Author: Steven Vance

The sizable impact of requiring Chicago homeowners to get special use approval to build an ADU

It’s possible that the Chicago City Council votes to approve an ADU expansion ordinance that requires about 38 percent of small-scale residential property owners to obtain a special use from the Zoning Board of Appeals to build an ADU. Special use approval is intended for limited and certain businesses and building types that can have an adverse impact and may require mitigations that are reviewed and approved by the ZBA.

ADUs have not been demonstrated to have adverse impacts and this potential future requirement would impose burdens on a scale above and beyond anything else the Chicago zoning code imposes. A special use is described in the city’s code as having “widely varying land use and operational characteristics [and] require case-by-case review in order to determine whether they will be compatible with surrounding uses and development patterns. Case-by-case review is intended to ensure consideration of the special use’s anticipated land use, site design and operational impacts.”

Yet an ADU is a residential use; its operational characteristics could not be incompatible with other residential uses. This requirement would be extremely unusual and especially burdensome. There is only one other special use approval that a residential property owner would have to seek, which is to allow housing on the ground floor in B1, B3, C1, and C2 zoning districts.

Applying for a special use for a small home presents a major obligation to the property owner, and requires them to perform the following:

  • Submitting a full building permit application with plans and obtaining a “certificate of zoning denial” before being able to start this process.
  • Paying a $1,000 application fee to the City of Chicago.
  • Hiring an expert witness to write a report and provide testimony at the ZBA hearing.
  • Preparing the finding of fact, a report which (a) describes how the ADU complies with all applicable standards of the Chicago Zoning Ordinance, (b) says that the ADU is in the interest of the public convenience and will not have a significant adverse impact on the general welfare of the neighborhood, (c) explains that the ADU is compatible with the character of the surrounding area in terms of site planning and building scale and project design, (d) states that the ADU is compatible with the character of the surrounding area in terms of operating characteristics, such as hours of operation, outdoor lighting, noise and traffic generation, and (e) outlines that the ADU is designed to promote pedestrian safety and comfort.
  • Preparing the application (which is extensive).
  • Complying with onerous legal notification requirements including determining property owners of record within 250 feet of the subject property, paying for and posting public notice signs and ensuring they remain posted until the public hearing, and mailing notice letters to surrounding property owners within the 250 feet notice radius.
  • Presenting the project to the Zoning Board of Appeals at an undeterminable time during an 8-12 hour meeting.

Scale of impact

I analyzed the number of small-scale residential-only properties in Chicago that would and would not be subject to the special use approval requirement in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts if that version were to pass.

The map below shows where the proposed ADU expansion would set a different standard for homeowners in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts than for homeowners in all other zoning districts. It covers large parts of 40 percent of the city’s 77 community areas (read more about my thoughts on this in my letter to the Chicago Sun-Times editor).

The table below shows the results of my analysis: the owners of nearly 171,000 small-scale residential properties in RS-1/2 zoning districts would be required to undergo a costly and difficult process that would likely result in burdens so great that very few families would actually be able to take advantage of having an ADU.

About the analysis

“Small-scale residential” comprises Cook County property classifications that represent detached houses, townhouses and townhouses, two-to-six flats, courtyard buildings, and small multifamily buildings, up to 99,999 s.f. with or without commercial space up to 35 percent of the rentable square feet.

The full list of property classifications:

  • 2-02
  • 2-03
  • 2-04
  • 2-05
  • 2-06
  • 2-07
  • 2-08
  • 2-09
  • 2-10
  • 2-11
  • 2-12
  • 2-13
  • 2-25
  • 2-34
  • 2-78
  • 2-95
  • 3-13
  • 3-14
  • 3-15
  • 3-18
  • 3-91

Comment to zoning committee about the proactive Western Ave upzoning

July 16, 2024. The text here roughly matches what I said to the Chicago City Council’s committee on zoning, landmarks, and building standards.

My name is Steven Vance, and I’m a member of Urban Environmentalists Illinois, a membership-based advocacy group that supports more housing – especially affordable housing, housing near transit, and fossil fuel-free – to help deal with housing shortages and rising housing prices.

There are two ordinances for the zoning committee’s consideration today that are the start of a new wave of land use policy to increase development where it’s needed, along Western Avenue. After the completion of the Western Avenue Corridor Study two years ago, Alderpersons Hadden, Martin, and Vasquez are taking the necessary next step by codifying some of the study’s recommendations into zoning map updates. 

The study recommended that higher-density mixed-use developments be allowed and encouraged along Western Avenue, to fill in the many vacant properties and allow the corridor to develop from one primarily serving people using cars to one serving people who use all kinds of transportation modes. And in the future, to provide the density that is supportive and takes advantage of a bus rapid transit network. 

The zoning map changes mean that nearly all of Western Avenue from from Addison Street to Howard Street will have B3-3 zoning, allowing mixed use and residential buildings up to 4 and 5 stories tall, with 20-40 homes each, in a way that property owners and developers won’t need to get individual approval for each one. Developments still have to comply with the ARO. 

