This is the first post in what might become a video series about the Chicago zoning code. I picked business live/work unit because they’re a rarely seen “use” (an establishment) in Chicago, likely in part due to how few buildings are zoned to allow them and that the rules setting their minimum size might make eligible spaces doubly harder to find.
There is no order! An authentic “Zoning 101” would probably start by describing zoning, but I’m assuming you know that Chicago has a zoning code that defines what can and cannot be built or practiced on every property in the city. Business live/work units are one of those many things the code defines and regulates.
A business live/work unit is distinguished from an artist live/work unit in the Chicago zoning code in that it allows more business types – i.e. more than the creation or practice of art is allowed – but it requires that they happen on the ground floor. Artist live/work units are allowed in more zoning districts as of right (no additional permission necessary) above the ground floor.
What do you want to learn about next? Leave a comment or @ me on Twitter (stevevance).
Links to the relevant parts of the Chicago zoning code:
Listen to the episodes where they interview my friend Eric Allix Rogers about what he appreciates in Chicago, and my sometimes conspirator Emily Talen (also an urban geography professor at University of Chicago). Other Chicagoans, Natalie Moore and Mary Wisniewski, have also been interviewed. Episodes are short!
This is one of Bloomberg media’s podcasts, with hosts Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal. I mostly appreciate the episodes where they explain financial topics I still have a hard time understanding, and I really liked the recent episode where they interviewed Saule Omarova to talk about the FDIC and the Federal Reserve.
Tracy and Joe also interviewed Stephen Smith and Bobby Fijan to talk about apartment building designs, unit layouts, and why the double-loaded corridor is fine for hotels but not fine building apartments for families.
This should have gone in my previous post because this is another urbanism podcast. The title is a pretty good summary and the three hosts – Sarah Goodyear, Aaron Naparstek, who cofounded Streetsblog, and Doug Gordon – discuss the many, many ways that cars ruin cities.
Chicago should have a rental registry, a database of dwelling units that are rented to tenants, for at least two reasons:
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.
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.
Building and administering a rental registry from scratch would be very expensive – probably tens of millions to start and more than one million annually.
I propose a kludgethat uses existing databases and modifies existing standard operating procedures amongst a small group of Cook County and Chicago agencies. A kludge is a workaround. It has other meanings and an uncertain etymology.
The kludge has four parts
1. Incorporate data about the number of units declared on Real Estate Transfer Tax forms (which in Cook and many other counties are transmitted to the Illinois Department of Revenue digitally).
There is already a city office that reviews or audits these forms looking for instances where the buyer or seller incorrectly claimed certain exemptions from RETT, because of how the city can lose revenue. That office can also enforce that the number of units was correctly entered on the form.
2. For banks that hold city deposits, amend legislation to require that their newly issued or refinanced mortgages specify the number of units in the required submitted documentation. The ordinance that regulates banks that hold city deposits was amended a few years ago to require that they report how many loans they issue in Chicago for both commercial and residential properties.
Databases 1 and 2 are checks for each other.
3. “Hire” the Cook County Assessor’s Office to create and operate the database for the unit count data from 1 and 2 (likely as an augmentation of their existing database).
The database would also store any data the CCAO collects through the commercial valuation data they obtain from third party sources as well as from the owners who volunteer it (Assessor Kaegi is already collecting and publicly publishing this information).
At this point, with features 1, 2, and 3, we are assembling a pretty broad but incomplete record of where rental units are. It will be come more complete over time as properties transfer (sell) and the details of the transfer (sale), and the properties themselves, are recorded.
It doesn’t have a clue as to the rental prices.
4. The Cook County Assessor’s Office creates new property classifications. Property classifications allow for the comparison of like buildings for the purpose of establishing assessed values for all properties that are not tax exempt.
One of the most common classifications in Chicago is “2-11”, for apartment buildings with two to six units. This means that, generally, the value of the ubiquitous two-flats and three-flats get compared to other each other and sometimes to four-flats, etc.
I suggest that there should be a few new property classifications, but I have only one idea so far: classify limited equity and Chicago Housing Trust properties differently.
Bickerdike is one organization that built a lot of limited equity row houses and detached houses in the 1990s and 2000s but I am not aware of a publicly accessible database identifying them.
These houses represent permanently affordable housing and we should have a better system to track them!
