How Chicago’s zoning excludes small apartments from the neighborhoods

chizone

Chicago’s zoning code has a built-in bias against smaller apartments – except in a few high-density zoning districts, which cover a vanishingly tiny slice of the city.

The zoning ordinance regulates building size and density in three ways: through floor area ratio (FAR), “minimum lot area per unit” (MLA, a backwards way of saying dwelling units per acre), and through various setback regulations. Yet these don’t follow a linear relationship at all; instead, the interaction between FAR maximums and MLA minimums encourages larger buildings with fewer apartments in lower-density districts, and more apartments per building in higher-density districts.

What this graph shows is: If I have a standard city lot in a given zoning district, and I build the biggest possible building with the most possible units, how large would those units be? The answer varies tremendously across the city, from a low of ~600 square feet in high-density districts like RM-6 and DR-7, to “impossible” in the lowest-density districts (note 1).

Most of the city’s neighborhoods, from the Bungalow Belt through the Zone of Two-Flats (mostly zoned RS-3) and into the Zone of Three-Flats (mostly RT-4), is zoned for the lowest-density (left-most) third of this graph. From RM-4.5 on down, the average apartment that can be built at the maximum density must be 1,250 square feet or larger (the size of a large two-bedroom apartment). Sure, you could build studio and one-bedroom apartments, but then you’d have to build huge three- and four-bedroom apartments, too.

Only for RM-5 and above, high-density zoning classifications pretty much only found in a narrow band along the lakefront, do the average apartment sizes permitted begin to dip into one-bedroom territory.

Someone who wishes to build new smaller apartments, like one-bedrooms or studios, in order to accommodate shrinking households can only do so in neighborhoods like Lakeview or Logan Square by either (a) under-building the FAR, at a considerable opportunity cost, or (b) getting rezoned to a denser category. Anyone who goes the latter route might as well build a lot bigger and higher, too.

Methodology notes:

  1. I assumed a standard 25′ x 125′ (3,125 sq. ft.) city lot. In RS-1 and RS-2, you cannot build on a lot that small, hence those values are excluded.
  2. The MLA chosen is the number specified for efficiency apartments, a distinction made in higher-density districts which would skew their figures down.
  3. “BCD” here refers to mixed-use zones that can be designated Business, Commercial, or Downtown depending on the use. What’s important for these purposes is the numeral in the zone name, which defines the density allowed. These zones all permit (and indeed, require) substantial amounts of commercial floor space, which counts against FAR but not MLA; for these zones, I assumed an apartment building with 0.5 FAR of commercial space, and the rest residential. This skews the figures upwards for downtown districts, where one would reasonably expect more than 0.5 FAR of commercial space.

Friday photo: Why did Chicago courtyards disappear?

anti-courtyard

Here’s my old block in Wicker Park (and namesake for this blog): the 2100 block of West North Avenue. It’s also an interesting illustration of how Chicago’s 1957 zoning ordinance made courtyard apartment buildings illegal — even though this eminently livable, passively vented building type defines high-density Chicago neighborhoods like Rogers Park and South Shore.

What did courtyards in were backyards. The 1957 ordinance (mildly updated since) requires a 30-50′ rear yard for residential units in all but the densest of downtown zones; functionally, this is where the garage went. This mandate shifted open space to the rear of the lot, and the entire point of a courtyard building is that the open space is consolidated at the center of the lot.

The 1911 C-shaped courtyard shown at lower right has minimal setbacks along the sides and rear, which results in a generous central courtyard. The 1901 3-shaped courtyard at upper left was required (by a subdivision-specific covenant and by a ‘L’ line easement) to retain front and rear setbacks, and as a result its courtyard shape is so constrained as to be almost illegible. The new buildings at lower left were required to have a rear setback (the ones at far left got a slight variance) and thus consolidate their open space at the front and rear of their lots, to the great detriment of the tiny sliver of open space that the architect sought to insert in the middle.

Other contributing factors to the demise of courtyard apartments include:

  • Parking requirements, which are difficult but not impossible to accommodate in basements. The large courtyard shown here is raised, and could have been built with parking underneath.
  • The fashion for high-rises and for deeper floorplans in general, fed by postwar technological changes — cheaper steel and concrete, improved lighting, air conditioning, elevators, etc.
  • By the time 1929 came around, appropriate sites for courtyard buildings, which required contiguous lots zoned for medium density (at the time, Chicago had three density districts, although then as now the low-density district was pretty capacious). In 1945, when construction resumed, the city’s builders had shifted their attention away from the relatively built-up lakefront.
  • Market distortions that encouraged detached single-family houses instead of apartments.

