Category: Housing

Chicago proposes prohibiting gas for heating & cooking in new construction homes

Update: The Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance (CABO) was sent to the rules committee today, 1/24/24. It will need 26 votes to be re-referred to the environmental protection and energy committee. [Per Heather Cherone]

Ordinance: O2024-0007305

Name: Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance (CABO)
Purpose: Improve indoor air quality, reduce heating costs, and reduce the city’s contribution to climate change
Mechanism: By amending the Chicago Construction Codes, new construction residences would not be able to have most types of combustion [1] used as the source of energy for cooking, water heating, and space heating [2].

The bulk of the code amendment is shown below.

The Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance would amend Chicago Construction Codes section 14N-R6.

This follows a previous building code amendment that required that any new construction housing built with combustion appliances also has the necessary electricity infrastructure – like higher amp circuits and higher voltage outlets – to enable swapping appliances for electric-only models. The Chicago Energy Transformation Code took effect November 1, 2022.

Many buildings are already being built all-electric because of the cost savings for builders and tenants, simpler designs, and the desire by some tenants to have cleaner indoor air. ComEd has an electric homes program that pays builders up to $5,000 per unit for going all-electric.

I believe that most tenants will realize at least a small improvement in their living arrangements by moving from a place that uses gas for heating and cooking to a place that is all-electric. In fact, I think they will ultimately appreciate the lower energy costs – the most significant cost change is the lack of a $30-50 monthly customer charge from Peoples Gas.

Additionally, much of the costs of buying and installing electric appliances in new construction homes (and renovated homes) is being subsidized by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The ordinance’s next steps are to be assigned to a City Council committee, passed out of that committee, and passed out of City Council. The ordinance’s standards would be effective 12 months after passage and apply to building permit applications filed on and after that date.

Show your support for the ordinance by contacting your alderperson, and submitting petitions from the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition and Sierra Club Illinois.

[Exceptions]

[1] Appliances that use a fuel source that when combusted emit less than 25 kilograms of CO2 per million BTU would be permitted, as would the combustion of wood in a fireplace or for cooking purposes.
[2] Combustion fuel used for “emergency and standby electricity” is excepted.

How much vacant housing is there in Chicago?

How many houses, buildings, units, and lots are vacant in Chicago depends on how you measure them. I’m aware of at least five ways to measure housing vacancy, using publicly available data, each with varying degrees of accuracy and coverage.

1. Vacant units, per Census bureau

The US Census Bureau says there are 1,258,704 dwelling units in Chicago, and that 10.2% of them are vacant (128,796 units). The Census bureau has two types of vacant, which generally break down into “listed for rent or for sale and temporarily unoccupied” and “all other reasons”. This data comes from American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year survey.

The Census says 37.3% of Chicago’s vacant units are “temporarily unoccupied” (38,450 units) and 62.7% are vacant for all other reasons (64,589 units). This data comes from ACS 1-year data, which has larger margins of error than the 5-year survey data.

The most common survey response within “all other reasons” is that the unit is currently being renovated or repaired (20.2%). The other top reasons are:

  • Currently being renovated/repaired: 20.2%
  • Personal/family reasons: 15.6%
  • Needs repairs: 14.6%
  • Preparing to rent/sell: 13.1%
  • Abandoned/possibly condemned: 10.1%

TAKEAWAY from #1: Fewer than all 64,589 units are “truly” vacant.

2. Vacant units, per Chicago’s Vacant Building Registry

From a February 2023 snapshot of the Chicago Vacant Building Registry, which requires landlords to register buildings as vacant once they are vacant for more than 30 days, there were 6,521 dwelling units that were reported by owners as vacant. Comparing this to the above Census bureau figure that nearly 65,000 units are truly vacant, this would mean that 90% of vacant units are not registered in the VBR. 

The reasons for vacancy were not included in the VBR data I received from the city. Also, these units are likely already included in the Census figure above and not in addition to.

TAKEAWAY from #2: There are at least 6,500 vacant dwelling units in Chicago. 

3. Buildings reported as vacant to 311

Chicagoans can report to 311 that they suspect a building to be vacant. There is no link to building violation citations or feedback on these reports as to whether the suspicion was founded by a city worker.

Notice how the number of reports dropped by about half from 2022 to 2023. I don’t know if there are fewer suspected buildings to be reported, fewer people are reporting buildings, or there are barriers to reporting and collecting the reports.

TAKEAWAY from #3: This data is probably not reliable to understand the number of vacant buildings in Chicago.

4. Buildings cited as needing to be registered in the Vacant Building Registry

In 2023, Chicago Department of Buildings inspectors cited 24 buildings with a violation for not being registered in the Vacant Building Registry.

TAKEAWAY from #4: If about 90% of vacant units are not registered then there are drastically few citations being issued to force registration.

