Category: Real Estate

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

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

June 25, 2024

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

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

Screen grab showing a thumbnail of me speaking to committee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prepared remarks: the ordinance to expand ADUs citywide has multiple benefits

Alongside representatives from CMAP, Community Investment Corporation and Preservation Compact, ULI Chicago, and the Chicago Association of Realtors, I also spoke at a subject matter hearing on June 11, 2024, to the Chicago City Council’s zoning committee about the necessity to expand accessory dwelling units to be allowed citywide. Read more about the proposed ordinance.

Hello, my name is Steven Vance. I am an urban planner and consultant in Chicago. I am also a member of Urban Environmentalists Illinois. I have been studying, promoting, and collaborating around ADUs for six years. I was on ULI Chicago’s task force, have presented to various groups about building an ADU, and created a free directory on that lists local architects and companies who can design and build ADUs. 

1st Ward Alderperson La Spata comments on the proposed ADU expansion ordinance during the subject matter hearing.

Given that background of some of my ADU work I feel that I understand a lot of how the adoption of ADUs in the last three years has fared and can point out future benefits that the city will gain if the proposed ordinance is adopted. I will highlight some of those future benefits.

Removing the maximum coach house size cap. The proposed ordinance would change the cap on how much floor area a coach house could have. Allowing larger coach houses on larger lots will allow more family-sized units with two or more bedrooms. Additionally, larger coach houses can make them more cost effective to build, because of the high fixed costs in building a coach house of any size. The proposed ordinance could facilitate more family-sized coach houses than are currently being built.

Allowing ground level coach houses through the administrative adjustment for parking. The proposed ordinance would allow property owners to build a coach house at grade, meaning it can be accessible. This would make it easier for families to decide to build a small house for an aging family member, who may very well be the current owner, as well as put a dent in the dearth of accessible housing. A second benefit of this change is that ground level construction is significantly cheaper than building atop a garage.

Allowing all-residential buildings in non-residential zones to participate. The proposed ordinance would allow thousands of residential-only buildings that are in B and C zoning districts to add an ADU. The Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University found that 25 percent of buildings with 5 or more units fit into this category but are currently ineligible. These are the building sizes that are most capable of adding two or more ADUs. If two or more ADUs are built, half must be rented affordably. Adopting this ordinance means those buildings would be able to add ADUs.

Allowing coach house and conversion units on the same lot can also be cost effective for property owners. Either one would likely require a water service or electric service upgrade so it makes sense to make one upgrade to serve multiple new homes.

I believe that the biggest gains in the city’s ADU policy will come from allowing them citywide, in all residential and mixed-use zoning districts. Citywide expansion makes it simpler for the departments to administer, makes all buildings capable of adding an ADU eligible to add an ADU, makes it easier for homeowners to add an additional home to fit their changing household needs, and lets other property owners add to the city’s housing abundance thereby slowing down rent increases that the city is experiencing.

Note: The plan, as explained in Crain’s and the Chicago Tribune, is to vote on the ordinance at the June 25, 2024, zoning committee meeting, and if approved there the City Council would vote at their July meeting. (City Council does not meet in August.)

Chicago’s zoning code doesn’t allow five (or more) roommates

Can you guess how many people the Chicago zoning code allows living together in a typical apartment or house when all of them are unrelated to each other?

  • 2
  • 4
  • 3
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7 or more

The answer is in the following paragraph.

The Chicago zoning code allows an unlimited number of related people to live together along with three unrelated people. If you’ve got roommates and none of you are related, the zoning code says that there can be only four of you in a dwelling unit. (There are alternatives to this scenario which are not part of the discussion, comprising shelters and congregate housing and group living, which are separately defined and exclusive of a typical “roommate” scenario.)

If you want to have four roommates you may need a five-bedroom house, which you could easily find in Chicago and go ahead and rent, you’ll be fine. The city will not enforce the zoning code in this situation.

The city’s planning and buildings departments will, however, enforce the zoning code at the time of a Planned Development or building permit application if the proposal is for an apartment building (likely marketed as a co-living situation) with five-bedrooms apartments. I’m aware of two such proposals happening in Chicago; one of the proposed projects is under construction but was modified prior to approval to have only four-bedroom apartments.

