners, and developers would apply for funding from the Community Investment Corporation (CIC) to provide them with more equity. Typically, a bank will loan 80 percent of the value (loan to value ratio, LTV) of a property acquisition or construction loan and the developer must provide the remaining 20 percent LTV with their own equity. The OIF loan would cover up to 10 points of the remaining LTV, leaving the developer to cover the last 10 points.

Stacie Young, Preservation Compact director, said this is called subordinate or mezzanine debt. “Our fund will take you to 90 percent, and we’re charging you a very low interest rate,” she said.

“Typically,” Young said, “mezzanine debt in the market might cost you 14–15 percent, and ours is priced at 7.5 percent, in the best case, and it goes up from there. It’s a lot cheaper than the market mezzanine.”

Map of the Opportunity Investment Fund areas, as provided by the Community Investment Corporation (CIC).

The funds will only be used to acquire existing rental buildings in high opportunity areas — these are areas with a low concentration of poverty, lower crime, and higher employment rates. Preservation Compact is also calling these areas “strong markets”.

The map of eligible areas was made by combining the Chicago Housing Authority’s “mobility areas” with the Illinois Housing Development Agency’s “opportunity areas”.

But, Young said, “We’re not holding fast to these boundaries. A developer could make the case for us to lend to them outside the boundaries.” The final rules will be set after City Council approves the ordinance, and the CIC and Department of Planning & Development commissioner sign an agreement.

Cityscape Pro members can immediately determine if any of their existing or prospective properties are in an OIF area by searching for the address, and looking under “financial incentives” in the resulting Address Snapshot.

Additionally, this information can be seen without a membership by purchasing individual Address Snapshot reports for $9.99.

An example report showing the financial incentives available to the property at 450 W Belmont Ave.

In exchange for the low interest rate, the owner must make 20 percent of the units in the buildings in the deal affordable for at least 15 years. Young said that “the fastest way to get affordable units in your building is to use Housing Choice Vouchers or project-based vouchers, and contract with the Chicago Housing Authority.”

Young said there are also a couple of other options: vouchers subsidized by the Veterans Administration, or reducing profit margins and subsidizing the units with the other rents. The units would be available to households earning less than 50 percent of the area median income (AMI), and rents would be set by the City’s existing mechanism.

One of the reasons that this new fund focuses on existing buildings is because renovation is faster and cheaper than new construction, but also that landlords in these “strong markets” have high occupancy at market rate rents.

Housing authorities are very eager to place HCVs and project-based vouchers (PBVs, which are subsidies that attach to a building) in strong markets. Yet many market rate owners in strong markets are seeing near 100% occupancy, and would not have a reason to enter into a PBV contract.

The Chicago Housing Authority is a slow-moving housing creator, and it also works with private developers to build its mixed-income projects. This fund could accelerate that in areas with greater opportunities than CHA and the city’s affordable housing fund typically work in, despite their own policies.

Young said that CIC prefers “larger” deals, “bigger than 24–32 units, that would be great, but we have to see what’s available on the market.” Young said 10–12 units is another target deal size. Any deal, however, must be six units or greater, according to Emanuel’s proposed ordinance.

For some clients and deals, it might be possible to refinance a building through this fund.

The $30 million loan fund is expected to preserve 1,500 units of mixed income housing, twenty percent of which would be 300 affordable units. It would be impossible to create 300 new affordable homes for $30 million, but Young and the Preservation Compact believe it can help acquire, renovate, and bring 300 affordable units to the market. It’s possible that some units in existing buildings are already affordable, for now, but use of this fund ensures they will remain affordable for 15 years more.

The City’s $5 million share of the fund would come from the Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund, which property developers pay into when they don’t build affordable residential units on-site. Other lenders so far include MB Financial and the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Capital Magnet Fund.


Emanuel & the Preservation Compact propose new loan fund to increase the affordable housing stock… was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


While I’m busy setting up a petition for you to sign to support the legalization of existing coach houses in Chicago and allowing new accessory dwelling units (ADU) to be built, I am posting a reading list in the meantime.

First, I want to show you a new feature on Chicago Cityscape: market analysis and the number of people who live within driving and walking distance of any given address. Small business owners want to know this kind of information, and real estate brokers share it in their marketing materials.

