Chicago Cityscape's '1909' newsletter

Commentary: “My parents live with me and my children, and I want an ADU, but the RS-2 exclusion prevents me”

I asked some people who want the city to let them build a backyard home or other accessory dwelling unit to speak at the Chicago zoning committee meeting on Tuesday, 9/8/20, even though the ADU ordinance was not on the agenda. I said last week that it was unlikely that the ADU ordinance, which was introduced in May 2020, would be heard at the committee meeting. A revision ordinance is expected, but it hasn’t been introduced yet.

Carmin Ballou has already talked to three architects, including Monica Chadha, about the design feasibility of building a backyard home. However, the proposed ordinance would require that Carmin obtain a “special use” from the Zoning Board of Appeals, a costly and uncertain endeavor, because the ordinance treats RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts differently, and her house happens to be in an RS-2 zoning district — excluded in the proposed ordinance along with over 162,000 other properties. Carmin permitted me to reprint her speech to the committee.

Hi, my name is Carmin Ballou and I’m here to speak in favor of the passage of an ADU ordinance, but in particular to request that RS-1 and RS-2 houses be included in that ordinance. I want to thank many of you present today for working on this issue, but as a 47th Ward resident, I also want to thank Matt Martin for his advocacy on it.

Left: Carmin Ballou contacted Civic Projects, one of the design firms on the Chicago Cityscape ADU Service Providers list; Civic Projects created this feasibility diagram depicting how a backyard home would fit on Carmin’s property. Right: Carmin’s backyard and existing garage. The proposed ordinance would require owners whose properties are in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts (the case with Carmin’s house) to obtain a “special use”.

Our multi-generational household has been following the ordinance closely because first, we support the expansion of affordable housing in our neighborhood. Our neighborhood has grown increasingly expensive and puts access to the quality neighborhood school and the safety the neighborhood provides out of reach for many. We support the addition of affordable housing units in many forms, but particularly today through the introduction of an ADU ordinance to expand access to affordable units.

Second, because we are interested in the option for our family of three generations. My parents moved from Nebraska three years ago and while they initially explored getting their own unit, we value our time and like living in close proximity to each other, including sharing meals to assisting with piano lessons to playing numerous board games. We want to stay together. We value the experience that multi-generational living provides, but an ADU would provide more privacy and independence to my parents than they currently have.

However, as the proposed ordinance stands, we will not be able to build a garage apartment. Whether intentional or a fluke of historical zoning, a few streets including ours are zoned RS-2 and so would be excluded while other newer construction around us has been zoned RS-3. I’m speaking today to give you one example of why that exclusion would be a mistake. We live in a 100-year-old house and are committed to keeping its historical look. But around us, bungalow after bungalow has been torn down and replaced by large footprint houses. By excluding RS-2, this continues to encourage the demolition of the smaller home to be replaced with a larger square footage unit. By building a garage apartment instead, we keep the historical look of our house, but simply expand our footprint off the alley.

And these twin goals of expanding affordable housing and encouraging multi-generational living were goals that we supported before the outbreak of COVID. But now we’ve gone from two people (my parents) home during the day with freedom and quiet, we now have two working parents, a 3rd grader and a 7th grader enrolled in CPS’ remote learning and two helpful grandparents, all home fighting for space and quiet. While I realize it is a privilege to be able to explore this option, requiring a special use permit — with its additional cost and hassle without a guarantee of approval — will likely put that option out of reach. Please pass the ADU ordinance quickly, but please consider the inclusion of RS-1 and RS-2 units in it.

Thank you

Commentary: I want an ADU, but the RS-2 exclusion would prevent me from building one was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

32nd Ward Alder Waguespack has proposed classifying the segment of Lincoln Avenue between Diversey and Belmont as a “Pedestrian Street”. This change would close a gap: Lincoln Avenue between Montrose and Fullerton, save for the proposed section and two tiny sections near Montrose, has already been classified as a P-Street.

This zoning designation has several design and land use standards to maintain the pedestrian-orientation of a block by requiring transparent storefronts and limiting and banning car-oriented uses. It also reduces the minimum car parking that property owners need to provide to 0 spaces, and allows some a little bit more multi-unit housing.

