Chicago Cityscape's '1909' newsletter

A zoning ordinance to bring back accessory dwelling units — or ADUs — was introduced Wednesday and poised to go before the Chicago City Council for a final vote in June or July in order to become effective on August 1. But what exactly will a post-ADU ordinance landscape look like? Where will these units be built, and who will be able to afford them?

Accessory dwelling units are essentially smaller secondary units added to residential lots; new coach houses were made illegal in Chicago in 1957. In its most recent five-year housing plan, the city identified the re-legalization of ADUs as an opportunity to provide “relatively affordable housing” and a way to bring extra income and stability to Chicago’s moderate-income families.

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara (panelist, third from left) was speaking at the Woodlawn Community Summit on March 9, 2020, about affordable housing including accessory dwelling units. Photo by Kyle Terry

“The [ADU] ordinance is an almost invisible way to increase moderate-cost rental opportunities across the city that fit-in with the way a neighborhood already looks,” said Marisa Novara, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing on Wednesday. “Legalizing these units is also part of our affordability strategy. They can have a real and positive impact on homeowners that need extra income as they may be experiencing rising property taxes and may need to age in place.”

Accessory units can take a variety of forms, such as over-garage coach houses or stand-alone backyard cottages (see examples from around the country).

In Chicago, the most straightforward, affordable, and abundant option could be basement conversions in existing structures. A recent report drafted by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) that called on Chicago to model its legislation on what’s worked best in other metropolitan areas identified nearly 77,000 two- to four-flat buildings with potentially habitable basements.

Basement ADUs cost less to build and therefore can be rented at a lower rate, advocates say. Based on estimates in the ULI report, a lower-level space needing structural changes and other improvements will cost roughly $150,000 to be converted into an ADU. If such a space complies with code requirements and does not require significant structural work, the price tag could fall to $75,000 — well below the cost of a typical housing unit.

Monica Chadha, founder and principal architect of Civic Projects, shared these real financing figures for a sample project. She is currently adding two basement units to an existing six-flat. The project is made possibly by a zoning change Chadha acquired. If the ADU ordinance were in effect when she started the project, the zoning change would not have been necessary.

Though ADUs are cheaper to build, there are no guarantees that newly created units have to be rented below market rate. The city’s proposed ordinance only requires property owners who add multiple interior ADUs to offer 50 percent of the units (rounded down to the nearest whole number) at an affordable rate.

An even more urgent consideration is the legislation’s impact on any existing ADUs that don’t fully comply with the rules. If property owners have to invest in substantial repairs and upgrades, what happens to renters in the meantime? How can owners hope to recoup costs without passing higher rents onto lower-income tenants?

These are the concerns of Diane Limas, president of the Communities United board, a grassroots organization advocating for the preservation of affordable housing in the gentrifying Albany Park neighborhood.

“We saw developers deconverting multi-unit buildings and the families living in not-so-safe basement units facing displacement,” Limas said. “These residents were grateful to be there because it’s the only housing they could afford and they would be homeless otherwise. Our discussions around ADUs started with the goal to put a dent in the affordable housing crisis and prevent the displacement of low-income and middle-class families. But what landlord wouldn’t raise rents after having to make such a large investment?”

Diane Limas (center) was a member of the Urban Land Institute’s Accessory Dwelling Units task force, representing Communities United. Photo via the ULI ADU task force report.

The authors of the ULI report say the city needs to be “mindful” of displacing residents in any existing ADUs that don’t comply, but it’s unclear how officials would enforce safety standards without issuing fines or threatening tenants with eviction.

Yet, despite lingering concerns, there is evidence that ADUs tend to be relatively affordable within their respective communities. Another ULI-assisted report (PDF) examined ADU legislation in the West Coast cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., found the “majority of accessory unit rent below market-rate” and therefore could be considered a form of affordable housing. It also showed that close friends or family members of the owners occupied nearly a third of accessory units, and more than half of those units were offered rent-free.

A survey of 210 ADUs in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., to learn how property owners funded their ADUs. A plurality borrowed against the equity in the existing property. Source: 2017 Terner Center-ULI study of ADU owners.

It remains to be seen where and to what extent ADUs will take off in Chicago once they become legal again. But until the city or other organizations come up with solutions to address the financial hurdles facing our underserved communities, it’s safe to assume that the first wave of new ADUs will show up in areas where property owners have access to capital.

Limas says the city should instead prioritize the creation and preservation of affordable ADUs before opening the door to a flood of new market-rate units. “Why don’t we start by helping the people who need it first?” she added. “For owners of two- to four-flats, where do they even get $75,000?”

Chicago’s ADU ordinance will need support to maximize its effectiveness across all 50 wards, but a robust ADU financing program isn’t expected until after the zoning ordinance goes into effect this summer.

“Chicago needs more affordable housing, and we know that a big piece of that is due to restrictive zoning,” said Molly Ekerdt, co-chair of ULI Chicago’s public policy committee and a vice president of Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH). “But amending the code won’t solve all of the problems. In the case of ADUs, it’s also building out the programs and tools to educate homeowners and provide the necessary incentives. There’s more work to be done.”

Simply put, the movement to bring back ADUs won’t solve Chicago’s affordability crisis on its own. Nor will it present ideal solutions for every property owner or low-income renter. The legislation does, however, show a willingness to try something different to increase the overall housing supply and bring affordable, lot-by-lot density to Chicago’s neighborhoods — even if the definition of “affordable” isn’t universally agreed upon.

