Category: Housing

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

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 and 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.

Heating and 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.

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.

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.

Chicago’s TOD rule is the only reason multi-family is being built in neighborhoods

This is the ordinance that says residential developments have to provide 0.5 car parking spaces per home, and that the minimum home size can be smaller.

How many units? At least 1,500. Here’re the 19 buildings I know about that are being built within 600 and 1,200 feet* of a Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ station – the only areas, essentially, where multi-family housing can be developed.

Why can’t dense housing be built elsewhere? Because the most desirable living areas in Chicago – along retail streets in Logan Square, North Center, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and West Town – are zoned for single-family use. (And ad-hoc zoning districts taking the place of community land use planning.)

How do I know popular neighborhoods are zoned for single-family use? Because Daniel Hertz’s new Simplified Chicago Zoning Map makes it easy to see. Yep, even along those dense business districts and even outside the train stations.

Do the single-family home zones contain single-family homes now? Absolutely not! Much of the buildings in areas zoned for single-family homes have everything but! The particular view of the map that Hertz uses in his blog post shows that even adjacent to CTA stations, and within 1 block, there are only single-family zones (in red). There are many multi-family buildings in these red zones.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only. View the map.

What ends up happening there? Teardowns. And the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce finds believes that non-matching zoning – it matches neither the existing uses nor the needs for the neighborhood – and teardowns are going to cut into consumer spending on its lively retail streets. Lakeview is seeing a population change to families which tend to have less disposable income.

More housing in a popular neighborhood means more shoppers, more property taxes, more “boots on the ground”, more “pedestrian congestion” in front of our local businesses.

Doesn’t the ordinance make station-adjacent parcels friendly to multi-family housing because of the TOD ordinance? Yes, and no. As Hertz points out, “virtually every sizable development involves a zoning variance or planned development process that goes beyond the zoning you’ll see on the map”.

The TOD ordinance is 19 months old and working exactly as intended, building more housing next to train stations, and giving more people the opportunity to have access to affordable transportation. So it needs an upgrade to be able to do more. Since, in Chicago, zoning is our land use plan, we need the best kind of zoning rules and this is one of the best.

Imagine what the TOD ordinance could do if it were expanded. Think, making the parking requirement relief and allowing different unit sizes by-right instead of going through an arduous and expensive zoning change process. Then, expanding the rule to include more than just 600 feet (which is less than a block) from a train station – people walk several blocks to get to CTA stations, and bike even more. And, beefing up the affordable housing requirements.

Let’s do this, Commissioner Andrew Mooney. Let’s do this, housing advocates. Let’s do this, transit advocates. I’m looking at you, Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), We Are/Somos Logan Square, Pilsen Alliance, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Active Transportation Alliance, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).

* The distance depends on existing Pedestrian Street zoning. If the property is on a designated Pedestrian Street then the station can be up to 1,200 for the ordinance to apply, double the normal 600 feet.

Jefferson Park station renovation highlights train station planning deficiencies

Jefferson Park train station rendering

Jefferson Park train station rendering from the City of Chicago. The only difference you see is canopies. What you don’t see is a walkable connection ut thisetween shops southeast of here and the train station – they’re separated by a strip of parking.

Plans for the renovation of the Jefferson Park CTA station are illustrative of the City’s failure to think deeply about how to design the projects that is funding in a way that maximizes potential for residential and commercial development around train stations.

The changes proposed for one of Chicagoland’s most important transit centers are weak. There’s no development plan, or any kind of neighborhood plan or “Corridor Development Initiative” for the Jefferson Park transit center.

Current city policy identifies train stations as optimal places to build new housing and commercial uses.

Without challenging the design to respond to this policy the transit center will continue to use neighborhood space inefficiently and doesn’t respond to demands from residents to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety and increase economic development.

Judging by the renderings, nothing is changing at the Jefferson Park Blue Line station (4917 N Milwaukee Ave). All of the improvements save for the canopy are invisible in this rendering. The CTA’s list of improvements reads like the superficial makeover that many stations got in the Station Renewal program almost three years ago, a stopgap measure until Your New Blue could begin.

There will be LED lighting, new paint, new escalators and stairs, new paving, and a new canopy. Only a few of those things make the station easier to access and use.