In looking at many of the maps, I’ve noticed that walking distances are severely truncated by expressways and expanded by diagonal streets. Because of the grid, most walksheds are diamond shaped but when you look up an Address Snapshot near the Kennedy Expressway and Milwaukee Avenue the walkshed is skewed.

Neighborhood news

  • A majority of respondents to a survey think that (fruitlessly*) building new roads and bridges in the Goose Island and “Lincoln Yards” area should be a top priority; a slightly larger majority said that “transit optionality” should be a top priority. (Block Club Chicago)
  • Some residents in Lakeview want 44th Ward Alder Tom Tunney to do more (Block Club) to lessen the impact of their increased assessed property values; municipal finance specialist Amanda Kass briefly explains why individual alders can’t do much about it (Twitter)
  • GW Properties intends to build a 5-story with 20 apartments on the west side of the Hollander Storage building in Logan Square as of right (meaning no zoning change is needed) (Block Club Chicago)
  • The proposal for affordable housing in Jefferson Park for veterans and people with disabilities hasn’t gone away. 45th Ward Alder John Arena announced on Twitter yesterday that the next meeting, on Tuesday, 8/14, will be a virtual meeting.

*Adding more capacity for cars on city streets or highways has had zero effect in reducing traffic congestion anywhere because of induced demand.


Next Jefferson Park veterans housing meeting will be a virtual one was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Thursday, August 02, 2018

Oak Park allows coach houses!

Plus: Architecture graduate designed coach house prototypes

Last week I outlined two scenarios in which Chicago’s current zoning code would encourage demolition rather than preserve older and affordable housing stock. This week I learned that Oak Park adopted a revised zoning code last year that explicitly allows coach houses. From 1921 to last year, coach houses could not be used as dwellings.

The village’s code about coach houses is very simple. You need a property:

  • that’s zoned for single-family residential
  • that’s 6,500 square feet or larger (this is slightly larger than two standard lots in Chicago, which are 3,125 square feet)

Additionally, the 1-unit coach house has to be an actual coach house — built atop a garage. A good rule in the village’s zoning code amendment is that owners don’t have to add any off-street parking spaces when they add a coach house.

I analyzed Chicago Cityscape’s exclusive Cook County properties database (which you can purchase in the Maps & Data Store) to see how many properties are eligible. There are about 3,058 properties in Oak Park where the owners could build a coach house above a garage.

The map shows 3,058 properties that have a single-family detached house on them and are large enough to accommodate a coach house, per Oak Park zoning code. Oak Park has about 19,154 properties.

This would be an underwhelming rule if it was applied in Chicago because it would apply to only 16,228 detached single-family properties that have 6,500 s.f. or more of lot area, out of 280,176 total detached single-family properties (under six percent). Not only underwhelming, but it wouldn’t be that useful here: areas in Chicago that have 6,500 s.f. lots probably have resistant are where added density is needed least.

Why are coach houses (accessory dwelling units) great? They add more housing options without changing the street’s character (people are often concerned about how a block looks); they’re often cheaper to rent; and, it’s a good use of space because, in the case of coach houses, it adds a “people apartment” above a “car apartment”.

If you have a single-family property in Oak Park and you need an understanding designer for your new coach house, I met a new architectural designer who also has a passion for encouraging more coach houses. Paul Kurtyka is a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute at Chicago’s (SAIC) architecture program.

Kurtyka developed two prototype coach houses — for the Chicago market— for his final thesis promoting the values of accessory dwelling units to reinvigorate alleys and provide more affordable housing (read an excerpt of the thesis below).

Clockwise from top-left: Interior plans (notice how a studio apartment takes up the same space as a car apartment); alley and backyard elevations; renderings of the two prototypes, side-by-side; interior rendering. All images created by Paul Kurtyka.
Paul Kurtyka’s thesis promoting revitalizing Chicago’s 1,900 miles of alleys included two coach house designs, with floor plans. All images created by Paul Kurtyka.

At the SAIC graduate student design show in May at an unrented space inside Block 37, Kurtyka mocked up the actual size of his prototype with white tape.

Paul Kurtyka shows his 3D models of a Chicago alley transformed with new coach houses at the SAIC graduate show.