Properties on P-Streets may also gain access to the city’s Transit-Served Location benefits they may not otherwise get because they’re too far from an eligible transit service. A Transit-Served Location (TSL) includes properties that are within 1,320 feet of an eligible transit service and properties on P-Streets that are within 2,640 feet of an eligible transit service; properties in both groups must be in B, C, D, and M zoning districts.

Eligible transit services in Chicago comprise all CTA and Metra stations (measured to their nearest entrance), and listed CTA bus corridors (measured to the road centerline).

The Transit-Served Location benefits in the Chicago Zoning Code are only available to Lincoln Avenue properties (between Diversey and Belmont) that are in the orange and blue (about 68). Once the P-Street is adopted, the benefits will be extended to all of the other properties (about 91).

Currently, there are about 159 properties — that aren’t condos — along the proposed P-Street that are in one of the TSL-eligible zoning districts, and only 68 of them are considered a TSL because of their proximity to the Ashland Avenue bus corridor. When the P-Street is adopted, presumably in September, an additional 91 properties will be able to take advantage of the no-parking and more-homes standards of the Chicago zoning code.

I believe that it’s highly unlikely many of those buildings will suddenly be replaced with new buildings that are designed for the TSL standards, and it’s more likely that owners of the existing buildings will find ways to add more apartments because the limiting factor of having to provide those apartments with parking spaces will have been eliminated.

P-Streets exist only on the North Side, and in Pilsen, West Town, and Chinatown. Hyde Park and South Chicago each have one. It’s up to individual alders to ask the city’s planning department to initiate a study and ascertain their recommendation to designate certain blocks. The one in this article is the only one proposed this year.

The ordinance number is O2020–3947, introduced on July 22, 2020.

Filling a zoned “Pedestrian Street” gap will bring TOD benefits to more blocks was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

I’m going to give an update on the Chicago accessory dwelling unit ordinance, and show three new ADUs at various stages of development, from conceptual (Focus and bKL), to “waiting for re-legalization” (Granny Flats Chicago), to built-and-rented this year (Monica and Rob).

“Accessory dwelling units” are smaller apartments that have different built forms and coincide with a larger, primary house — which has one or more units — on the same lot. They can be inside, attached to, or separate from this house, and most forms of it are banned through a hodgepodge of zoning rules that regulate the number of buildings and units on a lot.

City Hall will likely propose revisions in September covering, in part, how many ADUs will be allowed during an initial period. Despite what I think will be a setback in the rules, I remain positive that re-legalizing ADUs in Chicago is a key policy that the Department of Housing wants to adopt in the city and it will be passed in some form this year.

1. Built-and-rented: Two new basement units

Monica Chadha, principal of the Civic Projects design firm, and her husband, Rob Chambers, built two basement units in an existing six-flat they own — and even though the ADU ordinance isn’t effective, it would have helped their project. The vintage building is on South Prairie Avenue in Bronzeville.

Left to right: The hot water pipes for the radiators in the upstairs apartments will provide a lot of the new basement units’ heat, which is supplemented by thin-profile space heaters mounted on the walls; Monica explains the finishes they chose that increased the price over the original estimate; floor plans show the complicated wall layout in the units, that still allows for a roomy kitchen and one-bedroom.

Since the property has the RM-5 zoning district applied (which allows for the building’s size and density), and it wasn’t downzoned, no zoning change was necessary to increase the unit count from six to eight.

Monica and Rob said they’re looking at ADUs to “increase both revenue and value in buildings in the communities we work with. The addition of legal basement units is a great way to build equity for small building owners and owner occupied buildings.” In the proposed ordinance, owners of six-flats would be able to add two apartments without the need for a zoning change.

They had originally budgeted $90,000 for the two units, but the final budget was $110,000, because they eventually chose higher-quality finishes, stainless steel appliances, granite kitchen countertops, and ceramic tile in the showers. Rob said, “Increasing the quality of the apartments has paid off in quick leasing. Also higher quality materials will require less maintenance and last longer.