 

The crisis sharpened the segregation tax, with effects that will reverberate for generations

This sharp illustration of “the segregation tax” comes courtesy of DePaul’s Institute for Housing Studies. Calumet City has a housing stock comparable in age to that in Park Ridge or Des Plaines (areas whose development started in the 1920s, but mostly occurred in the 1950s); Harvey’s is mostly post-war. Similarly, Chatham, Auburn-Gresham, and Avondale all are principally 1920s bungalows and two-flats, with Logan Square having a large fraction of pre-WW1 houses and flats.

Prices in the mid-2000s boom rose substantially in all neighborhoods, fed by ample access to both prime and subprime loans. Even “during one of the hottest housing markets ever, our numbers were showing black buyers still experienced [home equity] losses,” notes Scott Holupka, pointing to disadvantageous subprime loans and inflated prices in segregated neighborhoods.

But the picture in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis has been terrible for majority-Black areas on the South Side, like Calumet City, Harvey, Chatham, and Auburn-Gresham. The “boom” has left huge numbers of Black homeowners underwater, without access to a ready market of creditworthy buyers, and in neighborhoods with sinking home values. On the White or Latino-plurality North Side, values didn’t fall as far during the bust, and have rebounded further since.

These diverging fortunes show that simply achieving milestones like buying a home, or graduating from college, isn’t enough — a deed or diploma’s value is socially constructed, and subsequent policies can do much to determine their future value. A study by Demos finds that the subsequent returns to education and homeownership matter just as much as equalizing access to such wealth-building opportunities:

Eliminating the racial disparity between Blacks and Whites in… would reduce the wealth gap by:
– Homeownership rates: -31%
– Returns on homeownership: -16%
– College graduation rates: -1%
– Returns on college graduation: -10%
– Incomes: -11%
– Returns on income [nil]

Note that equalizing incomes today won’t necessarily have an impact on the wealth that Black families will be able to pass on to future generations: “Even with equal advances in income, education, and other factors, wealth grows at far lower rates for black households because they usually need to use financial gains for everyday needs rather than long-term savings and asset building.”

Mel Jones, in a recent Washington Monthly article, points to how the widening wealth gap presents a particular disadvantage to young Americans of color:

You can’t discuss wealth inequality without talking about race; within the American context, they are inseparable. So the fact that Millennials of color feel the impact of a precarious financial foundation more acutely is not a surprise. For black Millennials in particular, studies point to a legacy of discrimination over several centuries that contributed to less inherited wealth passed down from previous generations. This financial disparity stems from continuous shortfalls in their parents’ net worth and low homeownership rates among blacks, which works to create an unlevel playing field.

Whereas many white Boomers may have used home equity loans to help pay college tuition bills, many black Boomers have negative equity to invest in their children’s education, in their own health, in getting their grandchildren a solid start. The accumulated disparities will cascade down to future generations.

Policies to more equitably distribute the returns on homeownership will have to act on both sides of the crosstown divide — not only lifting up the disadvantaged, but also moderating the outsize gains enjoyed by the “favored quarter.” Economic development should occur more equitably across regions, to help boost demand. However, this difficult task will be easy compared to better integrating the favored quarter, bringing more people closer to high-opportunity places.

Al Hanna and the case of the missing Chicago comp plan

Chicago zoning envelope illustration, 1923

My once-colleague Steven Vance recently noted Chicago’s surprising lack of planning. Indeed, for a couple of years there (as Hunt and DeVries point out in Planning Chicago [great PDF overview]) the city bureaucracy didn’t even have a planning department — just Housing and [economic] Development. That was just as well, of course, since there wasn’t any planning being done then, or since.

Chicago technically did adopt a Comprehensive Plan… in 1966. (Next year, it’ll be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.) I had long been under the impression that Chicago simply strong-armed pliant courts into not prosecuting this absurd state of affairs, but Steven’s post prompted me to look up Illinois’ municipal code regarding planning and zoning. To my surprise, Illinois has always had a surprisingly lenient Municipal Code — which relieves cities of any obligation to update their comp plans, or to have their zoning be consistent with a comp plan. Under Illinois law, if the Plan Commission says the zoning is so, then so be it; “arbitrary and capricious” claims be damned.