How the zoning code regulates occupancy limits in housing

The Chicago zoning code has two definitions (or “defined terms”) that have to be read together to understand how the limitation works.

17-17-0248 Dwelling Unit. One or more rooms arranged, designed or used as independent living quarters for a single household [a defined term, see below]. Buildings with more than one kitchen or more than one set of cooking facilities are deemed to contain multiple dwelling units unless the additional cooking facilities are clearly accessory and not intended to serve additional households.

17-17-0270 Household. One or more persons related by blood, marriage, legal adoption or guardianship, plus not more than 3 additional persons, all of whom live together as a single housekeeping unit; or one or more handicapped persons, as defined in the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, plus not more than 3 additional persons, all of whom live together as a single housekeeping unit.

None of the terms in the household term are themselves defined terms in the zoning code, so a “single housekeeping unit” would take the definition from the “latest edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary”, or as interpreted by the zoning administrator.

Most apartments, and especially apartments marketed and used as “co-living” are considered dwelling units. Thus, each apartment can comprise one household and one household can comprise a single housekeeping unit and a single housekeeping unit can comprise an unlimited number of related people and up to three unrelated people.

However, there is an exception that an unlimited number of unrelated “handicapped persons” can live with up to three unrelated people.

Why occupancy limits don’t belong in zoning codes

Occupancy limits based on family relationship and familial status arose when parts of cities were becoming overcrowded during an era of industrialization and moving to cities (urbanization). I’m not going to elucidate this point but direct readers to the history described in “Full house: occupancy standards, normative zoning, and the responses of US cities to changing households” by Amarillys Rodriguez.

Putting occupancy limits in zoning codes instills moral values that are outdated, maintain segregation, and fail to respond to changing norms, family development patterns (think “chosen family” households), and having the choice to decide who one wants to live with. In fact, it may be “virtually impossible to satisfactorily define family, or develop an alternative to the term, in a manner that satisfies the competing
goals of maintaining privacy, allowing freedom of association, and protecting
community ‘character’ (itself a loaded term)” (Sara Bronin, “Zoning by a Thousand Cuts”)

In Nolan Gray’s terms, zoning standards like this are based on “elite norms and heuristics”. (A heuristic is a problem-solving technique used when devising an optimal solution or assessment is impractical.)

Occupancy limits, if there are any, should be based on demonstrated facts that show benefits or pitfalls of numerically limiting who and how many people can live together. A building code that’s based on ensuring occupants’ safety is likely where that can be achieved and regulated; I’ll discuss what the Chicago Building Code has to say about occupancy limits in the next section.

Colorado Governor Polis recently signed a law that strips municipalities of the power to set occupancy limits that aren’t based on reliable information about the safety of the number of people in an apartment.

An excerpt from Colorado House Bill 24-1007; it reads, “(3) a local government shall not limit the number of people who may live together in a single dwelling based on familial relationship. Local governments retain the authority to implement residential occupancy limits based only on: (a) demonstrated health and safety standards, such as international building code standards, fire code regulations, or Colorado department of public health and environment wastewater and water quality standards;”

Chicago building code sets a kind of occupancy limit

If Chicago – or Illinois – were to adopt a law similar to Colorado’s the existing Chicago Building Code would regulate the design of an apartment. It does not set a maximum, though.

Jamin Nollsch, a senior architect at UrbanWorks who analyzed the code on my behalf, said “For the purposes of discussion, the Chicago Building Code says that at least eight people could occupy a 1,000 sf apartment. The code commentary makes it clear that the 125 s.f. per occupant load factor for apartments is a design mechanism for the egress system, and not an absolute maximum.

“There are many code sections that set limits on the occupant load of an apartment, whether it is the 7 s.f. per occupant limit, or 10 occupants for spaces with 1 exit, or the width of the egress doors. The occupant load factor, however, is intended to be a design factor and not a maximum. With approval from the building official, the maximum number of occupants can be as high as the egress design allows.”

In other words, if an apartment can be designed with a sufficient number or size or type of exiting paths, there is not really a limit to the number of people who the building code indicates could safely occupy the apartment.

Do you think the Chicago zoning ordinance should be amended to defer to the building code in setting occupancy limits?