Jefferson Park is a major asset to the neighborhood and the city. The station serves CTA trains, Metra trains, CTA buses, and Pace buses to Chicago’s suburbs. The CTA’s September 2014 ridership report [PDF] said there are an average of 7,420 people boarding the Blue Line here each weekday, a 0.1% increase over September 2013. It’s the busiest Blue Line station outside of the Loop and O’Hare airport.*

On Twitter I said that the station should be surrounded by buildings, not bus bays. I’m not familiar with how many routes and buses use the station daily, and I’m not suggesting that space for buses go away. I’m challenging the Chicago Transit Authority and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to come up with a better plan for vehicle and pedestrian movements, and to start welcoming new development.

I pointed out the new Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Virginia where a residential building was constructed atop a bus bay (where I transferred from the Washington Flyer bus from Dulles). A plaza connects the bus bay to and apartment lobby and the Metrorail station.

Bus bays under an apartment building in Reston

The bus bay at the Wiehle-Reston Silver Line station in Reston, Virginia, is under an apartment building and plaza linking it to the Metrorail station.

The Metropolitan Planning Council conducted a consultation for the Logan Square Blue Line station – Your New Blue will make upgrades here, too – and the next door city-owned parking lot. Their consultation involved 700 people to decide what development at this station should look like. Their desires were pretty specific: there should be affordable housing, but not any higher than six stories.

The current policy, enacted as an ordinance and expressed in other city documents, allows developers to build more units in the same plot and save them and their tenants money by building less parking. But this policy is insufficient in that has no design review or public consultation attached. It also provides no zoning recommendations to expand the number of places to which it can apply.

A development plan, for which the CDI serves as a good, starting model, would bring residents – and people who want to live in the neighborhood – to discussions about if and how the neighborhood should change. It would hook into another city proposal, from the Chicago Department of Transportation, to build protected bike lanes on Milwaukee, but which ultimately failed. The process would probably uncover latent demand to build new housing in the neighborhood that’s stymied by incompatible zoning.**

The city’s recent choices for development and (lack of) urban design at this station as well as across from the Halsted Green Line station in Englewood where the city is selling vacant land to build a Whole Foods-anchored strip mall demonstrates how little deliberation there is in maximizing transit-oriented development, or TOD.

Their suburban forms are the antithesis of how we should be designing the stations and their environs – they should have higher densities and walkable places.

* Metra has published its 2014 station-level counts! This station had 599 daily boardings, yet not every train stops here. The Union Pacific Northwest (UP-NW) line that stops at Jefferson Park saw a 3.8% increase in ridership [PDF] from January to September 2014 versus the same period in 2013.

** There are no parcels near the Jefferson Park transit center that allow the transit-adjacent development ordinance to take effect; developers have to go through an arduous and sometimes costly process to persuade the alderman to change the zoning. The ordinance only affects Bx-3 districts (where x is 1-3 and -3 is the allowable density identifier).

Working with ZIP code data (and alternatives to using sketchy ZIP code data)

1711 North Kimball Avenue, built 1890

This building at 1711 N Kimball no longer receives mail and the local mail carrier would mark it as vacant. After a minimum length of time the address will appear in the United States Postal Service’s vacancy dataset, provided by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Photo: Gabriel X. Michael.

Working with accurate ZIP code data in your geographic publication (website or report) or demographic analysis can be problematic. The most accurate dataset – perhaps the only one that could be called reliably accurate – is one that you purchase from one of the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) authorized resellers. If you want to skip the introduction on what ZIP codes really represent, jump to “ZIP-code related datasets”.

Understanding what ZIP codes are

In other words the post office’s ZIP code data, which they use to deliver mail and not to locate people like your publication or analysis, is not free. It is also, unbeknownst to many, a dataset that lists mail carrier routes. It’s not a boundary or polygon, although many of the authorized resellers transform it into a boundary so buyers can geocode the location of their customers (retail companies might use this for customer tracking and profiling, and petition-creating websites for determining your elected officials).

The Census Bureau has its own issues using ZIP code data. For one, the ZIP code data changes as routes change and as delivery points change. Census boundaries needs to stay somewhat constant to be able to compare geographies over time, and Census tracts stay the same for a period of 10 years (between the decennial surveys).

Understanding that ZIP codes are well known (everybody has one and everybody knows theirs) and that it would be useful to present data on that level, the Bureau created “ZIP Code Tabulation Areas” (ZCTA) for the 2000 Census. They’re a collection of Census tracts that resemble a ZIP code’s area (they also often share the same 5-digit identifiers). The ZCTA and an area representing a ZIP code have a lot of overlap and can share much of the same space. ZCTA data is freely downloadable from the Census Bureau’s TIGER shapefiles website.

