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Chicago’s ADU ordinance gets a hearing date

Published on Jul. 2, 2020 by Steven Vance

Plus: Analysis on how many properties might be excluded

Mark your calendar! City Council is moving ahead with the ordinance to legalize small houses and accessory dwelling units proposed in May. A subject matter hearing will be held over Zoom and livestreamed on Friday, July 10, 2020, at 10 AM. The hearing is a joint committee meeting of the committees on zoning and housing. A second joint committee meeting will be held on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, at 2 PM. No agendas have been posted.

It’s possible that the ordinance, which would allow a coach house or an additional dwelling unit to be built in most houses and apartments in “R” zoning districts, could be approved at the second joint meeting and approved by the full City Council at their regularly scheduled meeting on the following day, Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

As it stands, the proposed ADU ordinance would exclude over 162,500 single-family homeowners across Chicago in 43 wards from benefiting from the proposed law. Additionally, the owners of about 6,036 two-to-six flats who would be excluded. (Owners of larger apartment buildings would also be excluded, but I didn’t measure this.) These owners who want to build a basement unit or coach house to accommodate changes in their family or desire an income generating apartment would have to obtain special permission from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

A small backyard house like this prototyped designed by architects at Booth Hansen would provide a ground-floor accessible dwelling unit, but it wouldn’t be allowed without special permission at over 162,500 properties in Chicago.

The current proposal gives the benefit of an ADU only to those residential property owners who happen to have purchased a home in the right zoning district.

Those who own properties in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts would have to apply for and hopefully receive the necessary “special use” permit, at the risk of spending thousands of dollars for a zoning attorney and potentially subjecting design decisions to neighbor sentiment.

Look up your address to learn what zoning district it’s in

Where ADUs would require special permission

Homeowners and apartment building owners may find themselves in one of these excluded zoning districts through no fault of their own.

57 of Chicago’s 77 community areas have excluded single-family homeowners, and the top five below represent 30.3 percent of the single-family properties that the proposed ordinance would exclude.

The populations across these community areas are diverse, racially and by income. The number of single-family homeowners in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts are most prevalent in these community areas (top 5 shown):

  1. Ashburn: 11,791 excluded single-family properties — Median household income is $66,560 — 86.2% percent of residents are Black, Hispanic, or Latinx (demographics)
  2. Norwood Park: 10,431 excluded single-family properties — Median household income is $74,069 — 81.5% percent of residents are white (demographics)
  3. Dunning: 10,134 excluded single-family properties — Median household income is $65,948 — 35.5% percent of residents are people of color (demographics)
  4. Garfield Ridge: 9,833 excluded single-family properties — Median household income is $68,212 — 55.3% of residents are people of color (demographics)
  5. Washington Heights: 7,122 excluded single-family properties — Median household income is $44,707 — 95.8% of residents are Black (demographics)

Switching gears from neighborhoods to political districts, 13 of Chicago’s 50 wards each have over 5,000 single-family homeowners who are excluded in the proposal, for an aggregate of 128,426 owners —that’s 80 percent of excluded single-family homeowners across Chicago. They are, ordered by the wards with the most excluded single-family homeowners:

  • 19th Ward, Alder Matt O’Shea — 16,057 single-family homeowners would have to obtain special permission. On the other hand, about 978 single-family homeowners would have the right to build an ADU without special permission.
  • 41st Ward, Alder Anthony Napolitano — 13,886 single-family homeowners would have to obtain special permission. On the other hand, about 4,247 single-family homeowners would have the right to build an ADU without special permission.
  • 18th Ward, Alder Derrick Curtis
  • 13th Ward, Alder Marty Qunn
  • 38th Ward, Alder Nicholas Sposato
  • 34th Ward, Alder Carrie M. Austin
  • 23rd Ward, Alder Silvana Tabares
  • 21st Ward, Alder Howard B. Brookins, Jr.
  • 9th Ward, Alder Anthony Beale
  • 8th Ward, Alder Michelle Harris
  • 39th Ward, Alder Samantha Nugent
  • 45th Ward, Alder Jim Gardiner
  • 10th Ward, Alder Susan Sadlowski-Garza
Orange areas on the map indicate RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts. Property owners in these areas would have to obtain special permission to build a basement unit or coach house. While the majority of these areas are geographically on the “outer” part of Chicago, they are not homogenous. Plus, affordable and accessible housing is needed everywhere in Chicago. The map is from Chicago Cityscape’s Site Selector.

Modifying the ordinance

An equal ADU policy would apply in all residential zoning districts; an equitable ADU policy, would, at a minimum, ensure that people who have a house in the correct zoning district can also access the benefits the policy will allow, despite process, social, and political barriers. This might mean creating public funding sources to fund or co-fund the construction of ADUs in certain areas or based on income.

For example, a program in Santa Cruz, California, funds the construction of an ADU on the property of an existing low-income senior homeowner to provide additional income or allow them to age in place and stay in their community. An backyard house can give these homeowners an opportunity to have a smaller and accessible place to live while they rent out the main house.

At the very least, an equitable housing policy requires equitable lending — in other cities, most homeowner-funded ADUs are funded by borrowing using the equity in the home, like a HELOC. That’s not possible everywhere, as WBEZ and City Bureau showed last month demonstrated that some banks in Chicago barely lend in Black and Brown neighborhoods.

I believe that Chicago’s housing and planning departments would rather that the benefit of ADUs apply equally, across all residential zoning districts, but it’s ultimately up to City Council to change up the proposal.


Chicago’s ADU ordinance gets a hearing date was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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