Coach houses & basement units will add more housing options, but will they be affordable? was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Chicago’s ADU ordinance was introduced — see what you could build

The moment has finally arrived. The ordinance to re-legalize coach houses and other types of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) was introduced to City Council on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The new law would allow property owners to add one or more dwelling unit to their houses and vacant lots without needing an expensive and tentative zoning change.

If adopted, the new ADU ordinance — O2020-2650 — would take effect on August 1, 2020. That happens to be the same time when the 2019 Chicago Building Code — based on IBC 2018 — becomes mandatory for all renovation and new construction projects.

I would like to thank all of the people at the Buildings, Housing, and Planning & Development departments (I’ve listed their names at the end), and Alders Matt Martin (47th) and Harry Osterman (48th), who drafted this and put it forward. Now that it’s been introduced it can be heard by Zoning and Housing committees. The chairs of those two committees, Alders Osterman and Tunney, have agreed to hold a joint meeting to discuss the ordinance.

A rear (coach house without a garage) in West Town. Photo by Gabriel X. Michael

This question and answer-style article is based on the best of my understanding of the introduced ordinance; don’t think of this as an interpretation of zoning code, as that is purely the domain of the zoning administration staff. I may improve or correct this article at any time. (Updated May 23, 2020, to add new questions about existing non-conforming units

  1. What’s being legalized?

The ordinance would allow one or more dwelling units to be added as a coach house or to an existing residential building without requiring a zoning change. The ordinance divides ADUs into two types:

  1. coach houses, which are the small buildings in the rear of a lot with or without a garage (common across Chicago), with one dwelling unit
  2. conversion units, which are the other types of dwelling units, via additions and renovations in existing buildings 20 years or older. Only units built according to this code would be considered conversion units; units that exist on or before July 31, 2020, that seem like conversion units are not considered conversion units.

2. What kind of ADU could I build on my property?

Interested homeowners and landlords would have to choose which type of ADU would be most appropriate for their property and budget. We’ve created a directory of architects and developers in Chicago who have said they want to design ADUs for Chicagoans.

To help everyone visualize what’s going to be possible, Mark Pomarico and James Young, architects at the firm Booth Hansen, designed these posters showing many of the unique layouts that would be allowed under this ordinance. Other architects may design additional layouts!

Booth Hansen architects Mark Pomarico and James Young created these graphics to illustrate ADU designs that would be legal upon adoption of the ordinance.

3. How many ADUs could be built on a property?

Property owners in “R” zones can choose to add either one or more conversion units or a coach house. Coach houses would not be able to be built on any lot that has a conversion unit.

If adding conversion units

Owners of single-family houses that are 20 years or older would be able to build one “conversion unit”. All other residential buildings that are 20 years or older would be able to add 33 percent of the number of existing units, and rounding up or down.

  • 2-flats: 2x0.33 = 0.66 rounding up to 1 unit
  • 3-flats: 3x0.33 = 0.99 rounding up to 1 unit
  • 4-flats: 4x0.33 = 1.32 rounding down to 1 unit
  • 5-flats: 5x0.33 = 1.65 rounding up to 2 units
  • 6-flats: 6x0.33 = 1.98 rounding up to 2 units
  • And so on.

If adding a coach house

All properties that are either vacant or have a single-family house, 2-flat, 3-flat, or 4-flat would be able to add one coach house as long as there is no conversion unit on the lot.

4. Would any of the ADUs have to be affordable?

Some of them may need to be rented affordably. When two or more conversion units are being added to a residential building (that has five or more units), either at the same time, or at different times, 50 percent of them (always rounding down) have to be rented at an affordable price. The affordable rental price would be required for 30 years.

The affordable price would be determined annually as the rent equal to 30 percent of the income of a household earning 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). Using the Chicago Department of Housing’s maximum rents table, the 60 percent AMI for a two-person household is $42,780. Thirty percent of that $12,834 per year, or $1,069.50 per month.

That probably doesn’t sound affordable, and it’s not affordable to a lot of people. Allowing ADUs are one part of a comprehensive affordable housing policy in Chicago, and this is a start. The ULI ADU task force discussed and recommended many funding and financing ideas that the Chicago City Council would need to design and adopt.

The designated affordable conversion units are different than affordable units in new construction housing that’s required by the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO). ARO units are income restricted.

Conversion units would not be income-restricted and could be rented to anyone regardless of income. This accomplishes two things: It reduces the burden on property owners and the Department of Housing to verify the income of a potential renter, and it ensures that undocumented tenants are not checked.

5. Where in Chicago could an ADU be built?

Coach houses and conversion units would be permitted, as of right, in all residential districts starting with RS-3. That means they would be allowed, without a zoning change, in RS-3, RT-3.5 (a rare district), RT-4, RM-4.5, RM-5, RM-5.5, RM-6, and RM-6.5.

That is great news because RS-3 and RT-4 are the most common residential zoning districts in Chicago, covering the vast majority of “R”-zoned areas.

As for RS-1 and RS-2, property owners in those areas would have to obtain a special use permit via the Zoning Board of Appeals. They would most likely have to hire lawyers and independent experts. The ULI ADU task force recommended a more accommodating policy, saying that the option to build an ADU should be permitted in all zoning districts.

