Category: Cities

Where Chicago’s community colleges could build housing

The Illinois General Assembly and Governor Pritzker just gave community college districts in Illinois the authority to work with local housing authorities to develop affordable housing. The bill, HB0374, takes effect January 1, 2022. The text is very short (see the screenshot below or read the bill).

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What does this mean for community college districts? It probably means that they can lease their land to the local housing authority for that local housing authority to develop affordable housing for the community college’s students and their families.

The land is essentially free, since it’s already owned by the community college districts and it’s not taxed. Plus, community college districts have their own taxing authority (subject to caps) that can be used to pay for bond-based debt.

Three opportunities in Chicago

I’m going to point out three community college locations in Chicago that could be great places for new and affordable student housing to be built.

Malcolm X College

Across from the New Malcolm X college was the original Malcolm X college, and now it’s a huge vacant lot. The Community Colleges of Chicago sold it in 2016 to the City of Chicago, which sold it in 2017 to Rush University Hospital System (which is across the Eisenhower Expressway to the south).

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The land across from the New Malcolm X college has been vacant for half a decade.

Welp, Rush also wants to build housing – for unhoused people who use emergency rooms as a way to live and be housed. (People’s health dramatically improves when they have permanent housing and hospitals spend less money on treating them in expensive-to-operate ERs.) Rush and the Chicago Housing Authority could develop housing for both populations – the chronically sick and students – using funds combined with the Chicago community college district.

Additionally, the Jackson bus takes people to and from downtown, and the Blue Line has a station at Illinois Medical District a block away.

Humboldt Park

The Humboldt Park Vocational Education Center, which is operated by the Wilbur Wright community college, is another prime location for student housing. The center has a huge parking lot and lies along the California Avenue and North Avenue bus routes.

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Humboldt Park Vocational Education Center and its parking lot, which takes up more area than the building.

Parking lots love to be turned into homes, especially in gentrifying areas. That’s free land in a high-demand area where rent is north of $1,200 for a 1-bedroom apartment (I’m using HUD’s Fair Market Rent for the 60647 ZIP code).

Dawson Technical Institute

Then there’s Dawson Technical Institute in Bronzeville, which is about 2 blocks from the Indiana Green Line station and several east-west and north-south bus routes.

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Dawson also has a massive parking lot, on the opposite side of the Green Line tracks from the building on State Street.

Dawson teaches construction trades, which is perfect because the Green Line can take students to internships and jobs at all of the new construction in Fulton Market that’s ongoing and going to continue for the next three years (at a minimum).

What other good affordable student housing construction opportunities do community colleges in Illinois have?

Two-flat owner journal 2: Demolishing the interior

In order to get the two-flat ready for a gut rehab, one has to gut it.

The rehab stage is still months away, as my architect and I continue to develop plans. He does most of the work, but it’s quite collaborative because there are layout, design, and finishing choices that we need to make.

Gutting the house is also necessary for the plans because my architect needs to know what’s behind the walls.

I hired Amplify Property Solutions for the job. APS has a social mission of training and employing young Black men. You can ask me personally how much it cost, but it was between $5,000 and $10,000 (that range includes the cost of six Dumpsters).

I am very happy with the crew’s work and Ron and Ted’s dedication to communication, clarity, and customer service. The work took a week longer than they predicted because of some aspects that I think were next to impossible to know:

  • There were 1-2 “extra” layers of flooring in some places. From top to bottom in the upstairs living room there were carpet, wood, linoleum, wood, and subfloor layers.
  • Because the center beam in the basement has been failing (sagging) for years, the centers of each floor were sinking making the floors unlevel. Platforms were built in each kitchen to raise and level the floor.
  • The house is one of two row houses, so one exterior wall is shared. On this wall, behind the drywall was a 1″ layer of plaster that took awhile to chip away.

The subfloor boards are very wide and old growth and original (so they’re at least 130 years old). I’ve been told that some people find these valuable; if you’re interested in purchasing them, please get in touch!

See more photos below and in the house photo album.

Permitting

With this level of demolition, a permit is required! I pulled an easy permit for this project (which I think cost $375). The Dumpster company obtained their own permits to occupy the street right of way.