The best ideas from Mayor Johnson’s “Cut The Tape” initiative

Mayor Johnson and staff in the Mayor’s Office announced today at the Chicago Cultural Center the finality of administrative and legislative strategies – called “Cut The Tape” – developed for the development process executive, EO2023-21.

What I think makes the “best” are the strategies that I believe will increase housing abundance (a phrase that made it into the vision statement) and reduce development costs. To explain why I picked it, I added a “Why?” statement to each.

A good portion of the 107 strategies are solutions to issues that I’m not familiar with [1], and for now I will be skipping those until I learn more about them.

The best publicly-visible strategies

  • 4. Design a process for expedited review of affordable housing development projects. [Why? Affordable housing already has high costs, some of which are extended carrying costs due to the lengthy review and approval process.]
  • 7. Convene a working group to explore consolidating the Community Development Commission (CDC) and Chicago Plan Commission (CPC) into a single body or to have joint meetings to streamline processes. [Why? Certain project types have to be approved by both commissions, which have different schedules, different application and documentation standards. Approving a project in fewer meetings saves time and effort from staff and applicant.]
  • 9. Propose that the City only present City-owned land sales to the Chicago Development Commission (CDC) if the land has acquisition, remediation, or vertical construction that is subsidized with TIF dollars. [Why? ChiBlockBuilder and similar sales should be able to be done with fewer necessary approvals. City Council would still have to approve these sales.]
  • 17. Reduce the number of internal design review meetings from 3 to 1 and assess how to best engage DPD’s Committee on Design going forward. [Why? Fewer meetings is better – I’m not sure what else to say.]
  • 20. Finalize pre-approved designs to create faster options to build more affordable housing. [Why? Come Home Chicago was a pretty good idea from the Lightfoot administration and it needs a conclusion, in the form of a catalog of pre-approved designs that home builders can license to get permits faster. If the post-TIF Bond gets adopted by City Council then the pre-approved plans will coincide with a missing middle initiative called “pad ready” in the Bond that will prepare city-owned lots for construction of houses in the plan catalog. Learn about how the pre-approved plan program in South Bend, Indiana, is going.]
  • 28. Expand the pilot program for cash advance payment options. [Why? A lot of grant programs are only paid as a reimbursement which makes it harder and sometimes more expensive for small businesses to execute on the reason they’re receiving the grant; this program would offer cash ahead of time with appropriate guardrails to protect potential taxpayer loss.]
  • 59. Expand the City’s Encumbrance Ordinance to enable the clearing of City fines and fees from City-owned vacant lots; to include any debt owed to city, including but not limited to: water or sewer assessment; money owed to the City pursuant to a court order or an order from the Department of Administrative Hearings (DOAH); or demolition liens. [Why? The city has liens on properties it owns, due to acquisition since those liens, for unpaid water and sewer bills, which it expects the acquirer of city-owned land to pay rather than the entity that generated the debt. In many cases, it’s faster and cheaper for the new owner to pay the old debt that belongs to someone else.]
  • 67. Eliminate Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) approval of a special use permit to open a hair salon, barber shop, body art shop, or nail salon. [Why? This one makes it into my top three. I don’t think there’s a valid argument for these types of businesses to have to obtain a “special use” from the ZBA. It’s regressive, it wastes everyone’s time, and the ZBA approves every single one of them.]
  • 68. Explore Universal Affordability Preferences that would allow buildings to add more housing by-right without triggering a planned development, but only if the additional units are affordable. [Why? Affordable housing – really, any new housing – should not be subject to community approval, and this would help overcome aldermanic privilege/prerogative while also generating more housing.]