It’s time for coach houses in Chicago to become legal again.

Here’s a snippet of Kurtyka’s thesis:

Chicago alleys are currently seen as unappealing service corridors that evoke a number of negative images. By transforming the existing character of the alley into new living space, it can provide inexpensive housing, increase urban density and revitalize neglected pathways into attractive neighborhood spaces benefiting both the economy and environment.
Following revisions to current zoning and building codes, property owners can invest in re-purposing their detached garages into new living space and additional sources of income. While the initial expense of this transformation is absorbed by the homeowner, it is reciprocated in the increase of property values.
This proactive approach prevents our alleys from regressing into run-down, unused spaces and takes advantage of the existing urban conditions to produce new affordable living space that not only maintains but improves the integrity of Chicago’s built environment.

Further reading

This article from OakPark.com has some interesting quotes from one of the village’s trustees, and some poignant comments from residents about the rule. AccessoryDwellings.org is probably the best resource to learn about coach houses and “granny flats”, generally.


Oak Park allows coach houses! was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Z _N _N G

There’s a house that was recently put up for sale in East Garfield Park. It’s a single-family house that has 720 square feet of floor space over two stories. Since it’s at the back of the lot you’d probably call it a coach house, but I don’t think it was a garage so I’m going to call it a rear house.

Property from the listing. It’s not that hard to find on any of the real estate listing websites, but I don’t want to cause it too much undue attention. This rear house is not the only one I’m familiar with that’s for sale right nowthat may not be reused because of zoning code economics.

Let’s say you want to buy the property because it’s zoned RT-4, meaning it allows one home per 1,000 square feet of lot area. The lot area is about 3,600 square feet, enough room for three units— that’s more housing in the neighborhood near a Green Line ‘L’ station, and more rental income for you.

However, to have three units by building a 2-flat, you’ll have to demolish the rear house, because the Chicago zoning code stipulates that lots can have only one primary structure on the lot. (These Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, also called granny flats and coach houses, are not allowed in Chicago — these are a great way to increase density and affordable housing without changing block character.)

Three units could exist if there was an addition to the building that had two units. You might not want to do that because it would mar the character of this 137-year-old building and you like the idea of preserving the rear house.

Even if the Chicago zoning code somehow allowed you to keep and renovate the rear house, and build a new 2-flat [1] or an addition, with two units, you still couldn’t, because there isn’t any room for the new off-street car parking spaces that the city requires. [2]

I think it’s unlikely this little rear house — a housing type that was built as a precursor to a rental income property that would eventually be built in the front of the lot — has a future. Sometimes a real estate broker will jump to this conclusion before you by saying “the value is in the land” in the listing.

Why is preservation important?

A report published in 2016 by Preservation Green Lab, a program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and ULI Chicago, a professional association, said that “Chicago’s older, smaller buildings contribute in key ways to the vitality of the city”:

  • areas with older and smaller buildings have a larger proportion of their jobs provided small and new businesses than areas with large, newer buildings
  • the study found that residential areas with older, smaller buildings used less energy than areas with larger, newer residential building
  • Chicago’s best bars, restaurants, and retailers (as ranked in Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Reader) are more likely to be located “blocks with high proportions of older and historic buildings”, and these blocks are less likely to have chain restaurants, which divert revenue out of the city

ALSO, and this is not in the report, older buildings give neighborhoods their visual identity. 🙌🏽

Chicago Cityscape has partnered with MAP Strategies to offer quick and accurate zoning reports for any property in Chicago.

Another demolition scenario, in Humboldt Park

There’s a 2-flat rear house (a kind of coach house on a lot without a front house) for sale in Humboldt Park/West town which has a similar but inverted situation. The lot is zoned RS-3, which allow the 2-flat to remain “forever” but allows no additions. Nor can anyone demolish it and build a 3-flat, without a zoning change to RT-4. However, let’s say that my ideal scenario, as a potential buyer, is to build a single-family house for my budding family, and keep the 2-flat for rental income, and to preserve the affordable rents it offers to people in the neighborhood. I can’t do that, for the reason described in the beginning: Each lot can only have one primary structure.

When it was built, building a 2-flat apartment building here was legal, of course. Since that time, though, planners, City Council, or the 2004 Zoning Reform Commission downzoned this block, and countless other blocks citywide.