Monica and Rob acted as the general contractor, meaning they managed the hiring of construction workers and subcontractors. They said they could better control work quality and “reduce costs”. Monica, being an architect, performed the architectural services for the conversion project. She said, “Civic Projects Architecture did get paid a small fee for providing architectural services. While this did not reflect a full fee, clients should anticipate seven percent of cost of construction with a fee not less than $5,000. A project with more interior finishes and custom work would run closer to ten percent.”

Having the ADU ordinance in place when they started the conversion would have been helpful by eliminating their parking requirement. This being Chicago, every new apartment is required to have an on-site parking space, unless it’s in a mixed-use zoning district and near a CTA or Metra station or an eligible bus corridor. The city’s Transit-Served Location rule doesn’t apply to residential zoning districts, though. Somehow Monica and Rob had to find space for two parking spots.

If the TSL rule did apply here, the parking requirement would be waived, since the building is well within the allowed distance to the 43rd Green Line station. There was enough room in the back to create two parking spaces, but Monica and Rob had to create an agreement with the CTA to allow those drivers to drive under the tracks and park in the rear of the lot. The Green Line is an alley ‘L’ and runs behind dozens of buildings on South Prairie Avenue, just west of the alley.

Finally, I asked if they had advice for other owners of old and larger multi-unit apartment buildings like theirs in Chicago:

The process for larger buildings would be similar. Many of the larger walk-up multifamily buildings built in the teens and twenties were built with a raised basement. The challenge is finding spaces with appropriate exiting and ample daylight and ventilation. Six-flats work well because they tend to be long and narrow.
To start the process building owners should do a zoning check of their property and understand what the permitted uses are. This can be done by asking an architect or other services to spend a couple of hours reviewing the project. Owners should also ask the professional to check exiting and light and ventilation. This could be a time and cost saving endeavor to avoid non-compliant code build outs. If there are existing illegal units in a building, owners should work with a design professional to render these legal.

New tenants have signed leases, but not yet moved in.

2. The conceptual backyard homes

I was surprised and excited to see architects at Focus Construction & Development and bKL Architecture get together to design prototype backyard homes for a costing exercise. Neither of those firms were ones I expected to discuss ADUs, but Vic Howell (Focus) sent me their report that analyzes the viability of backyard homes to be built and rented affordably and serve as the offsite component of a development’s ARO obligations.

The study concluded that a two-story backyard home could be constructed for $192,000, and that prefabricating it could lower that cost. They also recommended increasing the proposed ADU ordinance’s 700 s.f. floor area limit for backyard homes (interior ADUs would be limited by the existing building’s size, and the property’s zoning district FAR standard).

The Focus-bKL design and construction team recommended increasing the hypothetical and proposed limit of 700 s.f. for backyard homes because to accommodate a two-bedroom offsite ARO unit the unit would have to be at least 750 s.f. large, according to the ARO standards.

The Focus and bKL team designed these conceptual backyard homes as part of their construction feasibility study.

I’ll remind readers that the floor area limit is relative to the lot size, and 700 s.f. is only achievable for lots with single-unit houses that are at least 33' wide or 166' deep. A property with a multi-unit house could have slightly smaller dimensions and allow for a 700 s.f. backyard home. The standard lot size is 25' wide and 125' deep. Use the zoning worksheet the Booth Hansen architecture firm created to estimate the maximum size of a backyard home on your residentially-zoned lot.

Tim Anderson and Bhavin Pardiwala (Focus), and Tom Kerwin, Danielle Tillman, Daniela Sesma (bKL) also worked on the study.

3. Backyard homes waiting for re-legalization

David Schwartz and David Wallach co-founded Granny Flats Chicago to sell and build off-the-shelf backyard homes once the ADU legislation is adopted and effective. The company has three designs, and two pre-orders (since we talked three weeks ago). Companies like this exist all over California, Oregon, and Washington, three states that allow ADUs statewide.