5. Vacant lots, per Cook County Assessor Office

The CCAO classifies nearly every property in Cook County. The classification 1-00 represents vacant lots. At present there are 32,207 vacant lots in Chicago. 22,645 of these (70.3%) are in “R” zoning districts and allow only residential uses. Another 4,566 lots (14.2%) are in “B” and “C” neighborhood mixed-use zoning districts. 

TAKEAWAY from #5: Tens of thousands of new construction homes could be built on vacant lots.

Addendum: In its Chicago monthly market update for the multifamily housing sector, Colliers brokerage reported that the Chicago MSA “has a vacancy rate of 5.3%, which is below the national rate of 7.6%”.

A kludge to build a rental registry in Cook County 

Chicago should have a rental registry, a database of dwelling units that are rented to tenants, for at least two reasons:

  1. The city can know things about the rental units, including how much they cost, where they are, and if any are vacant and could be occupied if only people knew they were available and how to get in touch with the owner.
  2. The city can know who the owners are and contact them to issue citations or advise them, or fill out for them, emergency rental assistance during pandemics and other times of necessity.

Building and administering a rental registry from scratch would be very expensive – probably tens of millions to start and more than one million annually.

I propose a kludge that uses existing databases and modifies existing standard operating procedures amongst a small group of Cook County and Chicago agencies. A kludge is a workaround. It has other meanings and an uncertain etymology.

An ideal rental registry helps solve at least four problems:

  1. Identify who owns a rental home
  2. The number of rental units are in a building
  3. Rental price
  4. Rental unit availability [see my other blog post about counting vacant units]
A 9-unit apartment building in Little Italy is undergoing renovation.

The kludge has four parts

1. Incorporate data about the number of units declared on Real Estate Transfer Tax forms (which in Cook and many other counties are transmitted to the Illinois Department of Revenue digitally).

There is already a city office that reviews or audits these forms looking for instances where the buyer or seller incorrectly claimed certain exemptions from RETT, because of how the city can lose revenue. That office can also enforce that the number of units was correctly entered on the form. 

2. For banks that hold city deposits, amend legislation to require that their newly issued or refinanced mortgages specify the number of units in the required submitted documentation. The ordinance that regulates banks that hold city deposits was amended a few years ago to require that they report how many loans they issue in Chicago for both commercial and residential properties.

Databases 1 and 2 are checks for each other. 

3. “Hire” the Cook County Assessor’s Office to create and operate the database for the unit count data from 1 and 2 (likely as an augmentation of their existing database).

The database would also store any data the CCAO collects through the commercial valuation data they obtain from third party sources as well as from the owners who volunteer it (Assessor Kaegi is already collecting and publicly publishing this information). 

At this point, with features 1, 2, and 3, we are assembling a pretty broad but incomplete record of where rental units are. It will be come more complete over time as properties transfer (sell) and the details of the transfer (sale), and the properties themselves, are recorded.

It doesn’t have a clue as to the rental prices

4. The Cook County Assessor’s Office creates new property classifications. Property classifications allow for the comparison of like buildings for the purpose of establishing assessed values for all properties that are not tax exempt.

One of the most common classifications in Chicago is “2-11”, for apartment buildings with two to six units. This means that, generally, the value of the ubiquitous two-flats and three-flats get compared to other each other and sometimes to four-flats, etc.

I suggest that there should be a few new property classifications, but I have only one idea so far: classify limited equity and Chicago Housing Trust properties differently. 

Bickerdike is one organization that built a lot of limited equity row houses and detached houses in the 1990s and 2000s but I am not aware of a publicly accessible database identifying them.

These houses represent permanently affordable housing and we should have a better system to track them!

This screenshot of part of a spreadsheet is the apartments data that the Cook County Assessor’s Office collected for the 2021 tax year. 

How broad is the kludge?

  • Using the Real Estate Transfer Tax data from 2022 Q1 to Q3, there were 3,550 buildings in Chicago having 22,217 units transferred. (I don’t know how many were arms length transactions, meaning they were sold to new owners.)
  • In the CCAO’s apartments data collected for the Rogers Park Township, there is semi-detailed information about 715 buildings that have seven or more apartments comprising 18,541 units. Details include the unit size breakdown by bedroom count.

Chicago has 556,099 rented dwelling units in buildings with two or more units (according to the ACS 2021 1-year estimate). In my limited analysis I’ve already found data about 7.4 percent of them, and that’s only for part of the city [1].

Notes, limitations, and updates

[1] There may also be duplicates between the buildings in the RETT database and the CCAO apartments dataset.

These databases would not have information about detached (“single family”), single-unit semi-detached (rowhouses and townhouses), and condos used as rentals. This severely limits the coverage of information. As it stands, Chicago Cityscape has data coverage of unit count information for about 37 percent of multi-family (apartment) buildings.