There are some community areas where RS-1 and RS-2 are the dominant residential zoning district. In Ashburn, 94.7 percent of properties in “R” districts are in RS-2 districts, meaning that the owners of over 11,800 properties would have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to get permission to build a conversion unit or coach house.

Requiring that ADUS have a “special use” from the ZBA in these two zoning districts would limit the effectiveness of the ordinance in many communities, and inhibit the flexibility of a homeowner to add a unit to reflect changes in their household and family. For example, many ADUs in the United States are built for elderly parents, adult children, friends and family with disabilities who need to live close to a caregiver, and college students.

6. Could a coach house be built with a new construction house or multi-flat?


7. Could a coach house be built on a vacant lot?

Yes. A coach house would be allowed to be built prior to the construction of a “front” house (which is called a principal building in zoning code jargon).

This will be a great policy as it will give vacant lots a new lease on life. Chicago’s 10,000+ vacant lots can be developed sooner with smaller and less expensive housing, perhaps with modular construction.

8. How big could a coach house be?

The ordinance would limit coach houses to 22 feet in height. The two-story + loft coach house on the rear of the lot where I live in Humboldt Park is a hair under 24 feet tall.

The ordinance would limit a coach house’s footprint to 60 percent of the required rear setback, and a floor area of 700 s.f.

Minimum sizes are influenced by the existing building code rules on the minimum size of bedrooms.

9. Could existing coach houses be modified?

Yes. The current zoning code allows only incidental repairs and normal maintenance, but the ADU code would allow expansions to the area and height extents described above.

10. How big could a conversion unit be?

The ADU ordinance doesn’t have direct limitations on the size of the conversion unit. The size of the conversion unit would be determined by a combination of the owner’s desire and the zoning standards as they apply to the existing building’s height and envelope (bulk). The minimum lot area (MLA) and minimum lot area per unit standards would not apply.

Practically speaking, here’s what that means. Say you own a 2-flat on a standard lot size of 3,125 s.f. and the lot is zoned RT-4 (this is one of the most common building scenarios in Chicago). The allowable floor area for that 2-flat is 3,750 s.f., but the units are each 1,300 s.f. totaling 2,600 s.f. of floor area. There is a remainder of 1,150 s.f. This 2-flat can gain a third unit, as an added floor, up to the allowable building height of 38 feet, or in a converted basement.

Depending on other zoning standards that may apply to the lot’s setbacks and yard requirements, a rear addition may be allowed.

11. Could the ADUs be rented on short-term rental websites, like Airbnb?

Not really, because rental periods of 31 or fewer consecutive days aren’t allowed. I guess you could use a short-term rental website to rent a unit out for longer than 31 days.

However, a new conversion unit or coach house could be rented for free to any member of an owner or tenant’s household for any length of time, including for a period of 31 or fewer consecutive days. This rule would not apply to conversion units and coach houses that existed on or before July 31, 2020.

12. How much parking would be required?

No parking is required for conversion units or coach houses. When building a coach house, the existing required parking must remain. However, the ordinance would reduce the required parking for single-family houses in the RS districts from two spaces to one space, allowing the removal of a space in order to flexibly situate a new coach house on a lot.

13. Does this ordinance abolish single-family-only zoning?

Almost. While single-family-only zoning is a detriment to cities because of the pattern of segregation and unaffordable housing it has left in its wake, the ordinance isn’t the same as eliminating Chicago’s single-family-only zoning of RS-1, RS-2, and in most cases RS-3. This is because a conversion unit would be allowed only in buildings that are 20 years old or older, and the ordinance proposes zoning entitlement limitations in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts.

14. How would existing non-conforming units be treated?

Existing non-conforming units are non-conforming for one or two reasons: (A) the zoning standards for the lot do not allow an additional unit, or a unit exceeding a certain size; (B) the unit does not comply with the building code.

To resolve both situations, the unit could become conforming without a zoning change by the owner submitting plans and pulling a building permit.

It’s possible that a non-conforming unit that complies with the building code (B) but not the zoning code (A) could request a Department of Buildings inspection, but this is my guess as such a rule has not been established or proposed.

15. How would the affordable conversion units be enforced?

The proposed ordinance would enforce the affordability requirement for those conversion units subject to the affordability requirement in a few ways. When a conversion unit that must be rented at the affordable rate set by the ordinance would be established, it would have to be registered with the Department of Housing, and a notice identifying the conversion unit would have to be recorded against the property with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. The notice becomes the public record that the unit is an affordable conversion unit and serves as notice to subsequent property owners.

Additionally, each year, the owner of affordable conversion units would have to submit an affidavit to the Dept. of Housing “certifying” that the unit is being rented at the rate calculated by the ordinance. The rules for submitting the affidavit and the evidence required would be developed after the ordinance is adopted.

16. Who at City Hall drafted and shepherded this ordinance introduction?

In no particular order: Steve Valenziano, Cyndi Roubik, Paul Williams, Patrick Murphey, Bryan Esenberg, Daniel Kay Hertz, and Grant Ullrich. All of them were also members of the ULI ADU task force.

Editor’s note: Thank you to Anjulie Rao for helping me edit and humanize this article.

