Category: Illinois

Letter to the editor: Legalize housing abundance across Illinois

My letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times was published on February 26, 2024.

State Rep. Kam Buckner of Chicago has introduced another land use bill that Illinoisans should support. The bill provides that municipalities with a population of 100,000 or more should allow property owners to have more than one home on a lot. This forward-thinking legislation represents a significant step toward addressing the pressing housing challenges facing our communities and would foster more inclusive and sustainable urban development.

The shortage of affordable housing in Illinois for middle-class families, particularly in the Chicago area, has reached a critical point. New housing in places with access to jobs, opportunities and amenities has not kept up with demand.

Buckner’s bill acknowledges the need for innovative solutions to tackle this issue head-on. By lifting the ban on multifamily housing options in residential zones, the legislation promotes diversity in housing types, catering to the needs of our population.

I believe cities that don’t allow enough housing should not be able to push people to remote areas that have cheaper housing and less access to the things that make our cities great. This sprawl has devastating effects on our agricultural land and natural open space, ultimately increasing the tax burden on municipalities by extending and maintaining utilities to far-flung, lower-density areas.

More often than not, residents of sprawling development have higher transportation costs, according to research by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

In Houston, America’s fourth-largest city with a lot of sprawling development and limited alternatives to driving, 34.4% of households pay 45% or more of their income just for housing and transportation. In Chicago, on the other hand, only 27.5% of households pay 45% or more of their income on housing and transportation.

Multifamily housing— which could be as little as two homes on a lot — not only provides more affordable options but also promotes a more efficient use of space and resources. By fostering mixed-use development, it’s easier to create and sustain neighborhoods with vibrant retail in walking distance.

map of the zoning districts in Naperville, symbolized in three categories (multifamily housing allowed, multifamily disallowed in a residential zoning district, and all other zoning districts)
Map of the zoning districts in Naperville, not shown in the Chicago Sun-Times posting. Three categories are symbolized: multifamily housing allowed, multifamily disallowed in a residential zoning district, and all other zoning districts.

Our legislators should recognize the positive impact that allowing multifamily housing can have on affordability, community development and overall urban sustainability. It’s time to embrace progressive measures that will shape a more equitable and prosperous future in Illinois.

Steven Vance, urban planner, South Loop

Illinois might join the country’s league of states adopting land use reforms

Illinois House Representative Kam Buckner (26th district) has introduced three bills that would adopt land use reforms across all or a lot of the state. This is a trend happening across the United States to address twin crises of low housing construction and limited affordable housing caused in large part by individual municipalities restricting new housing.

I’ve summarized the three proposed bills below. If you would like to help get these adopted, join the Urban Environmentalists of Illinois.

Allowing accessory dwelling units

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are apartments and small backyard houses that are built to provide on-site housing for family members, or generate additional income. They are usually allowed by amending zoning codes to add design parameters that treat them differently than apartments, detached, or attached houses and exempt them from typical density limitations inherent in nearly all zoning codes.

Buckner filed HB4213 in November 2023, which would disallow any unit of local government in Illinois from prohibiting ADUs, which most governments in Illinois do through various zoning rules (the main one being that a residentially-zoned parcel is only allowed to have a single building).

A bill like this has already been adopted in California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire (at a minimum).

Coach houses are one type of small backyard house, common in Chicago. This one in Lakeview was built in 2023.

Lifting parking mandates

Buckner submitted HB4638 in January 2024 to get local governments out of the business of forcing a minimum number of car parking spaces at developments near transit, which are currently established without any rationale. You might say the amount of space cities require businesses and apartment buildings to provide is based on vibes.

My letter to the editor describing the benefits of not requiring so much parking everywhere was published in The Daily Line this month.

There are so many better things we can do for a community than dedicating land for car parking.

Allowing more than one home per lot

Most municipal zoning codes in Illinois have a zoning district called something like “R1” that allows one detached house on a lot, often setting a very large minimum lot size that must be assembled before construction can begin. Municipal leaders then apply R1 broadly within their municipalities’ boundaries, effectively banning condos, townhouses, row houses, and apartments – the most affordable kinds of homes to buy and rent.

Buckner introduced HB4795 in February 2024; it would apply to the state’s eight largest cities and require them to allow at least a “duplex” (two-unit house) on every parcel that allows a detached single-family house.

Naperville would be one of the covered municipalities; the city allows two-family dwellings in R2 zoning districts and slightly more homes per lot in the higher-number R zoning districts. Their B1 neighborhood shopping district also allows multi-family housing.

My letter to the editor in support of this bill was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on February 26, 2024.

But the Naperville zoning map shows how prevalent R1 and its friends the “E” estate districts are: the vast majority of the city is zoned to allow only single detached houses.

Letter to the editor: Illinois cities shouldn’t have the ability to impose parking mandates

My letter to the editor was published as guest commentary in The Daily Line

State Rep. Kam Buckner’s bill to stop cities from mandating specific numbers of off-street car parking at homes and businesses in transit-served areas should be celebrated. These mandates increase the cost of housing, take up land that could be used for just about anything else (like, more housing), and, because of how they facilitate more driving and require building more curb cuts than is truly necessary, make it harder to walk, bike, or ride the bus to run errands.

A massive parking garage at the new Malcolm X College on the Near West Side of Chicago.

I rent my home and I like the idea that there are only enough car parking spaces in the building for people who really need to have a car close by and are willing to pay for it. This means that the cost of providing parking for everyone in the building is not added onto my rent. 

Currently, every municipality in Illinois with a zoning code has a different idea of how many car parking spaces are required at bars, restaurants, townhouses, bowling alleys, and cemeteries. City planners don’t have the training or expertise to project the demand for parking. In other words, they don’t know more than home builders and businesses do about how many parking spaces each project needs.

In the place of mandates, cities should let home builders and businesses choose how much parking they believe they need to serve their tenants, employees, and customers.

By prioritizing car ownership and usage, parking mandates perpetuate reliance on fossil fuels and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, removing such requirements can incentivize the use of public transportation, cycling, and walking, consequently reducing traffic congestion and air pollution in our cities.

Without parking mandates near transit service, cities will be freer to allocate land in ways that support sustainable transportation, including making room for more housing to be located near transit and in walking distance to essential shops and services.

I look forward to debating the specifics of Buckner’s bill and getting it passed this year. 

-Steven Vance, Chicago, urban planner

[P.S. Buckner has another bill, HB4795, to prevent Illinois’s eight largest cities from having residential zoning districts that disallow multiple units.]

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?

Biss gives a short speech about good city-building policies

Transcript (I wrote this):

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

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

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

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