Also, as a way for the Chicago Department of Buildings to discourage gut rehabs being permitted with a series of easy permits, when a Standard Plan Review is most likely required, the DOB required that I apply for a renovation/alteration permit and show them in-progress drawings.

Consultants and contractors used so far


First floor kitchen
The demolition exposed the shape of the chimney. The right side was filled in and the wall was flat so we didn’t know how wide the chimney was.
The kitchen platform
The kitchen platform had a level top, but the floor beneath was uneven. The framing underneath the platform had angles cut to ensure the platform was level.

Damn, Metra is expensive

tl;dr: Metra costs nearly twice as much for the same trip

I went to Pullman today for a preservation organization’s task force meeting hosted by Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. Their office is in this weird US Bank office high-rise surrounded by open space, a golf course, warehouses, and an interstate.

There are many ways to get there. Some people drove their own cars from nearby neighborhoods, others shared a ride hail car, and I and at least one other person rode Metra, the region’s commuter rail service.

The Metra Electric District line has fast service between its downtown terminal at Millennium Station and 111th Street (Pullman), scheduled for a 36 minute run. The MED is Metra’s most regional rail-like service, with several electric train services per hour during some hours.

I rode a Divvy shared bike from the station nearest my office (300 feet away) to Millennium Station – in order to get to the station faster – and boarded the Metra about five minutes before it departed.

Us Bank tower in Pullman

Taking CTA, a separate transit operator in Chicagoland, is also an option. I could have taken CTA from my office at Madison/Wells to CNI’s office in the high-rise with less than 3/5th of a mile walking. Google Maps predicts that this trip would have taken 1:06 (one hour and six minutes). It would have cost $2.75 ($2.50+25 cents transfer)

Metra, on the other hand, excluding the marginal cost of my Divvy ride because I have a $99 annual membership that nets me unlimited free rides of up to 45 minutes, took 56 minutes (5 on bike, 36 on train, 15 on foot) and cost $5.25.

A 14 percent shorter trip via Metra cost me 90 percent more. If I wanted to have saved the 15 minute walking trip and taken a CTA bus, that would have been an extra $2.25. CTA and Metra do not have integrated fares ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Government is trying to do something about the price differential, and reduce the prices on the faster (and more comfortable) Metra rides. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is blocking it. Go figure.

Update, February 16, 2021:

Chicagoland’s massive parking footprint – as measured on September 16, 2018

Using the footprints of parking lots and garages drawn into OpenStreetMap as a data source, the area of land in Chicagoland occupied by parking lots and garages is 247,539,968 square feet. (The data was exported using HOT Export Tool; you can replicate my export.)

That converts to:

  • 5,682.71 acres
  • 8.88 mi^2 (square miles)
  • 22.99 km^2 (square kilometers)
  • ≈ 0.26 × area of Manhattan (≈ 87 km^2 )
  • 3.9% area of Chicago is parking (Chicago is ~589.56 km^2 )

(I forgot to measure the portion of this within Chicago, and now the data snapshot is gone. I fixed this in the 2019 report.)

Why Jefferson Park residents should allow more housing

Short answer: To provide more shoppers for the local businesses. Read on for the longer answer. 

Over on Chicago Cityscape I added a new feature called “market analysis” which measures the number of people who live within specific walking areas (measured by time) and driving areas (measured by distance). 

I am in favor of removing apartment & condo bans in Chicago, especially in areas where they were previously allowed and near train stations.

Jefferson Park is centered around two co-located train stations, serviced by CTA and Metra respectively. There have been multiple proposals for multi-family housing near the stations (collectively called the Jefferson Park Transit Center) and some have been approved. 

Always, however, there are residents who resist these proposals and the number of originally proposed apartments or condos gets reduced in the final version (classic NIMBYism). 

There’re four reasons – at least – why more housing should be allowed near the Jefferson Park Transit Center:

  • Locally owned businesses require a significant amount of shoppers who live nearby and walk up traffic
  • More people should have the opportunity to live near low-cost transportation
  • It will include more affordable housing, through Chicago’s inclusionary zoning rules (the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, ARO)
  • There will be less driving, and therefore lower household transportation costs and less neighborhood pollution

To support the first reason, I used the “market analysis” tool to see just how many people live in a walkable area centered around Veterans Square, a mixed-use office and retail development adjacent to the train stations. 