Chicago’s ADU ordinance was introduced — see what you could build was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

There’s a new sense of urgency to approve the city’s plan to bring Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) back to Chicago as the COVID-19 health crisis amplifies systemic economic inequality and the need for safe, affordable housing. While the ordinance to legalize ADUs isn’t expected to go before the City Council until later this summer, a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) hints at what the upcoming legislation could look like. The report also highlights specific barriers that will need to be overcome for Chicago to implement a successful and equitable policy.

Editor’s note: Steven Vance, CEO of Chicago Cityscape, was a member of the ULI task force that created the recommendations in the report.

A coach house in Pilsen. Photo by Gabriel X. Michael

Accessory Dwelling Units — which are smaller, independent residences added to a single-family or multi-flat house — come in many forms including over-garage coach houses, attached rear additions, standalone backyard cottages, and basement or attic build-outs within existing buildings. Illegal in Chicago since the 1950s, this type of housing has the potential to boost income for homeowners, allow seniors to age in place, and replace the much-needed affordable housing and density being lost to demolitions and deconversion of existing two- to four-flat buildings.

The city will need to get the ordinance right to fully unlock all of the benefits ADUs have to offer and to encourage their construction, especially in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods where real estate markets are softer and property owners have less capital to invest.

The ULI report incorporated the feedback from dozens of urban planners, real estate experts, architects, city officials, community groups, lenders, and other stakeholders to form a series of recommendations for Chicago’s future ADU legislation. The report also examined what it took for the ADU policies in other cities like Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles to take hold and flourish. The hope is that Chicago can avoid some of the same barriers and early mistakes.

Models drawn by Mark Pomarico and James Young, architects who work at Booth Hansen, were helpful in understanding how regulations affect design and development feasibility.

“The findings will help create an ordinance that we hope to get passed by August,” said Harry Osterman, alderman of the 48th Ward and chairman of the Committee on Housing, at a ULI-hosted webinar on Thursday. “We’re in very challenging times right now, and housing is going to play a critical part in where we go as a city. This ordinance is a tool to create additional units that are affordable and available for seniors.”

The report recommends a “less is more” approach to ADU regulation by allowing new units to be built as-of-right in all residential zoning districts. It also suggests targeting “chronically vacant” ground-floor commercial space for conversion into accessible residential units that can take advantage of at-grade entrances.

Other zoning recommendations include relaxing off-street parking minimums, minimum lot area per dwelling unit rules, and open space requirements. The cumulative effect will result in much greater flexibility in where an ADU can be placed on a standard Chicago lot. In the name of increased flexibility, the report advocates lifting requirements for property owners to reside at the address and to allow short-term rentals like Airbnb.

Chicago’s new building code, which is set to go into effect this summer, is already ADU-friendly and allows greater flexibility when it comes to less expensive wood-frame construction.

“We were preparing for an ordinance like this to come along and, building code-wise, we’re ready,” said Chicago Building Commissioner Judy Frydland at Thursday’s meeting. “We are streamlining our permit process and will work with people to keep down the cost. Our priority is to ensure the safety of residents.”

According to the report, a “solutions-focused” approach to building inspections should provide an easy way for homeowners to legalize existing non-compliant units and not discourage property owners from exploring ADUs due to the threat of possible fines or repair costs. The city also needs to be mindful of displacing residents living in existing ADUs with code infractions, the report says.

The ADU regulations are also looking at reducing minimum ceiling heights for basement units, which can eliminate the need for costly excavations, and flexibility when it comes to utility hook-ups. Another cost-saving measure could be pre-approved architectural designs for ADUs and the use of modular construction.

Though less expensive than a typical housing unit, the cost of building an ADU is still a significant investment that many Chicago property owners may not be able to shoulder.

Financing still remains one of the biggest hurdles in the path of creating the maximum number of new units.

The report identified the need for ADU-friendly financing mechanisms like short-term bridge loans supported by the city or the ability to borrow money against the future value of the ADU (lenders usually don’t consider the future value of a unit when lending). A possible solution could be homeowners partnering with developers and entering into a land-lease agreement in which the developer finances, builds, and owns the ADU but rents the land from the property owner (there’s at least one company doing this on the West Coast).

New homeowner-friendly programs and resources are needed to help homeowners understand what is required to build an ADU. This could include checklists, pre-approved designs, cost estimates, an online dashboard, and collaboration with community intermediaries and non-profit groups.

In a city were aldermanic privilege has historically resulted in a piece-meal approach to zoning and land-use policy, the upcoming ADU ordinance aims to cover all 50 wards, according to Osterman. The 48th Ward official says he and aldermen Tom Tunney (44th) and Matt Martin (47th) will speak to other members of the City Council in the coming weeks to gauge support.

“It’s important that we implement the ADU ordinance across the board, given the magnitude of it,” explained Osterman. “Part of our conversations with aldermen is to have them understand it on a citywide level but then also what the actual effect will be in their communities.”

“When we convened in-person in December last year to develop recommendations, we certainly didn’t expect to come face to face with a pandemic,” added Cindy McSherry, executive director at ULI Chicago. “But the last two months really underscored the importance of access to safe and stable housing for everyone. We look forward to exploring how ADUs can play a piece in addressing the need for increased housing and the housing challenges we have in the city.”