Nonetheless, one brave gadly, Lincoln Park mortgage broker Al Hanna, once somehow managed to escalate the little matter of zoning’s potential unconstitutionality into state courts some years ago. (This was while I was in college, and working on a project related to the city’s zoning code update — which, of course, drew no legal authority from any stinkin’ comp plan.) Judge Sidney Jones remanded the case with the comment that “[t]he City of Chicago has, and had, no comprehensive plan for development… which renders its zoning decisions to become more subject to scrutiny… [the downzoning] was not passed for public welfare or the public good, but was passed only in deference to the wishes of a few individuals.”

Alas, the city’s lawyers have wiggled their way out from most of Hanna’s suits. For example, Chicago long ago (apparently in 1970, via Public Act 76-583) dropped a special “lawsuit poison pill” into the state’s zoning enabling law [emphasis added]:

(65 ILCS 5/11-13-8) In municipalities of 500,000 or more population,* when any zoning ordinance, rule or regulation is sought to be declared invalid by means of a declaratory judgment proceeding, not more than 30 days before filing suit for a declaratory judgment the person filing such suit shall serve written notice in the form and manner and to all property owners

I don’t agree with Al about the legal merits of Chicago’s historic landmark law, but on zoning, he does have a point. Outside of downtown, no plan grounds Chicago’s zoning ordinance in the facts.

* This, and similar constructs, is legal code for “City of Chicago” and is found throughout Illinois state law. Illinois’ second-largest city has a population of fewer than 200,000.

Majority rule, minority rights — or Moses and NIMBYs

Terror alert

I snarkily wrote up a little headline last Monday: “Belmont Bypass’ Immediate Neighbors Slam Outreach, Will Vote On Keeping Bottleneck.” Then Daniel Kay Hertz wrote a somewhat fuller reponse, pointing out that a few people would vote on a project that impacts rail service for hundreds of thousands.

(Not surprisingly, the referendum failed, with 583 votes against. In June 2014, the three rail lines that would benefit from the bypass carried 6,353,313 passengers.)

Many broadly beneficial, but locally detrimental, projects are subject to being torpedoed by hyper-local concerns. As with any Locally Undesirable Land Use (LULU), the benefits are broadly distributed but the costs are highly focused. Many will gain a bit, but the benefits are in the distant future and somewhat speculative, so the issue has soft salience to the majority. On the other hand, a few will lose a lot, so those loss-averse few have a strong incentive to fight tooth and nail against threats to their homes. It’s just human nature.

Later comments directed at both Hertz and I raised the specter of Robert Moses bulldozing East Tremont for the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Yes, there are some surface similarities: properties expropriated for a transportation improvement. Yet these projects differ incredibly, not just in what is being done, but more importantly in how they are done.

A new highway arguably fails a cost-benefit analysis once social costs are calculated: It exacts leviathan costs, from destroying communities to contributing mightily to destabilizing the planet’s climate. (This probably even applied in Moses’ era, before thousands of miles of highways were built, subjecting further investments to the law of diminishing returns.) A new transit connection has a much better balance sheet. The Belmont Bypass has particularly high leverage, since it finally unleashes the bottlenecked potential of the miles of four-track structure beyond it.

More important is how the project is executed. In a democracy, the majority rules with respect for the basic rights of the minority. Moses infamously low-balled property owners when seizing land, and paid tenants (and rent-controlled tenants in an era of high housing inflation arguably hold a claim resembling property) almost nothing; such expropriation is clearly contrary to the Fifth Amendment or to the UDHR‘s Article 17.

Several property owners stand to lose their property to the Belmont Bypass. In such a high-profile situation, which public opinion broadly in their favor and multimillion-dollar properties on the line, I imagine that this group will receive just compensation — quite unlike the residents of East Tremont, who were largely ignored by the press, whose cries for help went almost entirely unheard by their legislators, and who lacked funds to file lawsuits.

Yes, a slightly larger population will be inconvenienced by construction for a few years, and this crowd appears to have provided most of those damning 583 votes. While pollution, even non-toxic pollution such as carbon, can justifiably be construed as violating others’ right to life, the noise and dust from construction can be mitigated to a significant extent.

In short, the substantial benefit that the majority will derive can justly be seen as outweighing the relatively minor rights claims in this instance, and the comparison to Robert Moses is spurious.