List continues below

  • 69. Revisit zoning code elements that functionally require all shelters and transitional housing developments to seek approval from ZBA, regardless of building size, form, or underlying zoning designation. [Why? Shelters are necessary, should not be subject to local community approval, and the current system is ridiculous in that a shelter can fail to be approved because a ZBA member seat is unappointed or a member and an alternate didn’t show up to a meeting.]
  • 70. Amend the Chicago Zoning Ordinance to allow applicants for Type 1 zoning changes to incorporate requests for variations and administrative adjustments into Type 1 zoning change applications – eliminating the duplicate review processes. [Why? It lowers the cost of doing business in the city, and lowers the cost and speeds up the acquisition of certain approvals that the zoning code mandates. EXAMPLE: developer proposes a building that needs a 5′ reduction in the required rear setback; rather than see two different boards or committees and prepare two different sets of documentation and analysis, the developer bundles the setback variation request into the “Type 1” zoning change request. IN FACT, this strategy is complete and it’s been in use since February’s zoning committee meeting.]
  • 76 and 77. Allow commercial-to-residential conversions of ground floors while exempting those conversions from additional residential parking requirements. + Allow ground floor residential uses on commercial corridors with excessive vacancy. [Why? Housing abundance, and this would enable more accessible homes, a priority of AARP, Access Living, and others.]
  • 79. Pass ordinance to allow for up to four issues to be heard as administrative adjustments before a ZBA hearing is required. [Why? The documentation burden and the required “findings of fact”analysis for appearing in front of ZBA is unnecessary for the kinds of changes that really should be approved as administrative adjustments.]
  • 80 and 81. Create an interdepartmental working group to streamline special uses and variations by shifting most applications to administrative review processes, while retaining the ZBA’s more in-depth evaluation for applications that warrant an increased level of public scrutiny. + Allow multiple administrative adjustments to not be reviewed as variations, allowing certain parking reductions by right, and investigating whether other variations needed for housing projects may be addressed via administrative adjustment. [Why? Basically the same reason as 79.]
  • 82. Eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements on new developments citywide. [Why? Parking requirements increase development costs, are carbon-intensive, facilitate higher levels of car ownership in urban areas, and “free” spaces causes more traffic.]
  • 83. Remove zoning barriers to City’s Non-Congregate Shelter acquisition program, allowing existing buildings to be repurposed as shelters or transitional residences. [Why? Zoning shouldn’t be used to inhibit new housing, especially for the most vulnerable Chicagoans – see also 69.]
  • 103. Support third-party organizations to develop technical assistance and capacity building programs for emerging and MWBE developers. [Why? Chicago benefits if more people are capable of developing property – see CEMDI for an example of a capacity-building program.]

There are a ton of additional strategies that are largely internal processes but with clear benefits to city staff and the applicants that represent what’s sometimes meant as “streamlining” a process. For example:

  • 46. Explore technology platforms that will allow departments to better organize and track closing documents, beyond the current exchange of documents via email
  • 52. Explore the feasibility of using electronic signatures on contracts.

Honorable mentions

  • 56, which I would like to know more about: “Align Chicago Construction Codes with current national model codes and standards, including modernizing the Mechanical Code in 2024 and Building Code in 2025.”
    What is in the current versions of the International Building Codes that have been adopted since Chicago’s IBC 2018 that would reduce housing costs, or make it easier to build housing?
    According to a contributor, items in the ICC’s mechanical and plumbing codes should make construction more affordable, and updating to the latest IBC allows for more mass timber.
  • 78. Explore options to post DPD’s special use recommendations online at ZBA website seven days before hearing date. [Why? Transparency.]
  • 86. Explore options for ZBA to post applications, plans, findings of fact, and staff recommendations to its website. [Why? Transparency.]


Other land use and zoning reforms that are on the level of “eliminating parking mandates citywide”:

  • Allowing accessory dwelling units (basement units and coach houses) citywide.
  • Allowing two and three-flats in all residential zoning districts.

Want to organize around these policy changes? Join Urban Environmentalists Illinois.


[1]. For example, I am not familiar with what this strategy is referring to, or the impact it could have, but I trust – based on the overall quality, expansiveness, the expertise of the focus groups who were consulted, and personal familiarity with most strategies – that it’s important: “47. Consolidate DPD Capital Grant funding requirements, structures, and sources of three programs into two grant tracks: Medium and Large”.

Chicago City Council could end up voting to ban new dollar stores

Update: This ordinance passed out of licensing committee on Monday, January 22, 2024. Also, the link to the ordinance is not working and I can’t find another way to link to it on the City Clerk’s legislation database. The version that passed out of committee reduces the radius from 2 miles to 1 mile and reduces the threshold for fresh and frozen food to avoid the radius minimum from 40 percent to 10 percent.

