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How much vacant housing is there in Chicago?

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

1. Vacant units, per Census bureau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Buildings reported as vacant to 311

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Vacant lots, per Cook County Assessor Office

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

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

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

Danielle Allen on the geography of power sharing and how I think it applies to Chicago

Danielle Allen is a professor of public policy at Harvard University. She also started the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation at Harvard. Danielle was interviewed on the California YIMBY “Abundance” podcast, published December 21.

Danielle said something that I thought was extremely relevant to understanding why the way decisions on Chicago land use and zoning are made is defective and leads to bad outcomes (including segregation and lack of housing in higher-resource neighborhoods ).

Before I excerpt from the interview, here are three summaries of how Chicago land use and zoning decision making processes are, as I said, “defective”. They come from myself, Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), and the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (better known as HUD).

My own summary: There are 51 ways – at least – to legalize housing in Chicago. The first is the collection of ordinances, regulations, and processes administered by City Hall (as well as the division of power within City Hall amongst the mayor’s office and the departments, and the influence exerted by same); the other 50 are the individual and idiosyncratic ways of the 50 alderpersons. Projects are entitled (approved) on a project by project and lot by lot basis. Every lot is zoned and its zoning district is fungible depending on if the local alderperson supports the change.

CAFHA: “The City of Chicago’s longstanding policy and practice of ‘aldermanic prerogative’ – whereby the City of Chicago delegates to the City’s 50 aldermen and alderwomen (“aldermen”) unfettered power over zoning, land use, city lots, and public financing, in order to decide where, if, and how affordable housing is built in their wards – discriminates on the basis of race, color, national origin, familial status, and disability, and perpetuates segregation on those bases, notwithstanding the city’s certifications it would overcome such segregation. These same policies and practices violate the City of Chicago’s duty to affirmatively further fair housing.”(CAFHA et. al. submitted this complaint to HUD in November 2018)

HUD: “The Department’s investigation indicates that the City affords each of its fifty wards a local veto over proposals to build affordable housing, and that many majority-White wards use the local veto to block, deter, or downsize such proposals. As a result, new affordable housing is rarely, if ever, constructed in the majority-White wards that already have the least affordable housing. The City acknowledges this effect of the practice, its historical use for the purpose of creating and maintaining patterns of racial segregation, and its continued use as a tool that effectuates racially motivated opposition to affordable housing. The City’s use of the local veto despite understanding its effects raises serious concerns about the City’s compliance with Title VI and Section 109.

“The Department understands that the local veto over affordable housing proposals is not a law or formal policy, but a practice arising from (1) the requirement that City Council approve all such proposals, and (2) the custom of only approving those proposals which have the affirmative support of the alderman for the ward in which the development is proposed. This investigation identified three ways in which aldermen wield the local veto to block, deter, or downsize proposals to build affordable housing:” [read the rest of they response to CAFHA’s complaint]

On to the interview!

This excerpted part of the conversation starts at 11:14.

Screen grab from the interview of Danielle Allen by Nolan Gray and Ned Resnikoff.

Ned Resnikoff: Nolan [Gray] and I have talked a lot about this idea that we need to, we need to bring back actual planning. So the idea that you have a sort of democratic process for for a citywide general plan, but then if something if a project conforms to that general plan, it’s like, well, the city, the community has already sort of planned to allow for that. And so I guess I’m curious how you think about that, like, is there? Is there a role for project by project planning? Or is it the sort of thing that should happen more at the citywide level or neighborhood level?

[Note that Chicago does not have a general or comprehensive plan. Another way to look at this is that Chicago’s zoning map is its comp plan.]

Danielle Allen: I think it can be either city wide or regional, it sort of depends on what the issue is, or neighborhood. If you take the case of land use in renewable energy contexts, it could literally be like the folks who sort of share the same wind footprint. And so do you think this is the hardest? Well, there’s many hard problems in this space.

But one of the hardest problems in the space is the fact that our current jurisdictional structures don’t always map the footprints of the affected community for a given issue.