Only 9,368 people live within a 10 minute walk to Veterans Square (get the Address Snapshot). 

Comparatively, 19,707 people live within a 10 minute walk to The Crotch, or the center of Wicker Park, at the intersection of Milwaukee/North/Damen (get the Address Snapshot). The Blue Line station is about 75 feet south of the center point.

I would grant the low Veterans Square number a small discount based on the proximity to the Kennedy Expressway, which severely truncates walking areas up and down the northwest side. Still, even with that discount, ending up with less than half the amount as the one in Wicker Park, is disturbing. Wicker Park is hardly characterized by high-density housing. In fact, all of the new high-rises are just outside the 10 minute walk shed!

Don’t ban apartments on this vacant lot if you want more affordable housing – a case study

A vacant lot is for sale near the 606’s Bloomingdale Trail, a popular amenity that’s now known to have an effect in increasing home values. It’s zoned RS-3, which means it bans apartments. If the zoning stays the same, then the vacant lot will only allow a rich family to move in here. If the lot’s zoning is changed to allow apartments or condos, then the vacant lot could welcome families that earn median incomes.

You can build multi-family housing on the lot if you can get a zoning change, but you’ll have to pay the city a fee, convince your future neighbors that they shouldn’t oppose it, convince the alder that he should support it, and you’ll have to hire a lawyer.

Let’s say that zoning changes in Chicago were free and frictionless*. What should be built on this lot?

If the lot would allow multi-family housing, we can build several units for less money per unit than if we built a single-family house. That means that three families (let’s stick with three, which requires a zoning change to RM-4.5) could be housed for less money per family than the cost of one family.

How’s that? The sticker price for this lot is $425,000 right now, and if one family is paying for that plus the cost of building a house, then your minimum investment is pretty massive. (I suspect the lot will sell for something closer to $400,000.)

I looked at new construction costs on Chicago Cityscape, as indicated on building permits issued within 1 mile of the vacant lot, took the average, and added it to the cost of land per unit.

Construction costs

The average new construction single-family house, from the 10 most recent permits, is $304,052.78.

The average new construction multi-family housing, from the 10 most recent permits, is $230,192.13 per unit.

Total cost per unit (land + construction)

Add in the land cost per unit ($425,000 for the single-family house and $141,666.67 per unit for the 3-flat) and you end up with the total costs of:

  • $729,052.78 for the single-family house
  • $371,858.80 per unit in the 3-flat

Add in the profit or “cap rate” that a builder wants to make and the price is even higher, but the people who would buy in the multi-family house would be paying much less for their homes.

Takeaways

The city can generate more affordable housing if it “upzones” vacant land and stops banning multi-family housing. (Much of the city’s parcels have been “downzoned” to ban multi-family housing in a process that creates “exclusionary zoning” and allows only – expensive – single-family housing.)

The city and the Chicago Transit Authority will earn more real estate transfer taxes (RPTT) from the sales of the units as condos than from a single-family house.

Three families instead of one would enjoy living to the wonderful amenity that the Bloomingdale Trail and the parks that the 606 offers.

Want this kind of analysis for a property in Chicago? You can order a zoning report from me.

* The City of Chicago charges a zoning change fee of $1,025, and you will most likely have to hire a lawyer, and it will take about 3-6 months, depending on the complexity of the proposal that requires the zoning change. You can use Chicago Cityscape to see actual approval times (excluding the time meeting the alder for the ward of the proposed project).

Elevated above the ‘L’

Blue Line going down into the subway towards the Logan Square station.

This shot was slightly difficult because there are two controls on the remote control that I have to handle with the same hand: The first was the camera tilt and the second was the rotation. I think I can move the camera tilt function to the other dial. I only tried this shot twice, and this was the second one. It’s not perfect; there’s a hiccup after the rotation has finished and I didn’t tilt the camera up as soon as I would have liked.

The hot air balloon I used to get this shot is the DJI Mavic Pro.

Logan Square - the square from above

Is it possible for us to “greenline” neighborhoods?