In this scenario, my desire to have a house for my family is more important to me than preserving the building, and its units are too small for my own family to live in. The location is ideal for me, it’s for sale, any my resolution is that I demolish it and build the house I want.

Why don’t more buildings get reused?

I addressed the illegality of coach and rear houses in depth in April. The Preservation Green Lab report, however, has a broader and deeper investigation in how to preserve all kinds of buildings. It also focuses more on the vitality that older buildings bring to neighborhood business districts in order to convince City Council to adopt more preservation and reuse-friendly codes and incentives.

Reusing some residential buildings and preserving coach houses are restricted by the zoning code and by parking requirements. The report targets these as two of the many barriers for reusing residential buildings. It suggests changing policy, including:

  • help property owners reuse existing buildings for a non-residential use in some residential areas as well as residential uses in some non-residential areas [3]
  • allow 1-2 additional residential units without requiring additional parking [2]

The report also identified barriers to commercial building reuse:

  • lack of “coordinated neighborhood planning” (parcels’ zoning classifications may change on whims, not because of a plan)
  • “limited financial incentives, especially for small projects”
  • “zoning rules that unnecessarily limit uses in certain zone districts”

And the policy change suggestions for commercial building reuse:

  • increase awareness of the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit for non-historic buildings constructed before 1936 (this is a 10 percent tax credit for the rehabilitation to a non-residential use; if you want help getting this, contact MAP Strategies, where I’m part of the urban planning team)
  • allow more uses in existing buildings in B1 zones [4]
  • extend the “Pedestrian Street” designation “to more areas with concentrations of older, smaller buildings” [5]
  • Relieve buildings rated “orange” in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey from having to comply with parking requirements [6]

The Chicago zoning code was last revised and adopted in 2004. Amendments have been made to certain sections —the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO) to generate more affordable housing, and Transit-Served Location (TOD ordinance) to allow greater density near train stations — but the restrictions on allowable uses have largely remained the same.

As the report details, Chicago’s zoning code is inflexible for preserving older structures, and it’s ripe for reform.

Notes on construction trends and referenced zoning rules

[1] I should note that there’s very little new construction in this area, generally. From 2017 to present there have been only four new residential buildings within one mile of the coach house: two single-family houses, a 3-unit building, and a 6-unit building. In 2016, however, Bickerdike, an affordable housing developer, constructed multiple 6-flat buildings (72 unit sin all) as part of the Nelson Mandela scattered-site apartments development.

[2] You could avoid the car parking requirements if you were adding one dwelling unit to the building, as it’s 50 years or older (Chicago zoning code section 17-10-0101-B) — it requires an administrative adjustment (17-13-1003-DD). However, if you were to add two dwelling units to the building, you would have to provide two car parking spaces. This property has no room in the rear, off of the alley, to accommodate parking, so you’d have to apply to build a driveway in the front, over the sidewalk, where a different process and ruleset applies.

[3] For example, if a corner store or a bar on a side street that’s zoned for residential goes out of business, another person cannot open a store or a bar there again. Bars are even more complicated because they’re a business with a liquor license and (a) there are strict rules about how a liquor license can be transferred to a new owner in moratorium districts; (b) a library, church, or school may have opened while the original bar was in operation that could prevent opening a new business in this location with a bar.

[4] B1 zones allow the fewest business types, yet four square miles of the city is zoned a class of B1 (as of June 29, 2018). That’s the equivalent of about 36,600 standard buildings, which are 25 feet wide. And, as the report pointed out, small businesses are more likely to be in older, regular size buildings.

[5] This would have a couple effects. It would save buildings from demolition only to be replaced by big new banks or fast food restaurants with drive throughs. It wouldn’t actually prevent their demolitions, but it would prevent anti-urban and auto-oriented uses from replacing them. Secondly, it would require new owners or new tenants to invest in and renovate any storefronts that don’t meet the pedestrian shopper-focused design requirements of the P-Street code.

Every Address Snapshot you look up on Chicago Cityscape will tell you whether the property is on a Pedestrian Street in the “TOD Status” section.

[6] The parking requirements are currently triggered if there’s a new use or a rehabilitation of the building. There are 9,119 orange-rated buildings (potentially historically or architecturally significant) that are not protected from demolition.