How broad is the kludge?
Using the Real Estate Transfer Tax data from 2022 Q1 to Q3, there were 3,550 buildings in Chicago having 22,217 units transferred. (I don’t know how many were arms length transactions, meaning they were sold to new owners.)
In the CCAO’s apartments data collected for the Rogers Park Township, there is semi-detailed information about 715 buildings that have seven or more apartments comprising 18,541 units. Details include the unit size breakdown by bedroom count.
Chicago has 556,099 rented dwelling units in buildings with two or more units (according to the ACS 2021 1-year estimate). In my limited analysis I’ve already found data about 7.4 percent of them, and that’s only for part of the city .
 There may also be duplicates between the buildings in the RETT database and the CCAO apartments dataset.
It’s possible to use 1950 U.S. Census records to establish a number of historic dwelling units at a building in Chicago for the purposes of the city generating a “zoning certificate”. That’s a recognition of the number of legal dwelling units especially useful when that number of dwelling units is greater than the current zoning code allows. They’re required to be generated (i.e. requested from the city’s planning department) during the sale of a small-scale residential property.
However, based on a recent experience of a client of mine, the zoning certificate – while supposedly valid for one year – is subject to dispute later! Finding Census records showing the same or more dwelling units in a given building has helped re-establish the validity of the number of units stated in a zoning certificate.
It will take you some time to research Census records! (I would budget at least one hour. There is a painstaking process to find the webpage that has the enumeration (counting) sheets for the address you want, and it will take some time to sift through those sheets (and you may have to look at multiple pages for the same address).
Here are the steps involved
Find the enumeration district (ED).
Review that ED’s set of sheets in the National Archives 1950 Census website.
Page through and read every sheet until the address is found.
Tip: I recommend doing this, especially step 3, on a computer with the largest screen possible as it’s easier to view the scanned Census sheets that way.
Once you locate the ED (following the instructions in “Generate an ED number”) I would say stop reading the NYPL blog post.
Alternatively, for Chicago address lookups, you can browse these maps of the enumeration districts and then search for those ED numbers directly on the National Archives website.
2. Review that ED’s set of sheets
The instructions will advise you to use Steve Morse’s third-party Unified Census ED Finder (which is the most useful part of this process). The ED Finder has a wizard asking you to select state, county, city, and street name and cross street. It will then produce a set of one or more ED numbers under the heading, “1950 ED numbers corresponding to your location”.
Tip: ED Finder will likely show you multiple ED numbers; you may need to look at all of them to find an address. I think this happens because the link between each enumeration district and a city’s streets is imprecise
Click each ED number, which opens a new tab in the ED Finder website with links to three different image viewers. These are databases where scans of microfilm are shown online. One of them, NARA, is public – that’s the National Archives & Records Administration. I recommend that one as it’s free and doesn’t require an account.
3. Read each enumeration sheet
Once you arrive on the NARA website click on the “Population Schedules” to reveal the enumeration sheets. Start paging and reading!
Tip: Street names are written vertically on the left edge of the page.
The NARA viewer isn’t the best – it doesn’t allow you to make it full-screen; I was constantly having to zoom in to read the street names and house numbers.
Updated May 3, 2021, to add more insight from Robinson Meyer (The Atlantic) as to why lumber prices are so high.
My architect and I are still working on plans, slowly but surely. Read my previous entry, Two-flat journal #4, to understand why that seems to be taking awhile.
There is something else on my mind as we work toward the goal of a gut-rehabbed two-flat: How much this whole project is going to cost.
I’ve talked to several contractors, engaged a structural engineer to specify and design the new steel beam in the basement, and obtained quotes for all new windows from four manufacturers.
One contractor happily gave me an estimate, based on incomplete plans, that was about $220,000. That price could go down with more specific plans and instructions, as the estimate had variability based on unknowns, and it doesn’t include the cost of purchasing the windows. More likely, I think the price will go up due to material costs.
How much windows might cost
All window quotes I’ve obtained include installation by the manufacturer’s selected installers, which has a benefit from some companies, mainly that the maker will guarantee the installation for a period of time.
