Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Chicago Zoning: It’s Just Insane by Daniel Hertz

[ Daniel Hertz is back with another zinger originally posted over at his personal urbanist blog, which is a must read if you live in Chicago. If you’re not familiar with his work, check out his posts on public safety inequality and school gentrification.

Today he takes a critical look at another topic: the prevalence of single-family zoning in the city. I myself am working on a piece with a somewhat divergent view from Daniel’s, but I thought this was really great and wanted you all to see it.

As a companion piece to this, you might want to check out a post over at Better Institutions that makes a similar point re:Seattle. Here’s their zoning map. Everything that is in solid gray without hash shading is zoned exclusively for single family homes.

But enough prologue, on to Daniel’s piece – Aaron. ]

So one thing that happens when I bring up the fact that Chicago, like pretty much all American cities, criminalizes dense development to the detriment of all sorts of people (I’m great at parties!) is that whoever I’m talking to expresses their incredulity by referencing the incredible numbers of high-rises built in and around downtown over the last decade or so. Then I try to explain that, while impressive, the development downtown is really pretty exceptional, and that 96% of the city or so doesn’t allow that stuff, or anything over 4 floors or so, even in neighborhoods where people are lining up to live, waving their money and bidding up housing prices.

Then they make some non-committal grunt and change the subject.

But I’m not BSing here. Not only does the city make it illegal in the vast, vast majority of the city to build super-dense towers or medium-dense midrises in very high-demand neighborhoods like Lincoln Park or Wicker Park, but it even criminalizes your standard two- or three-flat apartment building in the majority of neighborhoods, meaning that a developer who wants to build some moderate-price housing in a moderate-demand neighborhood (like, say, Portage Park) has to deal with local segregationists.

Let me say that again: In most Chicago neighborhoods, it is illegal to build anything other than single family homes.

You don’t believe me. That would be really weird, you say. Well, here’s the map:


There you go. Everywhere that’s red, it’s single family homes or nothing. And that makes it look better than it really is. If we highlight all the places where you can’t build anything residential at all – because the land’s been zoned for manufacturing, or parks, or whatever – the places where you can even legally build a two-flat get squeezed even more:


Red = single family homes only. Yellow = non-residential use.

What kind of public interest could this possibly be serving?

PS – It is of course the case that developers sometimes get concessions from aldermen to rezone a plot of land they would like to build on. But when that happens, they’re susceptible to massive pushback from locals who would like to use the power of the government to segregate themselves from lower-income people, or to establish local housing supply ceilings for their benefit at great expense to everyone else.

In any case, the proof is in the pudding: walk around any of the city’s desirable non-downtown neighborhoods and see how many developments that added net housing units have been built in the last 10 years. The answer is precious few.

This post originally appeared in City Notes on January 27, 2014.

Topics: Public Policy
Cities: Chicago

55 Responses to “Chicago Zoning: It’s Just Insane by Daniel Hertz”

  1. John Morris says:

    I heard the talk about Chicago being the next place- from artists and dealers in NYC.

    The city’s reluctance to change zoning laws played a big part in people just deciding to move on.

    I wouldn’t call Chicago an aferthought, but it can’t afford to just actively ignore or destroy opportunities. By 2000, the idea that artists could play a big role in development should not have been a surprise. Soho, Tribeca, Chelsea & even Williamsburg & Dumbo were old news. Yet, somehow Chicago couldn’t see any value in these areas and create a friendly set of policies?

  2. @John Hupp – I’d be all for that type of consolidation, but there are few places on Earth that love their political fiefdoms more than Chicago and Cook County. Now, that doesn’t mean that they can’t work together toward common goals and, while there are always city/suburb tensions at some level, there’s much less of an “us vs. them” mentality now compared to, say, metro Detroit. However, from a pure structural perspective, double the government entities means double the patronage jobs that politicians dole out as chits.

  3. John Hupp says:

    @ pete-rock & Daniel Hertz

    Come to think of it, it may be possible to calculate build-out rates using available GIS data. If I remember correctly, ZIMAS in Los Angeles provides building square footage, so it would be a simple calculation of dividing building square footage by (parcel square footage times FAR). I don’t know if Chicago provides similar data, and I certainly don’t know the software tools to use it, but I’m sure it would make a very interesting map!

    Regarding gentrified areas that have already been deliberately under-built as mansions, I don’t know to what extent upzoning would affect the building decisions of the super-rich.

  4. John Hupp says:

    Or a less granular approximation could be actual population density per census tract divided by maximum allowable units per census tract. This data might be easier to obtain and would also account for household size, with the fairly abstract measure of residents per unit-acre. This measure, with depopulated areas, both gentrified and blighted, getting low marks, would allow us to see fairly clearly which areas are actually pushing against their zoning ceilings and may benefit from upzoning.

  5. John Hupp says:

    Also, if you somehow factor in housing cost or land value, you could get a marginal value like cost savings per resident per additional allowable unit, which seems like it would most useful for selling the idea politically: “Look how much existing zoning is costing taxpayers!” Or something like that.

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