Searching for information in the city of Chicago’s zoning and housing data can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack unless you know exactly what you’re seeking and how to find it.
And making sense of that information to develop leads can even be trickier. The kind of expertise needed to suss out knowledge from a 30,000-foot view can take years of training and experience, but Steven Vance, creator of Chicago Cityscape, says his online information portal provides a laser focus on data that gives brokers a strategic advantage.
It was a decade ago when the high-tech mapmaker and data connoisseur began writing about Chicago transportation policy. He pivoted in 2016, refocusing on real estate.
But, as Vance told Chicago Agent, the idea for Chicago Cityscape first came to him two years before that, when he was searching for a contractor. “I wanted to try to find objective ways to decide which contractor was better,” he said, noting that he started with a list of city-approved companies. Although the city provided a lot of data about contractors, it failed to provide any kind of helpful guide.
“The city’s list was very unusable because you can’t search or categorize or filter,” he said.
That’s when Vance got to work crunching the data himself by redesigning the list and linking each contractor to their projects, pulled from the city’s building permits database.
Cross-referencing the list with the permits allowed Vance to rule out certain operators based on the type of buildings they tended to work on. “This one does single-family homes, and I have an apartment building,” he said.
Vance continued creating datasets with information on individual properties and neighborhoods, and brokers began using those tools to find out more information about properties for their clients.
The collection of datasets and maps at Chicago Cityscape now offers past permits, building violations, tax assessments and zoning information, among other items.
He acknowledged that other websites offer property information, but Chicago Cityscape adds an extra level of nuance for users. It provides data “through a Chicagoan lens” with a deeper level of information on local real estate policies and zoning rules, Vance said.
“We interpret parts of the zoning code for every property in Chicago,” he said, noting that Chicago Cityscape offers greater depth of understanding on topics like transit-oriented development rules in the zoning code. “Those provide substantial benefits to owners that no other service offers.”
A website with a national focus might be able to tell a broker that the residence they’re looking up is zoned as RT-4, for example, “but they can’t tell you what that means,” Vance added.
In terms of lead generation, the portal gives users an edge by allowing them to track permits and follow local news items — such as when the Chicago Transit Authority is planning to expand service or a big project is slated to go up in the area — associated with individual properties and developers. The company also provides customer support for brokers who find themselves struggling to make sense of the curated data, Vance said.
Subscriptions to the site cost anywhere from $29 to $99, though some of the data is available through a free account.