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%”.