Update 2, February 22, 2024: A substitute ordinance was passed by City Council yesterday; the thresholds described in the paragraph above were established but the distance separation clause was amended so that only dollar stores of the same owner are banned within one mile. In other words, and this is dependent on the definition of “controlling person” in the code at section 4-4-005, a Dollar General could not open within one mile of a Dollar General or a Dollar Tree, but a Family Dollar could. A new map is shown at the end.

Ald. O’Shea (19th Ward) has proposed an ordinance with 35 cosponsors that would ban dollar stores within two miles of another dollar store and within 1/8th mile of an “R” zoning district. The ordinance number is O2023-0004978; read the PDF of the proposed ordinance.

The ordinance would amend the zoning code in chapter 17 as well as add business license regulations in chapter 4 of the Municipal Code of Chicago. The new business licensing section would establish strict rules on “excessive loud noises” and trash accumulation at dollar stores, and even regulate what people outside the store could be doing, as well as require a site plan review by the planning and transportation departments (something usually only required when there is a driveway, drive-through, or larger development).

The city codes would include dollar stores under the new definition of “small box retailer”, which excludes Walgreens and gas station mini marts.

Specifically, “small-box retailer means a retail store (a) with a floor area between 5,000 and 17,500 square feet; (b) that sells at retail an assortment of physical goods, products, or merchandise directly to the consumer, including food or beverages for off-premises consumption, household products, personal grooming and health products, and other consumer goods; (c) that continuously offers and advertises a majority of the items in their inventory for sale at a price less than $5.00 per item; and (d) that does not: (i) contain a prescription pharmacy, (ii) sell gasoline or diesel fuel, (iii) primarily sell specialty food items, or (iv) dedicate less than 5% of shelf space and display areas to food sales.”

The proposal’s purpose is spelled out in the preamble, which makes some judgements about the prevalence of dollar stores in Chicago.

WHEREAS, The City of Chicago (“City”) is a home rule unit of government under Article VII, Section 6(a) of the 1970 Constitution of the State of Illinois and, as such, may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs, including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare; and

WHEREAS, There is a proliferation of small-box retailers, such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar (which is owned by Dollar Tree), and Dollar General, in urban areas, including the City, where small-box retailers are clustered in and around South and West Side neighborhoods; and

WHEREAS, Although small-box retailers can fill a need in communities lacking basic retail services, growing evidence suggests small-box retailers are not merely a byproduct of this economic distress, they can often be a cause of it; and

WHEREAS, By saturating communities, particularly majority-Black urban neighborhoods, with multiple stores, small-box retailers’ business strategy often makes it impossible for independent and local grocery stores to open, or, indeed remain open, in a community; and

WHEREAS, Small-box retailers are not a meaningful alternative to local grocery stores, often devoting minimal, if any, floor space to fresh, wholesome foods, and offering low-cost, single serving, highly processed foods that are in actuality much more expensive per ounce; and

WHEREAS, In addition to these negative economic impacts, small-box retailers also tend to attract higher inc dences of crime, theft, and other negative effects on the public health, safety, and welfare, suc as littering and the accumulation of waste far exceeding the dumpster space provided by small-box retailers; and

WHEREAS, Regulating small-box retailers is necessary, desirable, and in the public interest by promoting stronger, more resilient neighborhoods and protecting the public health, safety, and welfare of our Cit ; now, therefore:

Natalie Moore wrote a column in the Chicago Sun-Times about some of the impacts of dollar stores in the city.


If this ordinance went into effect, new dollar stores would only be allowed in the green areas of Chicago. Additional areas would open up if the proposed dollar store would dedicate ≥40 percent of shelf space to fresh or frozen food. This map only considers “Big Dollar” stores and not independent dollar stores that might meet the parameters in the proposed ordinance.

The map below shows 150 locations of Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar stores. Family Dollar is part of Dollar Tree.

The green areas show the parts of Chicago where a new dollar store that follows the default “two mile minimum” rule would be allowed. The proposed ordinance has a provision that if 40 percent or more of shelf space is dedicated to fresh or frozen food then that new dollar store only has to be one mile away from any other dollar store.

It’s possible that dollar store companies could erect stores that are smaller or larger than the floor area standard in the proposed ordinance that would otherwise capture them into the “small box retailer” definition.

A map based on the approved substitute ordinance, showing 1 mile buffer areas, is shown below.