Category: Housing

Additional dwelling units can help homeowners and make housing safer

A copy of my letter to the editor, as published in the Chicago Sun-Times. I had originally submitted this as an op-ed that was twice the length but I reduced it to 375 words at their behest.

Fran Spielman’s recent article “‘Bungalow Belt’ City Council members brace for battle over ‘granny flat’ expansion” didn’t address related positive impacts likely to result from allowing “additional dwelling units” (ADUs) citywide. I want to shed light on unmentioned benefits.

Ald. Marty Quinn cited a fire in an illegal attic apartment. A safety benefit of legalizing ADUs citywide is making it easier for homeowners to legalize and renovate parts of a house that were built without a building permit.

Photo of the print version of the letter, by J.A.

When City Hall discovers an unpermitted dwelling — say, after a fire — the homeowner must spend money to remove parts that make it a home (usually the kitchen) because location-specific zoning rules prohibit it from remaining in place. What if the homeowner could spend that money making the attic or basement apartment code-compliant and continue providing a home? Allowing ADUs citywide increases safety citywide.

Another ADU benefit is that homeowners can generate income to help pay their mortgage or to facilitate multi-generational households. Council members should consider how best to implement citywide ADUs so that those benefits accrue to homeowners equitably. A debate exists over whether to allow ADUs in all residential zoning districts “by right” or to require homeowners in the city’s RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts to get “special use” approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Getting that approval to build an ADU will create a barrier so high that many homeowners will be unable to adapt their property to fit their family’s needs. Special use applications require a $1,000 application fee, plus fees charged by attorneys and consultants (which, while not required, are essential to ensure a successful outcome).

Divergent modes of allowing ADUs — one for families in RS-1 and RS-2, and another for all other zoning districts — extend the right to the majority of property owners but not in one-fifth of the city’s land area. This could perpetuate unsafe homes and cause inequitable disparities in financial opportunities and impositions on homeowners to gain approvals that could be borne more easily by homeowners in Mount Greenwood (median income: $106,538; 83% of the population is white) than in Washington Heights (median income: $55,428; 96% of the population is Black). City Council should choose to level the playing field and allow all homeowners to benefit from the ADU expansion.

Steven Vance, South Loop

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.

Ald. Lawson re-introduces ordinance to jumpstart sagging ADU program

A subject matter hearing will be on June 11, 2024, at 10 AM (meeting details).

I wrote this summary of the ADU changes this proposed ordinance (SO2024-0008918, formerly O2023-2075) would implement (with my commentary in parentheses).

Before you read on, though, please sign the Urban Environmentalists Illinois petition to show your support for allowing ADUs citywide.

Interior of a coach house in Lakeview built in 2023.
  • It allows ADUs citywide (this is the most important change to speed up adoption)
  • Expands to B and C1, C2 zoning districts (this is important because there are thousands of residential-only properties that are incorrectly zoned in B and C districts which don’t allow ADUs)
  • It also allows ground floor commercial conversions but only if 40% of more of the property length is commercial space.
  • It allows a property owner to have both an interior ADU and a backyard house ADU (currently you can have one or more interior ADUs or a backyard house)
  • It removes the hard 700 s.f. cap on floor area in backyard houses. (Currently coach house sizes are limited to the lesser of 60% of the rear setback or 700 .s.f)
  • It allows property owners who want to build a coach house to ask the zoning administrator to waive parking requirements for the principal building. This would allow a property owner to reduce the number of existing parking spaces, allowing a coach house to be built as an accessible unit on the ground level. Ground-level coach houses will also be cheaper to construct!
  • It would require a special use from the ZBA to establish an ADU in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts. These are much less common than the other R zoning districts and 0 ADUs have been permitted in those districts since May 1, 2021. 
  • It allows the property owner OR the city to notify the alder of a proposed ADU permit application. 
  • It eliminates the need for the property owner to notify their two adjacent neighbors. 
  • It doesn’t change the affordability requirements when proposing to build 2 or more interior ADUs. 
  • It eliminates the restrictions in the 3 southern limit areas that limited the number of ADU permits per block per year (this restriction ended up having no effect due to little demand in those areas). 
  • It eliminates the requirement that to build a coach house at a 1-3 unit house it had to be owner occupied (only in the 3 southern pilot areas, again this restriction ended up having no effect due to little demand in those areas). 

The changes would take effect 120 days after passage. It’s no guarantee that all of these will remain in the final version!

The ADU program in Chicago needs this. As I pointed out in my comment to the Chicago City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards, the number of ADU permits has been declining since December 2022.

Why Chicago should have a rental registry

This is a publicly accessible scratchpad of what I’m thinking. As I already said, 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.
Who owns and rents each of these buildings, and are they providing a quality apartment to their tents?

Rationale for a rental registry

  • It could improve the quality of housing by forcing renovations when tenants are not making complaints due to the potential for retaliation or eviction.
  • Chicago’s complaint-based inspection system misses a lot of life-threatening situations (Illinois Answers Project, article 1, 2023; and Illinois Answers Project, article 2, 2023)
  • Tenants should be able to know who owns the property they rent. Under the current data regime in Illinois, it’s unreasonable to expect a tenant to know how to look up this information. Of course, someone could use my Chicago Cityscape platform to look up property ownership and transfers.
  • Chicago could put bad landlords out of business (Illinois Answers Project, 2021).

What do you think forms the basis for Chicago to have a rental registry?

How many more homes does Chicagoland need and is it 120,383?

Up For Growth, a national “moar housing” research group, publishes an annual report about underproduction of housing in 193 regions, including Chicagoland. In their 2023 report they found that there’s an underproduction of 120,383 homes in the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI metropolitan statistical area.

This graphic shows how U4G derived that figure of missing homes.

Housing underproduction as a narrative formula:

((existing households + missing households) * 1.05 [1]) - (total housing units + second/vacation homes + uninhabitable units) = underproduction

[1] means a 5% target vacancy rate

The novel metric here is “missing households”, which are households that haven’t formed due to a lack of housing. The report’s definition:

Missing Households. Households that may not have formed due to lack of availability and affordability, e.g. households with children over 18 years of age still living with their parents or individuals or couples living together as roommates at levels exceeding historical norms.

In the Chicago region, 120,383 homes represents 3.1 percent of the housing stock in 2021, meaning we need to grow the number of homes in Chicagoland by 3.1 percent to accommodate these emerging families, graduating students, roommates, and doubled-up tenants. The necessary expansion of housing is greater than 3.1 percent, however, to accommodate migration and homes no longer in the market due to various forms of vacancy.

We also need more housing to help prices flatten or go down, and reduce the number of households that are cost-burdened. Among the top 10 cities with the most housing underproduction, Chicago has the lowest share of households which are cost-burdened, at 46.0 percent.