(I don’t mean extending the Green Line to its original terminal, to provide more transportation options in Woodlawn.)

Maps have been used to devalue neighborhoods and to excuse disinvestment. There should be maps, and narratives, to “greenline” – raise up – Chicago neighborhoods.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “residential lending security” maps marked areas based on prejudicial characteristics and some objective traits of neighborhoods to assess the home mortgage lending risk. (View the Cook County maps.) The red and yellow areas have suffered almost continuously since the 1930s, and it could be based on the marking of these neighborhoods as red or yellow (there is some debate about the maps’ real effects).

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and its local consultants (brokers and appraisers, mostly) outlined areas and labeled them according to objective and subjective & prejudicial criteria in the 1930s. Each area is accompanied by a data sheet and narrative description. The image is a screenshot of the maps as hosted and presented on Chicago Cityscape.

The idea of “greenlining”

I might be thinking myopically, but what would happen if we marked *every* neighborhood in green, and talked about their strengths, and any historical and current disinvestment – actions that contribute to people’s distressed conditions today?

One aspect of this is a form of affirmative marketing – advertising yourself, telling your own story, in a more positive way than others have heard about you in the past.

In 1940, one area on the Far West Side of Chicago, in the Austin community area, was described as “Definitely Declining”, a “C” grade, like this:

This area is bounded on the north by Lake St., on the south by Columbus Park, and on the west by the neighboring village of Oak Park. The terrain is flat and the area is about 100% built up. There is heavy traffic along Lake St., Washington Blvd. Madison St., Austin Ave. (the western boundary) and Central Ave. (the eastern boundary).

High schools, grammar schools, and churches are convenient. Residents shop at fine shopping center in Oak Park. There are also numerouss small stores along Lake St., and along Madison St. There are many large apartment buildings along the boulevards above mentioned, and these are largely occupied by Hebrew tenants. As a whole the area would probably be 20-25% Jewish.

Some of this migration is coming from Lawndale and from the southwest side of Chicago. Land values are quite high due to the fact that the area is zoned for apartment buildings. This penalizes single family occupancy because of high taxes based on exclusive land values, which are from $60-80 a front foot, altho one authority estimates them at $100 a front foot. An example of this is shown where HOLC had a house on Mason St. exposed for sale over a (over) period of two years at prices beginning at $6,000 and going down to $4,500. it was finally sold for $3,800. The land alone is taxed based on a valuation exceeding that amount. This area is favored by good transportation and by proximity to a good Catholic Church and parochial school.

There are a few scattered two flats in which units rent for about $55. Columbus Park on the south affords exceptional recreational advantages. The Hawthorne Building & Loan, Bell Savings Building & Loan, and Prairie State Bank have loaned in this area, without the FHA insurance provision. The amounts are stated to be up to 50% and in some cases 60%, of current appraisals.

Age, slow infiltration, and rather indifferent maintenance have been considered in grading this area “C”.

Infiltration is a coded reference to people of color, and Jews.

My questions about how to “greenline” a neighborhood

  1. How would you describe this part of Austin today to stand up for the neighborhood and its residents, the actions taken against them over decades, and work to repair these?
  2. How do you change the mindset of investors (both small and large, local and far) to see the advantages in every neighborhood rather than rely on money metrics?
  3. What other kinds of data can investors use in their pro formas to find the positive outlook?
  4. What would these areas look like today if they received the same level of investment (per square mile, per student, per resident, per road mile) as green and blue areas? How great was the level of disinvestment from 1940-2018?

In the midst of writing this, Paola Aguirre pointed me to another kind of greenlining that’s been proposed in St. Louis. A new anti-segregation report from For the Sake of All recommended a “Greenlining Fund” that would pay to cover the gap between what the bank is appraising a house for and what the sales price is for a house, so that more renters and Black families can buy a house in their neighborhoods.

That “greenlining” is a more direct response to the outcome of redlining: It was harder to get a mortgage in a red area. My idea of greenlining is to come up with ways to say to convince people who have a hard time believing there are qualities worth investing in that there they are people and places worth investing in.


The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond digitized the HOLC maps and published them on their Mapping Inequality website as well as provided the GIS data under a Creative Commons license.