[I bolded that statement. I think the issue where this is most relevant is housing production – the people who need or would use proposed housing is the affected community not mapped to the footprint of the Chicago alderperson’s jurisdiction and the application of that alderperson’s power is defined by one of 50 ways, leading to the outcomes of not building enough housing which are outlined in CAFHA’s complaint and HUD’s general agreement of the nature of the complaint.]

Danielle continues… So that’s the kind of thing I’m wrestling with, and my lab is working on, is kind of having concrete cases where that’s true. And then how do you start to actually give people access to a governance structure that aligns with the actual footprint of impact? And how would you make that work given the existing legacy jurisdictional structures? So I don’t think we have answers to that question yet. But I feel like that’s the problem we have to solve.

So for example, again, renewable energy is basically a land use issue, right? Because it takes so much more land to source energy through renewable sources, whether solar or wind. So at the end of the day, it’s like, anybody who thinks about land use, we need you in the kind of climate conversation because it is just fundamentally a land use question. I think what we’re working on is the different structures, that kind of collective ownership, so that the benefits that could come from harvesting the renewable energy resource that you are somehow connected to either because you’re upwind or downwind or someplace in between, but if the wind gets used, you’re going to be affected by it. You know, those kinds of things might give us some new governance structures that can kind of come in and help us break through some of our impasses. That’s the sort of thing we’re trying to figure out, to align the need for that participatory element that does deliver the appropriate kind of empowerment, but is also driving towards something effective.

Biking around Texel Island

Saturday, May 13, 2023, in the Netherlands on day 3 (day 12 of my trip).

Day 12

I had discussed with my friend that I wanted to go somewhere new and do something significant, likely distant from Rotterdam. I had long wanted to visit one of the Dutch islands that curves the country’s border in the North Sea from the area north of Amsterdam to Germany. The largest and easiest to visit one is Texel Island.

We left the house at around 8 AM to cycle to Rotterdam Centraal and ride the Intercity Direct train, with our bicycles, to Amsterdam Centraal station, where we changed to an Intercity train to Den Helder, a city at the tip of the Dutch mainland north of Amsterdam. The train arrived in Den Helder at 11 AM, where we picked up some snacks and cold sandwiches at Albert Heijn (the largest supermarket chain in the country), and rode over to the TESO ferry’s terminal.

Like many other ferries in the world, tickets are purchased only in one direction because of the assumption that you’re going to use the ferry to return (and Texel Island has no road crossings so a boat is the main way on and off). Another neat thing about this ferry is that pedestrians and bicycles are able to disembark and board simultaneously because outgoing bicycles are parked only on the right side of the boat and there is a one-way on and one-way off system for pedestrians and bicycles.

On the ferry

I wasn’t prepared to board this ferry. After we parked our bicycles in the designated area and went upstairs to the cabin I was floored at the cruise ship-like appearance. There was a self-service café, enormous bathrooms, a children’s play area, artificial trees, and a variety of seating options – single seats, seats with tables, couches to look out the side and couches to look out the front.

After inspecting the map of cycle routes on the island my friend and I decided to ride around the whole island clockwise. (An advantage of riding clockwise that day was to have a tailwind in the second half of the journey, when we would be tired.)

On the island

…we saw everything.

  • sheep
  • dunes
  • polders
  • Scottish Highlander cattle
  • forests
  • farms
  • tons and tons of e-bikes – I think that acoustic bikes were in the minority!
  • a lighthouse
  • beach cabanas
  • tulips
  • sea protection walls
  • passed through the towns of De Koog and De Cocksdorp

According to the tracking I did on Strava we rode 37.6 miles.

Heading home

On the return ferry my friend consulted the NS Travel Planner app to figure out the best itinerary of trains back to Rotterdam, as well as to figure out the time between the ferry’s arrival and the next train’s departure. It would be close, he said. We would need to exceed the Google Maps estimate of cycling time between the terminal and the station. And, he said, it’s likely that other people with bikes on this ferry also want to take the train and Dutch trains have a very small amount of space for bikes.