Barriers to building reuse in Chicago was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


In addition to Mayor Emanuel’s proposed initiatives, several alders have proposed three of their own ordinances affecting affordable housing and residential development requirements.

More flexibility in two of the three ARO pilot areas

New housing developments in the Near North ARO Pilot Area have to provide a greater number of on-site affordable residences than prior to the the new rules. An ordinance introduced in June would give the commissioner more flexibility to change those rules for each development.

An ordinance was proposed by three alders to change the Near North and Near West pilot areas to give the Planning department commissioner more authority, in consultation with the respective alder, to approve a variation of the ARO pilot, “including modifications to the number and size of required affordable units, provided that the commissioner finds that the proposed alternative mode of compliance would result in greater benefits, including larqer affordable units or greater affordability levels, than would otherwise result from the strict application of the otherwise applicable reguirements.” (ordinance O2018–4089)

Use Chicago Cityscape’s Address Snapshot reports to look up if a property you own or plan to own is in one of the ARO pilot areas. The report will also tell you what the affordable unit in-lieu fee will be for units that you don’t build on site.

The three pilot areas — Milwaukee Corridor is not part of this revision ordinance — were adopted last year to generate more affordable housing by increasing the number of units in each new development, and to require at least some to be built on-site.

Sponsoring alders:

Sweeping (and complex) changes to the ARO

Some of the proposed changes to the Affordable Requirements Ordinance in O2018–5102, called the “Development for All” ordinance, include:

  • Increase the minimum number of units that have to be set aside as affordable from 10 percent to 30, 40, or 50 percent, depending on the income area (which can you see when you look up an address on Chicago Cityscape) and the type of benefit (zoning change, city-owned land sale, or financial assistance or TIF funds)
  • Change the income thresholds: 25 percent of the affordable units are restricted to households earning 0–30 percent of Area Median Income; 50 percent of the affordable units are restricted to households earning 31–50 percent of AMI, and the remaining 25 percent of the affordable units are restricted to households earning 51–80 percent AMI. (The current standard is 60 percent of AMI.)
  • Income thresholds for TIF-funded projects: 25 percent of the affordable units are restricted to households earning 0–15 percent of Area Median Income; 50 percent of the affordable units are restricted to households earning 16–30 percent of AMI, and the remaining 25 percent of the affordable units are restricted to households earning 31–50 percent AMI. (The current standard is half of the units must be for households earning up to 50 percent of AMI, and the other half is for 60 percent AMI.)
  • For the first time, smaller buildings would be affected. Buildings with 3–9 units that receive a zoning change or city funding assistance would have to set aside at least one unit as affordable, and two units in the downtown area (the current code only applies to buildings with 10 or more units)
A proposed change to the Chicago Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO), would, for the first time, require that new buildings with 3–9 units provide at least one affordable unit. Many 3–9 unit buildings have been built in Pilsen, seen here.
  • The portion of affordable units that have to be built on-site would increase from 25 percent to 30 percent in low-moderate and higher income areas, and to 40 percent in the downtown area
  • The bedroom mix of the on-site affordable units is specified: 60 percent must be 2+ bedrooms, and 30 percent must be 3+ bedrooms
  • Develop an affordable housing search website that shows people where all of the units created by the ARO are located

Alders sponsoring the ARO revisions:

Automatic approval of certain Planned Developments

I reported three weeks ago that there was an ordinance introduced that would automatically approve otherwise compliant Planned Development proposals if they met their resiential affordability requirements and were in a ward that had fewer than 10 percent affordable units.

Sponsoring alders:

Greater transparency at the CHA

In the same ordinance as the one above, called Chicago Homes for All (O2018–5099), there is a proposal to regulate more of the Chicago Housing Authority’s job to provide public and affordable housing.

  • The ordinance would require the CHA to report to the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate every quarter.
  • CHA would have to update its website to show which position people are in on the waitlist for CHA-supported housing.
  • The CHA must replace all public housing units one-for-one in redevelopment projects. This would include a project like Lathrop Homes if that would have been redeveloped after the ordinance’s adoption. This may end up affecting part of the upcoming Southbridge redevelopment of the former Harold L. Ickes Homes. It would likely affect all of the future Cabrini-Green area redevelopment.
  • Twenty percent of the replaced units must be in “opportunity communities”, which is a ward “where less than 10% of the ward’s housing stock is provided as dedicated affordable housing”.
  • The Department of Planning & Development would have to approve CHA’s redevelopment plans.