Chicago’s future ADU ordinance should learn from other cities’ mistakes was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

New zoning rules adopted last week

Plus: New data on Chicago Cityscape

The Chicago City Council adopted rules that will require electric vehicle charging infrastructure in new construction building’s parking areas and that update bird-friendly building design policy. Additionally, an ordinance was proposed that would strengthen the review process for certain polluting uses.

The Spertus Institute building in downtown Chicago was designed by Krueck + Sexton Architects and uses glass with a frit pattern that makes it a bird-friendly design. Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil.

The new zoning rules

City Council had a virtual meeting last Friday and passed some ordinances that were set to pass in March but couldn’t because of the pandemic.

The new data

Not a week goes by that we don’t add something new.

  • Incentives Checker has one more incentive and updated data for some existing incentives. IC is one of our premier and exclusive features that checks for up to 25 financial & development incentives for any given address in Chicago. IC finds several incentives across Illinois.
  • Property sales: Every quarter we add about 23,000 property transaction records to our database, and we’re now up-to-date through March 31, 2020. Grab sales information for any area in our collection of Places, or draw your own.
  • Property info: Historically, we updated our property info database of over 1.8 million Cook County properties once a year. That was too infrequent, so we started updating the database on a daily basis (as needed, really, since few properties have new details more than once a month).
  • Property info pt. 2: Not only is Chicago Cityscape updating property info more frequently, it’s showing more data, too, including information about tax exempt status, new deed recordings (which indicate sales), and foreclosure filings. (This info was requested by a member.)

New zoning rules adopted last week was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

An ordinance was proposed would amend the Zoning Board of Appeals’s (ZBA) review criteria for any industrial use in a Planned Manufacturing District that is a “special use” and requires an air pollution permit. It would also add a community meeting requirement.

It is important to note that the site of the former Crawford Generating Station that is being demolished — the smokestack already has been demolished — is not in a Planned Manufacturing District, nor was it prior to being converted to Planned Development #1424.

However, the new location of General Iron’s metal recycling facility will be in PMD #6. See map of the 22 PMDs.

Update: Alex Nitkin interviewed Alder Cardenas and Anthony Moser, a board member for Neighbors for Environmental Justice, for The Daily Line.

The ZBA is a board appointed by the mayor, and independent of City Council, to approve “special uses” that the zoning code doesn’t allow as-of-right. These special uses include cannabis business establishments, gas stations, recycling and waste facilities, rooftop farms, and community centers. The zoning code establishes the criteria that the ZBA must use to review and approve projects.

General Iron will be moving its recycling facility from Lincoln Park (shown) to the Lake Calumet area, into a PMD.

A Planned Manufacturing District (PMD) is a zoning district intended to preserve and promote manufacturing within the City of Chicago by allowing only manufacturing, commercial, and industrial uses in perpetuity. Since the zoning district cannot change to ones that allow a higher value use (like offices or multi-family residential), the land values remain low and affordable to business categories that need a large amount of land.

The ordinance proposes the following changes to the Chicago zoning code.

  1. ZBA must notify the Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy that they’ve received an application for a special use that requires an air pollution permit.
  2. The ZBA must receive a letter of support, a letter of non-objection, or a letter of objection from the alder whose ward the project is in.
  3. There is a 60-day period before ZBA can hear or vote on the application.
  4. The applicant must hold a community meeting in the ward, with video (live or recorded), and notify nearby property owners via mail.
  5. The Committee on Environmental Protection and Energy shall hold a “subject matter hearing” on the proposed projects environmental impacts, at which the applicant must testify.
  6. The ordinance adds a new, third criteria for approval for the ZBA to consider, which is to “make specific findings on the probably effects of the proposed use on…the quality of air and water in the surrounding community and any other deleterious environment impacts”.

Ordinance would change approval rules for certain industrial uses was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Prefab “starter home” is under construction, destined for a vacant lot in Back of the Yards

A little over a month ago a new construction permit was issued for a single-family house in Back of the Yards. I see single-family house permits issued everyday, but this was one unique because it described it as “modular” and “prefabricated”. The buzzwords caught my attention because these methods are rare in Chicago but becoming common elsewhere.

In 2016, a 55-unit building was created with modular apartments in New York City. In 2018, a 22-unit building was erected in Berkeley in four days. Skender, a local general contractor, has built a factory in Little Village for modular building construction for future residential projects in Chicago.

The permit from March, however, is from a local company called Kinexx Modular Construction. Kinexx’s founders are Paul Tebben, an architect, and Josh Braun.

A rendering of the starter home that will be built on the vacant lot in Back of the Yards.

The house they’re building is a two-story “starter home” — shown above — with a target sale price in the low 200s, excluding the cost of the land. The Resurrection Project, an affordable housing manager and developer based in Pilsen, owns the land.

I talked to Tebben and Braun to learn the details of the house design as well as their plan to get more prefabricated modular houses built in Chicago.

Starter house characteristics:

  • The house has a floor area of 1,450 square feet
  • 3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms
  • 17' wide (the standard Chicago lot is 25', and a setbacks usually allow for a 20' wide house)
  • 45' deep (the standard Chicago lot is 125' deep)
  • 9' ceiling height
  • 24' tall

Braun said that they designed a two bedroom version, “but we found that in some neighborhoods, there are different market norms, and we talked to some community group leaders and their constituents who said they’d rather have a house with three bedrooms even if they’re slightly smaller.”