The smallest model — called The Nanna — has 460 s.f. of floor area, a 12' ceiling height, and uses a sleeping loft to maximize floor space in a short building that includes a garage. Schwartz said, “I think we can deliver them for $150,000, including the foundation and appliances.” That price doesn’t include the utility connections, which Schwartz estimated to cost between $10,000 and $20,000.

The “Granny Flats” are planned to be quick to build and have good insulation by using a panel insulated wall system from Wally Walls, based in Kenosha. Laszlo Simovic Architects, one of the most prolific residential architecture firms in Chicago based on the number of permits issued, designed the backyard homes.

The most exciting thing Schwartz told me about their company’s intention is that they are talking to lenders to create a financing product for homeowners to fund a Granny Flat. In the ULI Chicago task force for ADU policy, we recognized that funding and finance would be a huge hurdle, and that existing loan products (like a construction loan or a HELOC) may be insufficient. Schwartz said it’s possible that a lender could make a 10-year interest-only loan that’s based on an appraisal that considers the post-construction property value. An interest-only loan has much lower monthly payments, but requires repayment of the principal in one lump sum — presumably the rental income would be saved up to pay off the principal after a few years of renting.

What kind of ADU do you want to build? Peruse Chicago Cityscape’s ADU resources or contact us with your questions. Double check the Chicago Cityscape map of ADU supporters — it hasn’t changed since the hearings in July — and email your alder if the ward isn’t shown in green.

P.S. We created a new Property Finder map for brokers and developers to find Chicago properties that are eligible to add ADUs.

Get a look at new basement ADUs in Bronzeville + 2 other projects was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Last Wednesday, August 19, all eight modules of Chicago’s first modular house were assembled, one at a time. The front door and roof were installed before sunset, making the house secure and waterproof.

I told you about the modular single-unit house in April, soon after it was permitted. Kinexx Modular Construction, founded by Paul Tebben and Josh Braun, are building it for The Resurrection Project, an organization that builds affordable housing, at 4856 S Ada St in Back of the Yards.

I arrived to the construction site at around 9:30 AM and left an hour later. In that time, workers adjusted the position of the second module, lifted and placed the third module, and delivered the fourth module. The main process of lifting and placing the third module took less than 10 minutes. All eight modules and the roof were installed by 6 PM.

Modular house assembly photos. Clockwise from top-left: The second/rear module is being adjusted to fit with the first; the third module awaits lifting; the awaiting fourth module has a staircase; the third module has been placed and needs final adjustments.

Watch the two minute delivery and installation video, which has been condensed and sped up about 2.5x. To remind you, this “starter house” has the following dimensions and characteristics:

  • Floor area of 1,450 square feet
  • 3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms
  • 17' wide (the standard Chicago lot is 25', and a setbacks usually allow for a 20' wide house)
  • 42' deep (the standard Chicago lot is 125' deep)
  • 9' ceiling height
  • 24' tall

On Thursday, the following day, an electrician and ComEd engineer connected the house’s electricity to the grid, and the house was energized on Friday. When I talked to Braun and Tebben on Friday, they said that the water and sewage should be hooked up that day. Starting today, the metal and vinyl siding will be added, which should take a week. The AC and heating will also be hooked up this week.

Left: A rendering of the modular “starter home”. Right: The structure after assembling all eight modules on Wednesday, August 19, 2020.

Then, a final coat of interior paint needs to be added, and flooring and some tile needs to be installed. I asked why the flooring and tile weren’t installed in the factory, like many other interior finishes.

Tebben said, “This was our first house [by Kinexx], and we wanted to make sure transporting it was safe and didn’t have cracking issues, so we were overly cautious.” Some parts were already tiled, though, and none of them cracked during transport, Tebben said. Braun added, “Lots of people had different opinions, so we picked a happy medium and finished some tile as an experiment prior to transport. There also wasn’t a single piece of drywall that cracked.”

Sometime this week a Chicago Department of Buildings inspector will come for a “final rough inspection” (this isn’t a typical inspection phase). This time in September, the Kinexx founders said, the house will be ready for an occupancy inspection.