When all alders task themselves with approving each and every proposed development, new housing is often delayed, raising the cost of development and denying people access new affordable and accessible housing. And, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found, segregation is perpetuated.

The proactive Western Ave upzoning is a form of housing abundance, however, since it can speed up development of new housing in neighborhoods where it’s most in demand and where there’s existing transit infrastructure and amenities. 

A secondary benefit of proactive upzoning is how it attracts new development in Chicago, because of the ease of development. New development is one of the city’s best strategies to deal with funding pensions, because new development means there are new and more taxpayers. New development eases property tax pressure on existing taxpayers. 

Please pass the two Western Ave upzoning ordinances today. I also look forward to seeing and supporting proactive upzoning ordinances, including two that have been proposed in the 35th Ward, at your next meeting. 

Ride in Chicago with “Bike Mayor” John Bauters to help elect him to higher office

I’m co-hosting a fundraiser for John Bauters when he visits Chicago in two weeks on Monday, July 22. You can donate now or keep reading to learn why it’s important to support candidates like John.

John is formerly the mayor of Emeryville, California, and is running for Alameda County Supervisor in a runoff election on November 5, 2024. After finding out that he was coming to Chicago (for a work conference), I talked to some other Chicagoans and quickly put together an idea for a “meet and greet” event.

I was really just excited that I could meet John because I wasn’t able to meet him when he was here in August 2022 and rode in the monthly Critical Mass bike ride. John is well known online as “America’s Bike Mayor” because of how he rides around Emeryville, a city of 13,000 people, posting photos and videos of new sustainable transportation infrastructure and housing in the city, sometimes with his dog, Reyna. 

Because of the successes in reducing traffic crashes there and increasing the number of affordable homes and housing for the homeless that John has shepherded as a council member and as mayor, John is known around the United States as a progressive leader. 

On Monday, July 22, I’ll be co-hosting a fundraiser for John in Chicago, alongside Nate Hutcheson, Ben Wolfenstein, Michelle Stenzel, Tim Shambrook, and Brendan Kevenides (an attorney with FK Law Illinois). We’ll start the bike ride in Lincoln Square, ride through the 40th and 47th Wards making a couple stops along the way to showcase good and bad urbanism, and end the ride on the lakefront for a community discussion followed by a happy hour. 

We’re asking people to donate to John’s campaign (for Alameda County Supervisor, where he’s in a runoff) to get the details for the ride. We’re also looking for additional people to join the host committee (contact me if you’re interested). You can donate as little as $20 to join this ride and you’re adding your voice to a call for more active transportation leadership nationally.

So here’s the question I think a lot of people are wondering: why should Chicagoans donate to someone running for office in another state?

Michelle Stenzel, founder of Bike Walk Lincoln Park, said, “It’s important for city planners to have examples from the United States of successful balanced street designs. Former Emeryville Mayor John Bauters was an agent for making the roads less car-centric. I’m supporting John in running for a new position that will allow him to broaden his influence even further, which will benefit everyone who cares about livable streets.”

Brendan Kevenides, an attorney who represents many injured cyclists in Chicago, said, “FK Law is proud to support John Bauters because he’s the kind of bicycle advocate, the sort of pragmatic leader that cities and towns throughout the United States need more of. He puts in the work necessary to bring about change in transportation policy that saves lives and improves living.”

Molly Fleck, a bicycle and ADU advocate, said, “John’s work in Emeryville on affordable housing and people-oriented transportation serves as a model of what’s possible for cities that want to do things differently. I am donating because John’s leadership resonates far beyond Alameda County.”

Daniel Comeaux, a transportation planner, said, “John is an inspiring leader who is at the forefront of the national movement to build cities for people and not just cars. I’m donating because I am excited to see that work continue, as a model for communities nationwide.”

About John

John’s work has been trendsetting from the Bay Area. Under his leadership, Emeryville has been transformed as a community. Examples of sustainable urban policies they’ve led on:

  • One of the first cities to eliminate parking minimums and reduce maximums.
  • Removing on-street parking in favor of separated, protected bike lanes and dedicated transit-only lanes.
  • Developed “Sustainable Streetscapes” program that requires implementation of the bike/ped plan when streets are repaved.
  • Designated a “Pro-Housing City” by Governor Newsom for the abundance and affordability of housing the city is producing

John also championed Alameda County’s 400-mile Countywide Bikeways Plan and also initiated the County Transportation Commission’s Race & Equity Action Plan. (Note that Alameda County covers most of the East Bay communities, including Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville.) In 2022, the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club gave John their inaugural Visionary Award for his work to build safe, sustainable, and environmentally-forward communities through climate action and leadership.

Eric Rogers, a prolific photographer who bikes for transportation and fun and took one of the photos above, said, “Mayor Bauters has been an inspirational leader in encouraging cities to adopt people-centric mobility policies that make us all healthier and safer. We need to give him a bigger platform to bring these ideas to more people. Plus, he’s a friendly guy with deep roots in Chicago and the Midwest, and we have to support our own!”