The house is raised two feet above grade, and there is an inaccessible crawl space below the house for two reasons: Keep some mechanicals above ground for easier access, and to create a small front stoop, “to engage with the legacy of stoops in the neighborhood”.

On its size, Braun said “we’re trying to make a product that most working people can attain. Everyone wants something to call their own. I don’t think that has ever changed, although the way to attain it has.” The target sale price includes a foundation, two-car parking pad, appliances, utility connections, and landscaping.

A rendering shows an alternate starter home design, with a gabled roof.

Kinexx aren’t planning to sell to the homeowner, though. Their market is developers who already have five or more lots, no matter if they’re for profit, non-profit like TRP, or if the houses are to fulfill an ARO requirement. The long-term plan may include selling to individuals who already have land.

Code compliance

Chicago updated its building code last year and it takes full effect on August 1, 2020. “We haven’t had to adjust significantly to the code changing mid-stride”, Tebben said. The Chicago Department of Buildings, Braun said, “has been wonderful to work with. Commissioner Frydland and her staff have been supportive from two and a half years ago to two weeks ago”. Their discussions have helped to establish a process for handling city-required inspections. Since the house is built off-site and moved to an on-site location in a completed form, it will work differently than typical construction. The house design doesn’t need any code variations, though.

This information may be helpful to the many other prefabricated and modular housing designers and builders across the country who are interested in selling their products in Chicago once City Council adopts an ordinance to re-legalize coach houses. I’ve talked to manufacturers in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Nevada about the upcoming — but not yet introduced — law.

“Our general understanding is that the building inspectors will do a rough inspection in the factory at the time the structure is reaching 80 percent finish, transported to the lot, inspected again, completed, and then inspected after completion”, they said.

Once it’s complete, Braun and Tebben will conduct a blower door test to determine how tight the building envelope, which Tebben said “is the first line of defense” against the elements and to maintain energy efficiency. The house’s building envelope “is tighter than any stick built frame house on the market”. The blower door test is used to certify houses built to Passive House standards: a powerful fan pulls air from the house and out the specialized blower door to measure the air infiltration rate of outside air coming in. “We know that the house is going to be built very well under optimal conditions inside of a factory”, Braun said.

Two-flat and three-flat designs are also in the works. The two-flat will be a larger single-family house with a ground floor rental unit.

Of course I asked about installing a Kinnexx-built accessory dwelling unit at the rear of a lot. Braun said, “We’re definitely interested in the concept, and we showed the starter home to people at the Department of Housing, but we haven’t created a solution for getting a home to the back of a lot.” Tebben added, “the challenge for doing that is access, and we want to fully understand how to develop on a lot with an existing house.”

“ADUs weren’t our original motivation”, Tebben said. The team’s design research started four years ago with the belief that “a vast percentage of the residential lots are the same size, within a foot or so”. The standard-size lots are “begging for a modular product because the lots are very predictable”, Tebben said.

The goals are for more than high-quality and lower-cost house design. The company aims for easing development throughout the entire process. “We are soup to nuts”, Braun said, “providing the design, obtaining the permit, hooking up utilities, building the foundation, and the landscaping.” In three years they want to have a turnkey solution in place to allow an owner of vacant lots to be able to pay a deposit and get the house keys 75 days later.

Construction progress

“COVID has created some interesting obstacles”, Braun said, when I asked about what the next steps are after getting a permit. “The next milestones are to build it, transport it, and erect it.”

Tebben reported yesterday that construction started last week. Four to six construction workers are needed each day, and “fortunately, during these early stages, the effects of the pandemic have been limited to the implementation of extra safety precautions”, Tebben said.

Prefab “starter home” is under construction, destined for a vacant lot in Back of the Yards was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Alina Taber is a freelance journalist and architectural preservationist based in Chicago.

In the wake of the frightening reality that is the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a quick transition in normal operations within architecture and real estate industries. What once was a friendly meeting over a cappuccino and a Niçoise salad has now become a Zoom meeting, an Instagram story, or a long chain of emails. Despite these quickly-shifting circumstances, young women within the industry have found positive ways to adapt and overcome.

Michelle McSweeney and Shirin Reklaoui, founders of the newly born architecture and design firm Cocowa Studio (started in June of 2019), are utilizing their time in isolation to concentrate on the collaborative developments of their business. The name Cocowa, expresses both the cultural heritage of Michelle and Shirin (IoWAn and MorocCOan), as well as their admiration for community, collaboration, and coworking. The name, however, is only an introduction into the unique philosophies they are hoping to project into the architecture and design industry in Chicago.

Michelle McSweeney (left) and Shirin Reklaoui (right), founders of Cocowa Studio

Michelle and Shirin have had to innovate to carve out space for themselves and their new firm within a heavily male-dominated industry. Their journey started together at Booth Hansen, where from neighboring desks, they bounced around ideas of recasting the older narratives of architecture and design to ones more environmentally efficient and equitable for their clients. During their time at Booth Hansen, they quickly became aware of the compounded challenges that young, female architects face when breaking into the industry.

“The hardest thing with that is that if you don’t show up right at the gate, and are one of the smartest, hardest working people at the table from the very first meeting, you can very quickly be lost under the camaraderie of the men as they start to link up,” McSweeney said. “It’s just a balance of rechecking yourself and making sure you’re participating equally and being understood equally.”