There’s a good discussion about what ZIP codes are and aren’t on the GIS StackExchange.

Chicago example of the problem

Here’s a real world example of the kinds of problems that ZIP code data availability and comprehension: Those working on the Chicago Health Atlas have run into this problem where they were using two different datasets: ZCTA from the Census Bureau and ZIP codes as prepared by the City of Chicago and published on their open data portal. Their solution, which is really a stopgap measure and needs further review not just by those involved in the app but by a diverse group of data experts, was to add a disclaimer that they use ZCTAs instead of the USPS’s ZIP code data.

ZIP-code related datasets

Fast forward to why I’m telling you all of this: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has two ZIP-code based datasets that may prove useful to mappers and researchers.

1. ZIP code crosswalk files

This is a collection of eight datasets that link a level of Census geography to ZIP codes (and the reverse). The most useful to me is ZIP to Census tract. This dataset tells you in which ZIP code a Census tract lies (including if it spans multiple ZIP codes). HUD is using data from the USPS to create this.

The dataset is documented well on their website and updated quarterly, going back to 2010. The most recent file comes as a 12 MB Excel spreadsheet.

2. Vacant addresses

The USPS employs thousands of mail carriers to delivery things to the millions of households across the country, and they keep track of when the mail carrier cannot delivery something because no one lives in the apartment or house anymore. The address vacancy data tells you the following characteristics at the Census tract level:

  • total number of addresses the USPS knows about
  • number of addresses on urban routes to which the mail carrier hasn’t been able to delivery for 90 days and longer
  • “no-stat” addresses: undeliverable rural addresses, places under construction, urban addresses unlikely to be active

You must register to download the vacant addresses data and be a governmental entity or non-profit organization*, per the agreement** HUD has with USPS. Learn more and download the vacancy data which they update quarterly.

Tina Fassett Smith is a researcher at DePaul University’s Institute of Housing Studies and reviewed part of this blog post. She stresses to readers to ignore the “no-stat” addresses in the USPS’s vacancy dataset. She said that research by her and her colleagues at the IHS concluded this section of the data is unreliable. Tina also said that the methodology mail carriers use to identify vacant addresses and places under change (construction or demolition) isn’t made public and that mail carriers have an incentive to collect the data instead of being compensated normally. Tina further explained the issues with no-stat.

We have seen instances of a relationship between the number of P.O. boxes (i.e., the presence of a post office) and the number of no-stats in an area. This is one reason we took it off of the IHS Data Portal. We have not found it to be a useful data set for better understanding neighborhoods or housing markets.

The Institute of Housing Studies provides vacancy data on their portal for those who don’t want to bother with the HUD sign-up process to obtain it.

* It appears that HUD doesn’t verify your eligibility.

** This agreement also states that one can only use the vacancy data for the “stated purpose”: “measuring and forecasting neighborhood changes, assessing neighborhood needs, and measuring/assessing the various HUD programs in which Users are involved”.

Proposed residential high-rise injects TOD and population loss into Logan Square conversation

A public notice stands in front of an affected property

There used to be a Max Gerber plumbing supply store here that the absent landlord demolished to reduce his property taxes. A developer has proposed built 254 units in two towers here, in spitting distance from the CTA’s 24-hour Blue Line.

Developer Rob Buono has proposed two towers for a vacant property 400 feet away (walking distance) from the Chicago Transit Authority’s California Blue Line station. It has caused quite a stir in Logan Square about how much development is the right amount, and brings into question residents’ understanding of how the neighborhood demographics have changed.

It has also brought “TOD” into the local conversation. Buono will get some relief from exceptional car parking requirements because of the land’s proximity to the ‘L’ rapid transit station.

The process will be a long one. The first meeting, called by Alderman Moreno, was held on Thursday night. I counted over 70 people on the sign-in sheet when I came in, and many people arrive after so saying 100 people were there isn’t a stretch. Moreno described his development policy: whenever they need a zoning change they must present their proposal to the community so Moreno can get their feedback.

Before Buono spoke, though, Moreno asked Daniel Hertz to briefly talk about transit-oriented development and why the development (or at least the number of units and car parking spaces it proposes) is a good project for this place, and in this neighborhood. In balancing concerns about car traffic, keeping people close to the services and products they need, and making it easy to get around, it makes the most sense to put the highest number of housing units in close proximity to high-capacity transit versus anywhere else.