Sponsoring alders: This is the same ordinance discussed in the previous paragraph.


City Council members have their own affordable housing proposals was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration announced several housing-related initiatives. Emanuel is up for re-election in February, and the last two weeks in June this summer seemed to be the densest two weeks of housing proposals in his entire administration (or my memory is losing it). I’ve summarized all 9 of them here.

Multiple initiatives are intended to generate or preserve affordable housing in the North and Northwest Sides, including areas along the 606/Bloomingdale Trail (shown here).

💸 Today only, unlock all Address Snapshot reports for $4.99 each; the regular price is $9.99. This gets you the same information as a Cityscape Pro membership does (it’s a better deal to subscribe if you look up more than three addresses per month).

Incentives summary

  • Passed: Property owners who live near the 606’s western portion can apply for a grant up to $25,000 to renovate their house so they can fix issues and modernize it and stay put (our post about this in May)
  • Proposed: The Department of Housing will make a comeback in the mayor’s 2019 budget, split from the Department of Planning & Development (Chicago Sun-Times)
  • Passed: A program called Opportunity Investment Fund (OIF), administered by the Community Investment Corporation, will make secondary loans (a.k.a. mezzanine debt; the primary lender provides 80%, the loan holder provides 10%, and the secondary loan provides the last 10%) to small and midsize developers at lower than market rates to acquire multi-family housing if they hold 20% of the units as affordable for 15 years (our post from this month; this program is already embedded in the Development & Financial Incentives section of every Address Snapshot report)
  • Passed in February (but re-announced in June): Similar to OIF, the Preservation of Existing Affordable Rental (PEAR) program will make interest-free loans to purchase or refinance multi-family housing and make 20% of the units as affordable for 30 years (press release); as of this writing, there has been one loan made, to Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corporation for $2 million on a 30-year term (ordinance).
  • Committed: 1,600 new units for homeless by way of “non-time limited rental assistance and new subsidized housing units”. This isn’t a new program, but will use existing initiatives to generate these units. The Chicago Housing Authority and supportive housing organizations will be involved in identifying how to reach this goal. (press release)
  • Proposed: $40,000–60,000 purchasing assistance in the “Building Neighborhoods and Affordable Homes” program for homebuyers to buy a house in certain community areas, to buy new single-family houses built by developers who got $1 land from the city through the “City Lots for Working Families” program (which was announced last year) (this program seems identical to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s “New Homes for Chicago” and “City Lots for City Living” programs) (press release, ordinance)
  • Study: The City will pilot expanding the TOD ordinance to incorporate four bus routes, and a study will evaluate “Incentives to support affordability and allow all residents of communities with TOD to share in the benefits of new development” to address concerns about displacement (press release)
  • Study: The Planning & Development department is asking for organizations to reply with information about tiny houses: how building & zoning codes would need to be modified to allow them, and how much they would cost to build (responses are due Friday, July 13, 2018)
  • Proposed: Add a 2% surcharge to vacation rental housing (Airbnb, VRBO) to fund more shelter beds for victims of domestic violence (press release, ordinance)
The above image shows a chart that further summarizes the summary.

In addition to Mayor Emanuel’s initiatives, several alders have proposed their own ordinances affecting affordable housing. I’ve written about one of them, which would set a policy to automatically approve certain Planned Developments in wards that have little affordable housing. Read about the other proposals in the next post.

One more thing…A new study from the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, reported in the Chicago Tribune by Lolly Bowean, said, “any attempt the city may make to advance affordable housing is destined for inadequacy unless and until the structural barriers imposed by aldermanic prerogative [the policy that individual alders control zoning changes in their wards, and thus type, size, and cost of housing] are dismantled.”


Emanuel’s nine recent affordable housing initiatives was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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1909 was the year that Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett published the Plan of Chicago that forever changed the cityscape. The cityscape changes everyday and we track how and where on Chicago Cityscape.


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