Andrew Wimer
Andrew Wimer · June 29, 2021

CHICAGO—The Chicago City Council recently voted to strip sign permit reform out of a package of business reforms, disappointing small businesses and advocates calling for a straightforward and fair application process. Chicago, unlike any other major city in the United States, requires the entire City Council to vote on the permit for every sign that extends even one centimeter over public sidewalks. The City Council can indefinitely delay or reject a permit for any reason or simply for no reason at all.

“When we spread the word that the city was considering a change to streamline the sign permit process, small businesses reacted with overwhelming enthusiasm. It is a huge letdown to see that sign reform pulled at the last minute,” said IJ Clinic Director Beth Kregor. “Now more than ever, Chicago businesses need to let customers know that they are open for business. So many small businesses are operating on the edge of a knife and allowing them to put up their signs after following a straightforward process could make a difference in whether they survive. We hope that the City Council adopts reform at its next meeting.”

The Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago (IJ Clinic) has advocated for reform for more than a decade. In a 2009 study, the IJ Clinic broke down the confusing and months-long process that sign applications go through. In spite of consistent pleas from advocates, chambers of commerce and small businesses, the process has not changed much since 2009. The reform that was excised from the Small Biz Strong initiative on Friday would still have allowed aldermen 30-60 days to weigh in on public way use permit applications, but it would have eliminated the step of the City Council vote.

Since individual aldermen are deeply involved in sign applications, the standards vary widely across wards and even within wards. And since enforcement of the sign code is inconsistent, illegal signs abound without penalty while business owners trying to follow the rules are trapped in a maze for months. In the City Council meeting Friday, some aldermen insisted they must cling to their power to withhold sign permits, while other aldermen stated passionately that they need to get out of the way of businesses.

“We tried for months to obtain a sign for our business!” said Sara McIntosh, founder of the Chicago School of Shoemaking. “After discovering how complicated and expensive the permit process is, we eventually gave up. Chicago businesses would greatly benefit from having a simpler process to obtain a sign or awning.”