Which Chicago buildings have the worst energy efficiency?

About five years ago (I’m too lazy to look it up right now), the City of Chicago adopted an energy benchmarking law. This means that owners of buildings of a certain size would soon be required to report how much energy (electricity, natural gas, district steam, chilled water, and other fuels) their buildings use. Every few years they have to audit their reports.

The city has posted three years of energy reports for the “covered” buildings (the ones of a certain size) on its data portal. I copied the Chicago Energy Benchmarking dataset into the Chicago Cityscape database (for future features) and then loaded it into QGIS so I could analyze the data and find the least efficient buildings in Chicago.

The dataset has all three years so I started the analysis by filtering only for the latest year, 2016. I first visualized the data using the “ghg_intensity_kg_co2e_sq_ft” column, which is “greenhouse gas intensity, measured in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square foot”. In other words, how much carbon does the building cause to be emitted based on its energy usage and normalized by its size.

In QGIS, to symbolize this kind of quantitative data, it helps to show them in groups. Here are “small fry” emitters, medium emitters, and bad emitters. I used the “Graduated” option in the Symbology setting and chose the Natural Breaks (Jenks) mode of dividing the greenhouse gas intensity values into four groups.

There are four groups, divided using the Natural Breaks (Jenks) method. There’s only one building in the “worst” energy users group, which is Salem Baptist Church, marked by a large red dot. The darker red the dot, the more energy per square foot that building consumes.

Among the four groups, only one building in Chicago that reported in 2016 was in the “worst emitters” group: Salem Baptist Church of Chicago at 10909 S Cottage Grove Avenue in Pullman.

The Salem Baptist Church building was built in 1960, has a gross floor area of 91,800 square feet, and an Energy Star rating of 1 because it emits 304.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square foot (kgco2esf). (The Energy Star rating scale is from 1 to 100.)

The next “worse” emitter in the same “Worship Facility” category as Salem Baptist Church is several magnitudes of order lower. That’s St. Peter’s Church at 110 W Madison Street in the Loop, built in 1900, which emits 11.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square foot (but which also has an Energy Star rating of 1).

The vast difference is concerning: Did the church report its energy usage correctly, or are they not maintaining their HVAC equipment or the building and it’s leaking so much air?

A different building was in the “worst” emitter category in 2015 but improved something about the building by 2016 to use a lot less energy. Looking deeper at the data for Piper’s Alley, however, something else happened.

In 2015, Piper’s Alley reported a single building with 137,176 gross square feet of floor area. The building’s owner also reported 5,869,902 kBTUs of electricity usage and 1,099,712,681 kBTUs of natural gas usage. Since these are reported in kilo-BTUs that means that you multiply each number by 1,000. Piper’s Alley reported using 1 trillion BTUs of natural gas. Which seems like an insane amount of energy usage, but could be totally reasonable – I’m not familiar with data on how much energy a “typical” large building uses.

Piper’s Alley in Old Town is the building that reported two different floor areas and vastly different energy usage in 2015 and 2016. The building’s owner didn’t report data for 2014 (although it may not have been required to).

There’s another problem with the reporting for Piper’s Alley, however: For 2016, it reported a gross floor area of 217,250 square feet, which is 36 percent larger than the area it reported in 2015. The building reported using significantly more electricity (58 percent more) and significantly less natural gas (137 percent less), for a vastly lowered kgco2esf value.

I think the energy benchmarking data set needs more eyes on it. Discuss in the comments below, or reply to my Twitter thread.

Biss gives a short speech about good city-building policies

Transcript (I wrote this):

“We need the right land use policies, so around things like parking minimums, which are catastrophic, around things like height rules around transit nodes, around things like the way that bike lanes operate, and the design of roads that kind of allow for 35 mph and not 25 mph…all that stuff that we know is a disincentive to walking and cycling, is embedded in our municipal land use policies.

“What the state should do is not just increase investment in mass transit, but then condition that investment on municipal polices that encourage the kind of mixed-use development, transit-oriented development, walkability, bikeability.

“If you do that, if you have state dollars tied to these policies, you can change municipal polices across the state, and then you can have a real revolution in walkability and bikeability.”

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