Of course, it’s rare for citywide transit agencies to make decisions at the hyperlocal level. Yet it’s absolutely typical for decisions to be made about permitting additional housing at almost a parcel level; in that case, the marginal benefit to other regional residents is so marginal as to be doubted entirely. Yet affordable rentals, in particular, are a LULU that local NIMBYs have successfully engineered the regulatory regime to discriminate against. Ryan Avent writes in the Economist: “The benefits and costs of population growth occur in a way that practically guarantees highly restrictive building rules.” Michael Lewyn takes the view that “cities cannot be trusted to weigh the citywide interest in new housing against neighborhood concerns… the chances of abuse are simply so high that a higher authority must step in.”

Why inclusionary zoning has a cash-out provision

Daniel Kay Hertz has a recent post about how Chicago’s inclusionary zoning (IZ) policy is insufficient at creating enough units to meet Chicago’s affordable housing needs.

Montgomery Ward Complex

Some of the loft condominiums within the former Montgomery Ward Catalog House, where one penthouse unit sold last October for $2.95 million, were set aside as public housing replacement units.

When I was working for the Chicago Rehab Network 11 years ago, I wrote up the broad outlines of what was eventually adopted as Chicago’s IZ policy. (It’s on the last page of this quarterly memo to the city’s Department of Housing.) I certainly concur that it is not going to solve the affordability crisis in Chicago anytime soon, but I still think it’s a reasonable approach to providing workforce-level affordable housing within the context of how Chicago builds housing — and once it was implemented, IZ multiplied the number of affordable units that Chicago’s Department of Housing could take credit for (primarily through LIHTC).

During the process of drafting this policy, we anticipated and understood that IZ would absolutely not be a cure-all, regardless of how future politicians would try and take credit for it. Furthermore, as Alex Block points out in a comment to the post, IZ absolutely does attempt to do two, contradictory things: (1) integrate gentrifying neighborhoods by creating new, permanently affordable units and (2) creating as many units as possible. [Yes, permanently affordable: IZ units in Chicago are enrolled in a land trust.]

Since CRN is a coalition of CDCs, almost all of whom work exclusively in poor neighborhoods, the CDCs stood to benefit more from approach #2, and so the law probably errs in that favor. Even CRN’s members who worked in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods, though, would rather have served two families in Oakland than one in the South Loop, and the cash-out provision allows them to do so. I certainly don’t blame them, even if the net result does to a small extent perpetuate socioeconomic segregation.

As part of the process of creating this legislation, we conferred with developers of both low-rise and high-rise units, who shared their pro formas with us, and with very extensive research done by groups like MPC and BPI, mostly relying on established policies in primarily low-rise places like Montgomery County, Md. and Burlington, Vt. We saw very few examples of successful policies that worked in a high-rise context. And since a large share of the development in Chicago, then as now, was in downtown high-rises, we needed to find some way to get buy-in from high-rises.

In short, affordable units within high-rises turn out to be very difficult to create and administer. High-rises are costly to build per square foot, and there isn’t much latitude to trim the costs through things like unit sizes and finishes. Most crucially, high-rises are subject to numerous cost thresholds, beyond which the primary incentive of IZ (“free land” in the form of higher density) can become worthless — e.g., a 7-story building is actually far less profitable than a 6-story building. And once a high-rise is completed, it’s difficult to balance the operating costs of luxury amenities (concierge, pool, etc.) across market and affordable units, which has recently been in the news with the “poor door” controversy. (This is somewhat less of a problem in MoCo, since the Washington area’s very high AMI allows for luxury studio apartments to be counted as “moderately priced dwelling units.”)

So, given these difficulties — and given the CDCs’ thirst to capitalize a housing trust fund that could significantly expand their efforts at helping low-income families in neighborhoods (rather than moderate-income singles downtown), we went with the “cash-out” provision that pretty much exempts downtown high-rises.

As for exempting small developments, that’s solely related to the fact that the requirement kicks in based on the number of units, and it’s impossible to deliver a fraction of a housing unit.

Industrial change created a peaking problem for Chicago transit

[An entire month without blogging — let’s fix that. This post started with a Twitter conversation about the unusually low peaks in how Montreal schedules its Metro trains, perhaps because it’s not as 9-5 as other cities. A note about the charts: it turns out that I can’t embed Datawrapper charts on WordPress.com, so the ones below are screen caps. Just click on the chart to go the original chart and see the source data.]

