How to Work with the Building and Zoning Departments

Understanding the City of Chicago’s Building and Zoning Departments’ protocols is an important skill set for Chicago REALTORS® looking to work with commercial clients and investors. While there is no doubt the City of Chicago has improved access to information through its website and has worked to expedite the systems at play, the processes are still highly detailed and should be followed explicitly. As a REALTOR® working with a new commercial client or investor, at bare minimum you should become knowledgeable about the website and be aware the component of time weighs heavily in this area, as delays or lack of adherence to codes can be costly.


When it comes to Zoning, as a REALTOR® you know:
  • The approval of an Alderman is critical to success in zoning and development issues.
  • Every business license, location expansion and change of location application needs to be reviewed and approved by Zoning before a business license application can be processed.
  • The City of Chicago is divided into distinct zoning districts that reflect the diversity of business and neighborhood uses. Each zoning district has different regulations about the types of business activities that are permitted.
  • During the zoning review, the City of Chicago looks at many things, including proper classification of business activity, if the business activity is allowed in a specific district, compliance with parking, landscape, and building requirements, and verification of valid driveway permit.

New Business Zoning 101

So your client has an idea for a new business. It’s very important that you check the zoning requirements of the proposed business location carefully. It is critical that you advise your clients to not enter into any financial commitments (i.e. sign a lease) unless you are certain that you are in the proper zoning district that allows the proposed business activity. This often means meeting with the alderman and, in some cases, the local community organization. Do not assume the previous owner’s zoning designation applies! The City of Chicago provides many resources online to assist you and your clients. I urge you to become familiar with these tools to research where you can do business in the City.


While the Association stays out of individual zoning matters, we have had a longtime role in monitoring the City of Chicago Building Code, which plays a dominant role in development in Chicago. The Department of Buildings enforces the code for the safety and quality of life of Chicago’s citizens and visitors. There is no doubt that the Chicago Code is unique. Critics continue to claim it is also costly — with a reliance on copper pipe for potable water and conduit for low voltage wires, there is little dispute the code also promotes high-quality design standards and has specific areas for conservation, rehabilitation and reuse of buildings. In recent months, due to the leadership of Judith Frydland, the current Commissioner of Buildings, we have seen much more dialogue on making the code more flexible for innovation, with opportunities for testing of new materials and even design elements.

Permitting 101

As REALTORS®, you should be aware of a few of the permitting basics. When Do I Need A Permit? If you build a porch, garage or a deck; move walls, doors, columns or beams; change the location of or add new windows or doors; or install a new boiler system, a permit is required. What Can I Do Without A Permit? Replacing windows or doors (same size or location), replacement of plumbing fixtures (same size or location), replacing siding, replacing furnaces, installation of fences up to 5 feet high or painting do not require a permit. Please note: if the property is a landmark, you will need permitting.  REALTORS® should advise their clients before applying for a permit that the City of Chicago will check for Building Code violations, Stop Work Orders and Revenue Indebtedness. REALTORS® should also advise their clients that if the footprint or height of the building is changing as a result of the work, zoning approval may be needed.