5th Ward Alderperson Desmond Yancy proposed an ordinance that would establish a rental registry (O2023-0004085). The rationale for such is shown in the screenshot below. (Go directly to the ordinance’s PDF.)

Screenshot of the proposed rental registry benefits.

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 journal 6: How to make an all-electric house

After the bill drama with Peoples Gas last year, in which I was billed a $50 “base” fee per unit per month for the privilege of having a gas line to my house, I decided to make the gut rehab of my two flat all electric. I think that making an all electric house is easy, but it takes a lot of research to know what that means and how to select materials and appliances.

Read all of the “Two-flat owner journal” entries

Why go electric?

I have several reasons for keeping natural gas out of my house:

  • Natural gas has point source emissions causing indoor air pollution that need to be vented and evacuated properly (gas stovetops emit methane into your kitchen, so turn on your hood that hopefully vents to the outside)
  • The price of natural gas is not falling as fast as electricity is falling
  • Electricity is more and more likely to come from renewable sources, especially in Illinois because of our state policies that require ComEd and Ameren to buy more and more power from renewable sources
  • A future photovoltaic solar panel array could be integrated and some of the electricity in the house would come from its own generator
  • Without gas pipes in the house, there is less infrastructure to build and maintain
  • Climate change is continuing to make life harder for the world’s inhabitants and electrical heating & cooling causes less fossil fuel emissions (“An electrified home uses 8,333 more kWh annually than a gas (or propane) home but displaces 96 million BTU of fossil fuel use.”Elevate+Rocky Mountain Institute study)

There are still some downsides to having an all electric house, namely when the power goes out on the block then nothing in the house will turn on. There are solutions, for this, though, including integrating a battery pack or using a fossil fuel-powered generator with its own tank.

The Passivhaus-certified single-family house in Hyde Park that I toured in 2018 has a small natural gas-powered generator in the rear yard, fueled by a typical Peoples Gas supply line.

What does it mean to have an electric house?

I think there are three categories of choices that one makes, about visible appliances, invisible appliances, and heating & cooling.

A visible appliance is one you use directly and frequently, like an oven and a clothes dryer. These are essentially the only two appliances that have gas and electric versions and electric versions are just as commonly available as gas version.

An invisible appliance is one that’s in a closet or in the basement, like a water heater. Most people I know have a gas-powered water heater (usually a tank, not tankless), and there are two kinds of electric water heaters (which I detailed in Two-flat journal 3). Again, these are very common and electric water heaters (standard with resistance heating, tankless, and hybrid heat pump) can be picked up anywhere a gas-powered water heat can be purchased.

Think of a heat pump as a “reversible air conditioner”: an air conditioner removes heat in the air of a space and puts it outside, while a heat pump “removes” the heat in the air of the outside and puts it inside.

Heating & cooling is the complicated category of the three. A typical new construction house or condo has gas forced air for heating, a condenser for air conditioning, and the air is pushed through the house via ducts. In the electric universe, however, mini splits/air source heat pumps have been around for 40 years and are extremely efficient at both heating and cooling. In cold climate region 5, where Chicago is, air source heat pump manufacturers have additional products to deal with the extreme cold temperatures.

Going electric in the heating and cooling category is the only one that necessitates deeper research on windows, wall assembly, and insulation to go beyond the basic energy efficiency code (Illinois Energy Conservation Code 2018). While the air source heat pump is efficient (some have a coefficient of performance, COP, of 3-4, meaning it transfers three to four times as much heat energy to the house as the energy they consume) it will work very hard to keep a house warm during negative temperature days (F°) and thus it’s important to have a well-sealed house so the conditioned air you’re paying for doesn’t escape.

If you want your house to be all electric, a lot of these choices can be made over time. For example, you can stop the air pollution by buying a range with an induction cooktop, which is extremely efficient, safe for households with children, and very easy to clean. I like to cook soup in my Dutch oven (which is compatible with induction cooktop) and I would rather not have to have the burner on for an hour, accompanied by a noisy vent fan.

Financial benefits of an all electric house

In addition to certain federal tax credits for replacing certain appliances, which you can claim when you file your tax return, there are often local incentives. ComEd has a new Electric Homes program that offers $4,000 cash (to the builder or general contractor) for an electric house (new construction or renovation) that meets their requirements. (2021 is the second year in operation, and there’s no guarantee it will operate next year.)

From ComEd’s marketing:

Building your clients’ dream homes – why not make them energy efficient?

ComEd provides a $2,000 incentive per home for electric homes new construction! All-electric home construction can sound daunting at first, but with the knowledge and help of ComEd, you too can benefit from tight envelope, all-electric HVAC, heat pump water heating, lighting and appliances. Construction of single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes, and 2-4 flats are eligible.