John is an accessible politician and holds “mobile office hours” talking to constituents on walks and bike rides. He’ll spend some time speaking to us about safe streets advocacy after the ride but would also welcome a chance to talk about supporting broader causes, helping elect women and urbanists, and protecting vulnerable community members. Please chip in and come join us for a solidarity ride with an elected official who is modeling what we want to see here in Chicago.

Additional dwelling units can help homeowners and make housing safer

A copy of my letter to the editor, as published in the Chicago Sun-Times. I had originally submitted this as an op-ed that was twice the length but I reduced it to 375 words at their behest.

Fran Spielman’s recent article “‘Bungalow Belt’ City Council members brace for battle over ‘granny flat’ expansion” didn’t address related positive impacts likely to result from allowing “additional dwelling units” (ADUs) citywide. I want to shed light on unmentioned benefits.

Ald. Marty Quinn cited a fire in an illegal attic apartment. A safety benefit of legalizing ADUs citywide is making it easier for homeowners to legalize and renovate parts of a house that were built without a building permit.

Photo of the print version of the letter, by J.A.

When City Hall discovers an unpermitted dwelling — say, after a fire — the homeowner must spend money to remove parts that make it a home (usually the kitchen) because location-specific zoning rules prohibit it from remaining in place. What if the homeowner could spend that money making the attic or basement apartment code-compliant and continue providing a home? Allowing ADUs citywide increases safety citywide.

Another ADU benefit is that homeowners can generate income to help pay their mortgage or to facilitate multi-generational households. Council members should consider how best to implement citywide ADUs so that those benefits accrue to homeowners equitably. A debate exists over whether to allow ADUs in all residential zoning districts “by right” or to require homeowners in the city’s RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts to get “special use” approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Getting that approval to build an ADU will create a barrier so high that many homeowners will be unable to adapt their property to fit their family’s needs. Special use applications require a $1,000 application fee, plus fees charged by attorneys and consultants (which, while not required, are essential to ensure a successful outcome).

Divergent modes of allowing ADUs — one for families in RS-1 and RS-2, and another for all other zoning districts — extend the right to the majority of property owners but not in one-fifth of the city’s land area. This could perpetuate unsafe homes and cause inequitable disparities in financial opportunities and impositions on homeowners to gain approvals that could be borne more easily by homeowners in Mount Greenwood (median income: $106,538; 83% of the population is white) than in Washington Heights (median income: $55,428; 96% of the population is Black). City Council should choose to level the playing field and allow all homeowners to benefit from the ADU expansion.

Steven Vance, South Loop

Comment to Chicago zoning committee about the insufficient number of Zoning Board of Appeals members

Update: On July 19, 2024, Ald. Knudsen (43rd) introduced an ordinance that does what I suggested an ordinance could do. It’s very short: 7 new words and 1 changed word. Read the ordinance, O2024-0010982.

June 25, 2024

Hello members of the Chicago city council committee on zoning, landmarks, and building standards. My name is Steven Vance. I am a resident of the city of Chicago and an urban planner. I have spoken to this committee multiple times this year about matters that affect how much housing gets approved to be built in the city. 

I reiterate my comment from your April 8, 2024, meeting that the committee should amend the zoning ordinance to ensure that the Zoning Board of Appeals can function when there are not enough board members. Nearly three months later the ZBA is still incomplete. The City’s Municipal Code requires that the ZBA has five members and two alternates. Alternates fill in for members when they are unable to attend meetings, due to illness or personal matters. 

Screen grab showing a thumbnail of me speaking to committee.

In February, the ZBA was short two members which may have led to the failure to approve a proposed shelter in Uptown, as proposals require three affirmative votes and the proposal received two affirmative votes. The ZBA having incomplete membership puts the timely approval of applications for special use and variations at risk. This shortfall materially jeopardizes new development, especially matters involving new housing.

Since April, Mayor Johnson appointed two members, but only one, Adrian Soto, has been confirmed. 

The ZBA’s current state of four members is bound to affect more projects. I mentioned in April that at least two more shelter housing applications, which have support from the Chicago Department of Housing, are intending to be heard this year at ZBA but those projects have yet to come before ZBA. 

The proponents of those shelters could be feeling forced to wait until the ZBA has a full membership or else suffer the same fate as the shelter that failed at ZBA in February. This could push back construction and operations of the shelters, and further exacerbate the housing shortage and homelessness crisis in Chicago.

The Mayor and City Council should immediately take any reasonable steps within its authority to address housing and homelessness in the City, including:

  • First, prioritizing a fifth member.
  • Second, making pragmatic amendments to the code to allow alternates to sit in when there are fewer than five regular appointed ZBA members. The current code allows alternates to sit in only for regular members who are missing that day, and
  • Third, the committee should advance the Cut The Tape initiative which recommends revising zoning code requirements that “require all shelters and transitional housing developments to seek approval from ZBA, regardless of building size, form, or underlying zoning designation” – closer to an “as of right” situation that applies to most kinds of housing. 

 I speak for many when I urge this committee to legalize housing and adopt changes to effect such a strategy.