How much did it cost? They wouldn’t give me specifics, but said that final costs are really close to the estimated costs for the first house. Braun said, “We had an anticipated price and we hit it, and now we’re more confident that we can deliver this house for someone else for $240,000.”

That price doesn’t include a multi-building discount, but it includes a foundation slab, utility hookup, roof, and siding. It doesn’t include site-specific remediation, landscaping, and fencing.

The modular “starter house” in Back of the Yards was assembled was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

One of the architects on our Accessory Dwelling Units service providers list emailed to explain that he had a client, a woman in her 60s, who wanted to build two ADUs. The architect wanted to know what kind of ADU she would be allowed to build, and if she could build both an interior apartment and a backyard home.

Scroll to the end if you just want to know the ADU ordinance’s status.

Sharon owns a single-unit house in Lakeview, and her property is zoned RS-3; she wants to (1) build a small interior apartment for herself to live in, (2) rent out the main part of the house to earn money, and then (3) use the money later on to pay for the construction of a backyard home, where she would live permanently. It conceptually would look like the drawing below.

A conceptual drawing showing the desired use of adding an apartment inside the single-unit house, and then later adding a backyard home (“future coach house”). Image by Silvestro Design Operations.

That’s a great idea, and it’s a use case we’ve promoted in the past. The AARP and Habitat for Humanity both recognize the need for senior citizens to be able to age in place and downsize, so that they can spend less money on housing during retirement and stay in their neighborhoods.

Sharon thinks ADUs are great for other reasons, she wrote:

“A lot of us who bought houses when it was affordable to live in Lakeview, but not Lincoln Park or Gold Coast, are being priced out by escalating taxes that show no sign of reversing. The ADU ordinance gives us an opportunity to stay in our neighborhood. It increases foot traffic in the alleys [see Rebel Garages]. Provides for greater density of population near public transportation. More people, more support for restuarants and local businesses. More people, greater tax base. What is not to like about this?”

Can Sharon build two ADUs on her property?

Let’s review Chicago’s proposed ADU ordinance to see if Sharon, and her architect, James Silvestro, might be able accomplish her goal.

The short answer is yes, but it’s not a simple conclusion.

The house is in an RS-3 zoning district, one of the zoning districts that would allow ADUs “as of right”, so that’s good for Sharon’s plan. As the proposed ordinance stands now, however, property owners in two zoning districts — RS-1 and RS-2 — would have to obtain a “special use” permit by applying to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

There are 162,500 single-unit houses and 6,036 two-to-six flats in RS-1/2 zoning districts across dozens of communities on the South, West, and Northwest Sides, and I think it is a bad policy to require that those owners spend additional time and money to obtain permission. Many people are in the same situation as Sharon, or will soon be in the same position, where downsizing or earning rental income is necessary to live where they are, and cover maintenance costs and property taxes.

The next step in the review is determining the house’s age. The proposed ordinance would allow interior apartments (a.k.a. an “attached ADU”) in houses that are 20 years or older. Sharon’s house was built in 1998.

Sharon wants to have an interior apartment and a backyard home. The proposed ordinance would allow one or the other, not both ADU types.

I can think of two possible zoning strategies to achieve Sharon’s goals.

A. Build the interior apartment now, deconvert it later

Under the proposed ADU ordinance, Sharon would be able to get a permit to build an interior apartment (small or large) as soon as the ordinance becomes effective. If the design carves out space in the existing footprint and exterior walls, then there won’t be a conflict with the zoning rules.

If the design expands the footprint or moves exterior walls, then the architect will need to conduct a zoning assessment to determine how much, if any, the house could be enlarged. When Sharon earns enough rental income to start building a backyard home, the apartment can be deconverted and “returned” to the main part of the house.

While building an interior apartment and then deconverting it later is an option, I’d rather that the proposed ordinance allow both on the same site, especially in the situation that the proposed ordinance offers where a property is allowed two or more interior ADUs. However, option “A” may be the only way forward when option “B” wouldn’t apply.