The pair spent considerable time devising the principles on which their new firm would be based. Their experiences at Booth Hansen encouraged them to re-imagine the more classical definitions of architectural business, and create their own opportunities.

The challenge they now face however is much different. In the wake of COVID-19 and the need for self isolation, they are learning how to become more resourceful in regards to developing a new business. A heavy reliance on face-to-face interaction (as defined in many of the “co”-words they stand by) is indefinitely restricted.

“That kind of communication is so vital at the beginning of the business because you are spreading the word. Now that we are in quarantine, the question is ‘how do you do that?’” Reklaoui said.

Quick-witted and adaptive, Shirin and Michelle have shifted their focus to the encouraging; what they can learn from this period of isolation.

Part of Cocowa Studio’s Disruptive Design competition board, regarding ADUs (accessory dwelling units)

Their firm is now in the self-described “gritty” stage of business, which has offered Reklaoui and McSweeney a surprising amount of flexibility in this uncertain time. Relying on their home offices and online resources rather than co-working spaces, Reklaoui and McSweeney are taking the knowledge they are acquiring during this new experience to expand upon their hopes for Cocowa’s future office culture.

“Because our industry is highly collaborative, sometimes you don’t get time to think.” Reklaoui said. “You are just on the go. It would be great if after this happens, firms and offices adopt a better work from home policy that allows people to tap into their creativity a little more and have some of the quiet space that doesn’t seem to exist in our industry that much… There is value in working remotely… it allows people to have a bit of individual expression.”

Reklaoui and McSweeney said that they are hoping to define their philosophy through this period on quality of life and work, and the quality of their nascent firm. In a way, this is preparation for their future team and those with whom they hope to develop relationships. Time to think, time to collaborate, to slow down and design a superior, holistic experience for office design and spatial practices. With their experience of the challenges within the industry of being young women under their belts, they are now creating an adaptive work environment that provides an equitable experience for all- employees, clients, and partners.

McSweeney believes that after this period, there is no going back to the way things once were.

“Now we are going to start seeing these things embed and grow and evolve,” she said. As we start to permanently respond to the changes we are making now, I’m really excited to see the changes that will be made to business culture.”

In this sense, McSweeney and Reklaoui are hoping to build upon the transformation of the Chicago architecture and design world into one that is intensely collaborative, bright, and thriving; instead of forgoing quality for the sake of a deadline.

Valerie Sancrainte, a five-year licensed broker now working for Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty, is also hopeful for the potential changes to come out of this chaos.

Valerie Sancrainte of Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty

“Right now the level of patience and understanding that is being shown between brokers while we are navigating these types of circumstances for our clients has been really refreshing. I hope that we can continue that path and that behavior into the future.”

Although the life of a realtor and an architect can be quite different on a fundamental level, both professions share a similar elemental feature; the necessity of collaboration which sits at the heart of each industry.

The industry of creating spaces in Chicago, thankfully, has long been collaborative and connected.

“I think Chicago is fantastic. It’s a huge city, but it can also be a small town. Chicago has been amazing for me.” Sancrainte said. “There have always been a lot of resources available for me, which has been so helpful. I also have mentors within the industry at all stages of their careers. Each one of them has been invaluable. I don’t think there is another city in the world that I would want to be a realtor.”

This sparks hope for the future in the aftermath of all of this chaos. Chicago, inherently collaborative and unwaveringly Midwestern is the perfect place to be right now. The real estate and architecture industries within Chicago thrive on human connection, which this frightening period has only solidified. These young women provide not only an enthusiastic outlook for the future, but the drive for quality and collaboration that is desperately desired.

The shared experience of COVID-19 and what lies ahead in the aftermath is reassuring, especially in the eyes of these women who have already faced a number of challenges. The value of collaboration and interaction has already cemented itself amidst this crisis as the fundamental touchstone of which this community relishes; and we are only four weeks into a shelter in place of an indeterminate duration.

Perspective view of one of Cocowa Studio’s residential projects in Miller Beach, IN

“Every person that we work with is another link into this web of Chicago, this community that only gets thicker and richer.” McSweeney said. “At the end of my career, when I look at that spider web of people, which is thick and it is rich and it is intelligent and exciting, I want to have a positive, amazing feeling about that spider web.”

Here’s how 3 real estate industry women are adapting to COVID-19 was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Our latest map takes advantage of information we’ve been collecting and summarizing for years and makes it easier to see, in a quick glance, the locations and kinds of projects that people are proposing across Chicago.

Every month when the new zoning change applications are submitted to City Council, our team member Alex L. reads through each application and summarizes and categorizes them. He also records important details on each application like the applicant’s name, the owner’s name, the architect, and the lawyer and law firm (over 2,200 names noted so far).

The new Proposed Projects map showcases the shorter summary that Alex started writing just last month. Click on a green map marker to read the longer summary and the application details.

This data is exclusive to Chicago Cityscape, and it takes a lot of effort because this information is stored only in PDFs.

Got an idea for a new feature? Tell us. Half of our new features are based on requests from readers and members.

Can your non-profit organization carry out its mission more effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic if it had a Cityscape Pro membership? We are offering free 30-60 day memberships to up to five housing and housing-adjacent organizations. Inquire.