Along the lines of “the best transportation plan is a land use plan,” sometimes land use changes can impose huge costs upon the transportation system. As an example, let’s examine how industrial change in central Chicago triggered vast, and costly, shifts in how the CTA arranges its services.

Chicago skyline in 1970

Chicago

Chicago skyline in 2010 (slightly narrower view)

Popular perception understandably saw downtown Chicago as a boomtown: Enough skyscrapers were built to house all of downtown Philadelphia’s offices, plus all of Glenview or Moline’s residents. Within the high-rises, private-sector office jobs (in business services and finance) grew by 53%. Yet the total number of jobs in Chicago’s Central Area (source) grew surprisingly little in the 1980s and 1990s — by just 10.4%.

The growing skyline masked a sharp decline in nearby industrial jobs. Together, the manufacturing, transportation/utilities, and wholesale sectors lost 42% of their center-city workforce. This bifurcating job market, common to many deindustrializing American cities but occurring on an leviathan scale in Chicago, exacerbated the city’s social divides, plunging some neighborhoods into despair and richly rewarding areas just blocks away.

This tremendous economic shift remade the paths of Chicagoans’ daily travel, and to a large extent demanded a reconstruction of the city’s transit system. Despite the Loop’s triumphant skyline, everyday Chicago was for many years a collection of factory towns stitched together along streetcar seams. The factories lined up along the various rail or river routes leading into the city, and the high-level services they required were provided downtown, but their workers came from all over. Terry Clark writes in the essay “The New Chicago School”: “immigrants naturally lived in neighborhoods where they could talk, eat, relax, and worship with persons of similar national background. They would commute even to distant factory jobs to preserve this neighborhood-cultural-ethnic heritage.”

Since so much employment was at three-shift, all-day factories, service levels were remarkably consistent throughout the city and the day; that combined with the city’s grid to create the gridded bus network we all know well. The comprehensive transit system even worked overnight: The 1957 route map lists 69 surface routes and nine elevated lines running all night. Yes, the “L” system did its work of shoveling people into the congested Loop, but even there it only carried 25% of all transit passengers — even to downtown, 75% arrived via the surface lines.

Just like manufacturing, transit is also a capital-intensive enterprise, and having steady ridership all day/all night makes sure that the equipment (and labor) is optimally used. There’s no need to buy streetcars and pay drivers just to shuttle one giant crowd in at 8 AM — and then keep the fleet parked until they leave at 5 PM. Also, it’s all-day transit, not peak service, that enables urban life: as Jarrett Walker writes, “Low-car or no-car lifestyles, in turn, mean that transit has to be available for many of life’s purposes, not just the peak commute.”

The deep spiral of deindustrialization that I mentioned above also changed where and how Chicagoans commuted. Instead of dispersing themselves across the city at all hours of the day — a flow that became better suited to driving anyways — people began piling onto Loop-bound trains for 9-to-5.

Commuter trains always ran highly “peaked” service, with many more vehicles during rush hour, but these services’ peaks have dramatically grown. The commuter line from Hyde Park to the Loop used to run a 2:1 ratio of peak : midday trains in 1939; now that’s a 7:1 ratio.

Bus ridership, particularly crosstown, dropped off — setting off a vicious cycle of cuts (chronicled by Joshua Mason and Graham Garfield) that reduced crosstown bus service to a shadow of the former streetcar empire. Today’s route map counts a mere 17 all-night surface routes; three-fourths of the corridors that used to have nighttime transit now don’t.

Yet parking buses overnight is relatively easy to do, even though idle capacity is expensive in the long run. What’s been much more difficult, and costly, is adding new capacity to accommodate the ever-larger rush hour crowds, particularly for the growing (Loop-centric) rail system and commuter express buses. Already, CTA spent $530 million on the Brown Line Capacity Expansion Project, which increased train lengths by one-third, and more recently spent over $1 billion on a train order that increased its fleet by 17%. Many of its other planned capital projects, like rebuilding the North Side Main and untangling Clark Junction, will also sink huge sums into upgrading the system to accommodate rush hour crowds.

A small countervailing trend has more recently emerged, though. The city as an entertainment destination — as a site of 24-hour consumption, rather than production — has pushed the system to slightly extend evening hours. That said, the efforts will always pale in comparison to the overnight network that once existed, serving not the few who partied all night, but rather the many who worked all night.