We cycled fast, and we made it onto the train about two minutes before departure. At Zaandam we changed to a Sprinter to Hoofddorp via Amsterdam Schiphol airport and at the airport station we changed to an (older) Intercity Direct train to Rotterdam. (The Intercity Direct train we took from Rotterdam in the morning was the new ICNG – next generation – set, and these trains have space for more bikes.)

Illinois updates its affordable housing enforcement statute to take effect in 2026

Illinois has a statute that requires every covered municipality to have an affordable housing stock of 10 percent relative to its total housing stock. The Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act exempts only municipalities with population of under 1,000, and those “in which at least 10% of its total year-round housing units are affordable, as determined by the Illinois Housing Development Authority”.

IHDA updates a list of non-exempt municipalities – those not achieving the 10 percent standard – every five years, which it last did in December 2023 (the list).

List of 44 non-exempt municipalities ordered by lowest percentage of housing stock which is affordable.

Glenview is one of the non-exempt municipalities and this year has “had trouble” approving new housing. Although neither proposed development included affordable housing, to my knowledge, the developer of one proposal said that the project rents would be less than the median; my guess is that most rentals in Glenview are not other apartments but whole houses.

I’ve been keeping a list, on Twitter, of other municipalities that have “had trouble” approving new housing.

One of the updates in the AHPAA adopted in 2023 is that the definition of who can appeal a municipality’s rejection of a proposed affordable housing development has been expanded to, basically, include someone who could have lived in the development if it was built.

The revised definition for appellants also includes housing advocacy organizations that have an overlapping geographic focus. This new appellant definition takes effect on January 1, 2026.

IHDA’s FAQ answer to who is an appellant and can appeal a rejected affordable housing development proposal.

If you know of an Illinois municipality that has voted to reject an affordable housing development, or has through some kind of delay or inaction effectively rejected an affordable housing development, please let me know!

How to map where I traveled when I went to Gorinchem, NL

On Monday, December 4, 2023, I wanted to ride a line in the Netherlands that I hadn’t yet, which is called the “MerwedeLingelijn” and goes between Dordrecht and Geldermalsen. In the NS journey planner database it’s called “Stoptrein” which distinguishes it from “Sprinter” and “Intercity”. Those names distinguish the service types on the Dutch railway network. (This particular Stoptrein is also a diesel-electric trainset.)

From Rotterdam, where I was staying, it would require at least one transfer to get to Gorinchem. But I wanted to stop in Utrecht to say hi to a friend during his work break – this meant there would be two transfers.

Here’s the itinerary I traveled on Monday

  • Rotterdam Centraal to Utrecht Centraal via Gouda, Intercity (half-hourly service) – 55 km
  • Utrecht Centraal to Geldermalsen, Sprinter (10-20 minute service) – 26 km
  • Geldermalsen to Gorinchem, Stoptrein (half-hourly service) – 27 km
  • [lunch and walk in Gorinchem, distance not recorded]
  • Gorinchem to Dordrecht, Stoptrein (quarter-hourly service) – 24 km
  • Dordrecht to Rotterdam, Waterbus (hourly service) – 21 km

How I drew the map

I wasn’t about to draw the routes by hand (although I did record the Waterbus ride on Strava as a “sail”) so I grabbed the data from OpenStreetMap.

If you want data in bulk from OpenStreetMap a common way to get it is from the HotOSM export tool. But I wanted specific transit routes, for which I could find the “way” IDs and export only those. For that I used Overpass Turbo and wrote the following query:

[out:json][timeout:25];
// gather results
rel(id:324888,13060594,5301520,2785504);
way(r);
// print results
out geom;

Notes

Frequencies refer to the pattern in the hour I used the service. The itinerary doesn’t include a Rotterdam Metro ride or the roundtrip bike ride from the Schiebroek neighborhood to Rotterdam Centraal).

Starting on December 10, the NS (Dutch national railway operator) is adding over 1,800 train services each week.