I would share the quotes with you but I don’t think they would be very helpful at this point because I haven’t evaluated each of the quotes on the quality of the window. For example, one of the window quotes was three times higher than the next highest quote, but the maker guarantees installation for 10 years and is a higher-quality window. But what is the factor of difference in quality, is it three times? And how valuable is a 10-year installation warranty? It’s unlikely I would need to avail that benefit and the three times difference in price means I could replace all of the windows *again* two times for the same price! (Assuming prices didn’t increase between now and that future moment.)
The 15 new windows, according to the four quotes, will cost anywhere from $12,000 to $46,000. I should mention that the highest quote doesn’t include any discounts or special offers, as those will be offered once I re-engage the estimator and ask for one.
There are a couple of opportunities to reduce window costs. I could convert more of the casement windows to be double hung windows (which I don’t want to do as I prefer single hung windows), or I could change the window opening size. A couple of the window openings are taller than most of the window makers have in their standard window design, so an upper transom (fixed) window would be required. However, changing the window opening size may end up shifting costs to a different plan of adding bricks and adjusting walls.
Another way to reduce the window cost would be to use models that are less energy efficient, but I also don’t want to do that. I’ve insisted that every window be Energy Star certified – this is about the only certification standard that I understand, and it’s common across most window makers in the Chicago area. (There are also Passive House and Passivhaus certified windows, and companies that import higher-quality and more efficient windows from European manufacturers, but I haven’t bothered with any of those because I assume the prices will be even higher.)
Lumber and other construction materials
That lumber prices have more than doubled over prices a year ago is well known if you read real estate industry news media, or if you’ve shopped for wood at Menards to build a couple of benches for some nicer outdoor space or installed a new porch.
My gut rehab will require a lot of plywood (to replace the subfloor), “soft lumber” replacement studs, and some replacement joists.
The St. Louis Federal Reserve maintains “FRED”, an amazing website with interactive charts to explore economics statistics, including lumber. The pricing information comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and their Producer Price Indexes.
The chart for the plywood price index below shows very stable pricing in fall and winter 2019-2020, and then in May 2020 prices start climbing and the index increased by 100 points to March 2021.
BLS has monthly detailed reports so you can find data about more than the products FRED has charts for. Let’s dig in to the March 2021 report (indexes mean that the pricing represents percentage changes based on 100% being the price when the index was established):
“Softwood dressed 2-inch lumber, 2 inches in nominal thickness only, not edge worked” (a.k.a. 2×4 studs) (index established June 2012):
March 2020: 205.1
March 2021: 324.1 (this means that the price has increased by 119% year over year, a more than doubling of price)
“Softwood plywood products: rough, sanded, and specialties” (index established December 2011):
March 2020: 139.0
March 2021: 242.9 (again, this means that the price has increased by 103.9%, doubling the price)
In addition to general demand being much higher, there are other reasons why lumber costs so much more right now, according to Robinson Meyer writing in The Atlantic last week.
Since 2018, a one-two punch of environmental harms worsened by climate change has devastated the lumber industry in Canada, the largest lumber exporter to the United States. A catastrophic and multi-decade outbreak of bark-eating beetles, followed by a series of historic wildfire seasons, have led to lasting economic damage in British Columbia, a crucial lumber-providing province. Americans have, in effect, made a mad dash for lumber at the exact moment Canada is least able to supply it.
“There are people who say, ‘Climate change isn’t affecting me,’” Janice Cooke, a forest-industry veteran and biology professor at the University of Alberta, told me. “But they’re going to go to the hardware store and say, ‘Holy cow, the price of lumber has gone up.’”
It has lost 2.5 billion board feet of annual production capacity since 2019, enough to shift prices in a North American market of 70 billion annual board feet, Jalbert said.
Read Robinson’s full article to see how the bark-eating beetles overwhelmed the forests of British Columbia and the northern forest belt in Canada and why their rampage is fueled by climate change.
The same contractor, when they checked in with me recently, said that the prices of other construction materials had gone up, too.
In the same Producer Price Index report, it looks like wood doors and door frames went up 29.2% from March 2020 to March 2021; metal windows are up 7.1%, double hung wood windows are up 6.8% and wood casement windows are up 5.1%; wood moldings are up 16.9%.
I didn’t see any notable price increases in plumbing materials or kitchen cabinets – all were close to inflation. The PPI doesn’t have vinyl window products, or I don’t know under which category it falls.