Make the jump to high-quality, next-generation, electric homes. Reduce energy bills while providing superior comfort. Prepare for a clean, resilient energy future.

Learn about additional clean energy strategies like solar power, electric vehicle charging, smart homes and induction cooking.

Please reach out to Sophia Seol SSeol@slipstreaminc.org if you have any questions.

I’m planning to buy these products

I’ve done a lot of research on appliances in all three categories because my architect needs to know exactly which appliances I’m selecting so the kitchen, utility closet, basement, and other spaces can be designed to fit them. Thankfully, a lot of appliances have similar dimensions so it’s easy to match the available space with the catalog of laundry machines, refrigerators, etc.

My architect and I reviewed a printed set of plans last week, mainly so he could alternate between drawing on AutoCAD and marking up issues.

There are two main attributes to watch for when selecting electric appliances: the yellow Energy Guide label that estimates the annual cost of operating the appliance, and whether it has Energy Star certification. One of the ComEd Electric Homes requirement is that every appliance that can be Energy Star certified is – I’ve found that there are no certified ranges.

My favorite place to shop for appliances online is Abt. When I polled my Twitter followers last summer for appliance store recommendations, Abt was overwhelmingly the most recommended store.

Note: I have no idea which ones will be in stock when it comes time for me to buy any of them, but these are the ones I would pick right now.

All appliances and equipment are Energy Star-certified except where noted.

Visible appliances

  • Dishwasher. I’ve got three options on my list (each costs less than $500):
  • Refrigerator (a different one for each dwelling unit)
  • Oven/stovetop/range
    • Frigidaire FCRE3052AB ($629) – Not Energy Star certified, not induction
    • Frigidaire GCRI3058SS ($1,169) – Not Energy Star certified, yes induction

Invisible appliances

  • Water heater. Something to know about tankless is that it’s not necessary to have a single tankless source for the whole house, as it’s possible to have multiple tankless water heaters at each water source, sized to the need – the kitchen sink can have one, and the shower and the lavatory can share another. The hybrid heat pump water heater currently has a 10% federal tax credit, up to $300.
    • Rheem brand’s “Performance Platinum 40 Gal. 10-Year Hybrid High Efficiency Smart Tank Electric Water Heater” (Home Depot)
    • Each dwelling unit will have the same water heater but may not have the same kitchen and laundry appliances.
  • Clothes washer. Stacked, to save space, from (each is about $800):
  • Clothes dryer. Stacked, to save space, from (each is about $800):

Heating and cooling (HVAC)

Mini split systems have two parts: An outdoor condensing unit and one or more indoor fan units. They’re connected by a refrigerant line, an outgoing condensation line, and electricity from the outdoor unit to the indoor units that is routed through a small diameter (3″) hole in the exterior wall.

Three outdoor heat pumps on the roof
Three larger-capacity heat pumps on the roof of a new construction and all-electric three-flat in Pilsen. Photo: Steven Vance.

There are several options for indoor units: Wall-mounted, ceiling mounted cassette, ceiling mounted box, and ducted (the outdoor unit will provide the hot or cold refrigerant and the ducted unit will blow air through a duct network). My architect and I have selected two ceiling-mounted cassettes per dwelling unit; these fit within the 16″ between joists and avoids the protrusion of wall-mounted units.

  • Outdoor unit, Mitsubishi MXZ-3C30NAHZ2 (Ecomfort, $3,365 x2)
  • Ceiling cassette indoor unit, Mitsubishi MLZ-KP09NA (Ecomfort, $895 x4)

I will need a venting system to exchange fresh air into each dwelling unit, without relying on the typical situation where the leakiness of houses brings in fresh air. An energy efficient way to do this is to use an “energy recovery ventilator” (ERV) that transfers the heat or chill of outgoing conditioned air to incoming fresh air to reduce the amount of energy that the heat pump would expend to warm or chill the incoming air.

An alternative to ducted ERVs is to use a wall-mounted model, such as the Zehnder ComfoAir 70 ventilation unit, Holtop ERVQ-B150-1A1F, or Blauberg VENTO Expert A50-1 W (that’s on Blauberg’s German-market website, and that company has a subsidiary called VENTS that has an American-market website). There’s also Panasonic’s WhisperComfort ($420) that can be mounted on the wall or ceiling. However, I need to verify that either has air moving capacity required by the indoor air quality standard ASHRAE 62.2, specified in the ComEd Electric Homes program. It might be possible to use two of these, including one in the bathroom.

What’s missing

Oh, one more thing, the electrical panels in the basement will need to be replaced (which is part of the replacement of the entire electrical system), and ComEd will likely need to string higher-amperage lines from the alley overhead power lines to the house. This area requires more research and possible a conversation with an electrical contractor or ComEd. I’m currently assuming that I can specify that the electrical contractor will handle this with ComEd.