Essentially, Logan Square has lost residents – 10,000 people since 2000 – concentrating the burden of patronizing local businesses, seen as a distinguishing asset in the neighborhood, on fewer people. Additionally, adding housing is the best way to combat rising home prices (and unaffordable rents) by offering more supply which reduces demand on richer people buying, converting, or tearing down existing buildings.

While no building permits will be issued for the towers until Ald. Moreno, Plan Commission, and City Council approve the zoning change, you can track what other kinds of buildings developers are building in the area surrounding 2293 N Milwaukee on Chicago Cityscape.

You’ll see quickly that a majority of the projects permitted this year are for single-family houses. Some of these are built on vacant parcels while at least one is  being built where there was previously a multi-family house.

In 2014, within 1/8 mile of the site:

  • +0 units in multi-unit buildings
  • -1 deconversion, turning two units into one unit
  • -1 teardown, turning a two-unit property into a single-family property
  • +17 single-familiy homes
  • Net gain of a maximum of 15 units

At this rate, Logan Square may grow at an extremely low rate – these homes will likely be filled with small families. The decreasing household size is another factor in Logan Square’s population loss.

Read about people’s reactions to the towers on other sites:

Joe Moreno

1st Ward Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno gracefully – given the circumstances – moderates the meeting.

What modernism should we preserve?

Ed. note: This post is written by Ryan Lakes, friend and architect

Goldberg’s Marina City towers are a couple of my favorite buildings in Chicago, but all of the discussion about preserving Prentice Women’s Hospital – designed by Bertrand Goldberg – has left me conflicted. The following is my response to the video above that was originally posted on Black Spectacles.

When we figure out how to easily move old, significant buildings that are no longer wanted by their owners and occupants, to museum-cities made up of the old masterpieces that have since fallen out of use or favor, then we will have the luxury to preserve them like books, paintings and sculptures. To me, large buildings are more like trees than art. Occasionally the great old fall to make way for the young. There is no moving them. And as time passes, individual systems age and decay, and evolution leads to new, often more efficient ways to compete for space and resources.

Prentice Women’s Hospital is slated for destruction by its owner, Northwestern University. Photo by Jeff Zoline. 

Contemporary architecture has a new set of more complex criteria to respond to than what was included in original modernism’s scope. With form ever following function, in modernism, as functions change, so too shall the forms. Is modern architecture able to do so? How do fans of modernist buildings plan to preserve them as fuel prices rise and the desire for energy efficient buildings increases?  What else besides their structure is not obsolete? Let’s not forget that the time of modernism was when most thought our resources were unlimited, that it was better to leave our lights on 24 hrs a day to save bulbs, and that it was better to employ machines to fabricate our buildings rather than our neighborhood craftsmen.

Photo of Zurich Esposito at protest to save Prentice by David Schalliol. 

Evidence of “Olympic change” in Rio’s favelas

I have never read Al Jazeera’s English edition until yesterday. I think I saw a post to this article on Twitter; it’s about how construction for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Rio, Brasil, is already removing parts of the favelas, or hillside shantytowns. The article is quite relevant for me because I wrote last week about how rising ticket prices threaten the egalitarian nature of watching futebol at the Rio’s most famous stadium, the Maracanã. From Al Jazeera:

This week came a series of troubling tales of the bulldozing and cleansing of the favelas, all in the name of “making Brazil ready for the Games”. Hundreds of families from Favela de Metro find themselves living on rubble with nowhere to go after a pitiless housing demolition by Brazilian authorities. By bulldozing homes before families had the chance to find new housing or be “relocated”, the government is in flagrant violation of the most basic concepts of human rights.

As you might expect, residents and planners have different ideas on what it means to remove these homes:

[Eduardo] Freitas doesn’t need a masters from the University of Chicago to understand what is happening. “The World Cup is on its way and they want this area. I think it is inhumane,” he said.

The Rio housing authority says that this is all in the name of “development” and by refurbishing the area, they are offering the favela dwellers, “dignity”.

The same thing has happened all across the United States and is still happening in Chicago. The Chicago Housing Authority, very quickly in the past 10 years, has demolished all of its high-rises (some were converted to condominiums, like Raymond Hilliard Homes at 54 W Cermak, or transferred to different ownership) under the Plan for Transformation. This displaced thousands of residents; some were moved to newly-built multi-flat buildings in specially-designed, mixed-income neighborhoods. But there weren’t enough of these buildings to absorb all of the residents who had to move out of the high-rises. I’m still not clear on where they went.

A favela in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Kevin Jones.

Chicago’s final public housing high-rise was demolished in April 2011.