See what’s in the development pipeline was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Chicago Cityscape turns 6

On March 30, 2014, Chicago Cityscape sent the first edition of our free newsletter, called “1909” after the Plan of Chicago published that year. It was sent to two people. The second edition was sent six days later to nine people, and the third edition was sent nine days after that to 15 people.

Within a year, 27 editions of the free “1909” newsletters had been sent, bringing a new look at Chicago real estate data, and informing Chicagoans about new construction projects that were proposed or starting up. Newsletter #27 was sent to 343 people.

Chicago Cityscape sent its first newsletter for paying subscribers on May 11, 2014 — two people received it. Back then, the newsletter was the only service for subscribers, who paid $40 per year to receive real estate information news and construction activity summaries each week. A year later, 35 people were receiving the paid newsletter.

SCREENSHOT: When the first newsletter was sent, Chicago Cityscape was known as Licensed Chicago Contractors and this dashboard was the only website feature. All interaction was done via paid and free newsletters sent weekly.

The two newsletters were how Chicago Cityscape — known until fall 2015 as “Licensed Chicago Contractors” — started as a business. The newsletter for paying subscribers was phased out as the information was published on a new website, and automated location-based notifications and newsletters (like for demolitions and new businesses) were instituted.

The last weekly paid newsletter was sent on Monday, November 6, 2017, three years after the website had been established.

“1909”, the free newsletter, still goes out every week or so, to over 7,000 people, but it goes more by “Cityscape newsletter” than “1909”. There have been 226 editions sent between the first one on March 30, 2014, and the most recent one on March 26, 2020. That’s an average of 37 newsletters per year, or one every 2.8 weeks.

I thank everyone who has contributed articles over the years (16 of them are listed here), and I give special thanks to Samantha Kearney who wrote most of “1909” for two years.

The paid newsletter no longer exists, but 185 people subscribe to Cityscape Permits, Cityscape Pro, or Cityscape Enterprise to access real estate information from over 75 sources in one place. Many more have gained access to the same information on a limited basis by making a one-time purchase of an Address Snapshot, Place page, or Company Profile.

🥂 Here’s to another six years!

Chicago Cityscape turns 6 🍰 was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Travel is down drastically, in order for humanity to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Many short term rental operators have no one to rent to. In some places — Dublin, Ireland— it looks like Airbnb apartments are rejoining the housing market. Some are curious if that’s happening in Chicago.

Stay updated on this topic by following this mega thread.

MAP: The density of Airbnb listings as of March 18, 2020, is symbolized by community area. The darker the green, the more listings. Riverdale is the only community with likely zero listings. Data provided by Inside Airbnb.

The short answer is we don’t know. There’s no central registry of apartments (Evanston has one). Zillow is a major source of this kind of research, but it has a bias of considering only the apartments that are listed on its website.

Inside Airbnb is a website that captures data about Airbnb listings on a monthly basis. There is data for February 22 and March 18, 2020, so it may be possible to chart a decline in the number of listings, but that’s an analysis for later. The information, while inexact, is still useful.

SCREENSHOT: The little map on Airbnb’s website that shows you approximately where a listing is, somewhere inside the circle.

Airbnb doesn’t reveal a listing’s location until the traveler books it, and doesn’t reveal it in the data capture either. The data Inside Airbnb captures shows a listing’s location give or take up to 450 feet.

Since the locations are approximate, a listing may be located in a neighboring community area. I chose to analyze the data assuming that the locations are exact. However, the order of magnitude difference in the number of listings between community areas will likely not change.

Show me the data

There were 7,450 listings in the March 18, 2020, data capture, operated by 4,118 host profiles; five host profiles control nearly six percent of the listings.

There are four “room types”, and 5,132 of the 7,450 citywide listings are for an entire home or apartment (68.9 percent). Compare that to the approximately 585,245 rental dwelling units in Chicago (per the 2018 American Community Survey).

Listings aren’t evenly geographically distributed. Five community areas have 42.8 percent all of the Airbnb listings in Chicago’s 77 community areas, per the March 18, 2020 data capture. The West Town community area has the most Airbnb listings for an entire home or apartment with 692, which is 121 more than the Near North Side, which has the second most entire home or apartment listings with 571.

Rounding out positions 3, 4, and 5, are the Lake View (486 listings), Logan Square (403), and Lincoln Park (335) community areas.

SCREENSHOT: A map shows the Airbnb listings that are possibly in the 47th Ward. Due to Airbnb data provisions, locations may be anywhere within a small circle, possibly putting a listing in a neighboring area.

Riverdale likely has zero Airbnb listings. Humboldt Park has fewer listings than East Garfield Park. (I’ll throw out some potential factors, because I wasn’t expecting that: Humboldt Park has a 50 percent denser population, but East Garfield Park has four ‘L’ stations, four more than Humboldt Park.)

Explore the data yourself: View any one of our over 10,800 Places in Chicago. Then, scroll down and click on the “Load Airbnb housing locations” button.


Stay tuned next month when I download an updated data capture and compare the number of listings in April versus March. Or get started yourself and download the data for Chicago from Inside Airbnb.

Check our my Twitter thread from earlier this week with more details.

Question for the data scientists…If you were to normalize the data in the choropleth map above, what addition factor would you use? The area of the community area, its population, the estimated number of housing units, the number of hotel rooms, or something else?

New data: How many Airbnbs are in your neighborhood 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' brings you Chicago neighborhood development news and events every week.

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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