B. Use an obscure part of the RS-3 zoning code to build both

The RS-3 zoning district allows single-unit houses as of right, but it also allows two-flats with a condition that’s difficult to find amongst the city’s housing stock. We wrote about this option in 2017: the Chicago Zoning Ordinance allows a two-flat on a lot size of 3,000 s.f. or larger in an RS-3 zoning district if 60 percent or more of the buildings on the same block and the same side of the block have two or more units. (See 17–2–0303-B.)

Using our Property Finder map in Address Snapshot, one can easily count the number of units in each building on a block. I counted the ones on Sharon’s block and about 76 percent of the buildings have two or more units. The lot size is just over the minimum, at 3,025 s.f.

With option B, Sharon would be able build an interior apartment (a second flat and not an ADU) immediately with a permit, and then a backyard home when the ADU ordinance is adopted by City Council.

What’s the status with the ordinance?

The proposed ordinance’s earliest adoption date is September 9, 2020, and I predict that there will be some changes in it. Read articles on WTTW, The Daily Line, and Crain’s Chicago Business to better understand why the adoption timeline has been extended.

Some alders do not want this passed. You can see who on our map. If Sharon’s reason for wanting to build a backyard home resonates with you, or you would like to be able to build one for a different reason, please email your alder. I am now getting inquiries several times a week from families, and developers, who are preparing themselves for the time when they can improve how they live. They want to know how the ordinance might support their plan, like Sharon’s, and what the hold up is.

Are you considering adding an ADU to your property? Get to know the proposed rules (which are subject to change prior to adoption) and find an ADU service provider.

Ask Cityscape: Could I build two ADUs at my house? was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

This is what two ADU supporters told City Council at the first hearing

Chicago City Council held a joint Zoning + Housing committee meeting on Friday, July 10, 2020, to discuss the proposed accessory dwelling units ordinance. The outcome was disappointing. Alder Osterman (48th Ward), chair of the housing committee, said he wouldn’t call for a vote this month.

A second joint meeting that was set to be held on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, was canceled on Friday, July 17. Since City Council doesn’t meet in August, the earliest the ADU ordinance could be approved is September 9, 2020.

The hearing was good, though, because I got to hear from alders and Chicagoans that I hadn’t heard from before. (Check the map to see if your alder is a supporter.)

I am reprinting the prepared statements of two of the public speakers. Both speakers participated the ULI task force that developed recommendations for a policy that would reduce barriers to construction of new ADUs.

Because the joint committee hearing was held virtually on Zoom, it’s easier to attend and document the visuals presented in the meeting. Three slides show a limited summary of the ordinance (left, center) and a drawing by Booth Hansen architects (right).

Diane Limas, Communities United

Links were added to Diane’s statement for this article

My name is Diane Limas, and I am a volunteer leader for Communities United, a grassroots community organization that organizes in Albany Park, West Ridge, Austin, Belmont Cragin, and Roseland.

Chicago’s housing crisis is short at least 120,000 affordable rental units, including tens of thousands that need to be either fully accessible to accommodate persons in wheelchairs or livable for people with modest mobility difficulties.

It is estimated that 175,000 affordable basement units could be added to Chicago’s affordable housing stock. That’s what makes this ordinance all the more disheartening…knowing that we could create affordable housing for families at the very low end of the AMI [area median income]…instead we have a weak ordinance without affordability, accessibility, anti-displacement, and racial equity measures.

Many of Chicago’s renters most vulnerable to housing instability and homelessness currently live in the basement units of our 2 to 4-flat buildings and pay well below the 60% AMI.

In this ordinance, there are no measures in place to ensure that families are not displaced or ensure that after conversion, these units remain affordable for families that are currently occupying these basement units.

This ordinance as written, excludes RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts. This is inequitable as it would require any homeowner that lives in these zoning districts to hire a lawyer and apply for a special use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. The owners of these properties will have to take on additional debt if they wanted to build an ADU with no guarantee of approval.

We are talking about neighborhoods like Ashburn, Chatham, Roseland and Morgan Park that have half of their parcels in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts.

This ordinance also excludes all residential buildings in B, C, and D districts. This means thousands of single-family houses, our 2 to 4-flats, and other residential buildings are excluded from creating an ADU.

These zoning restrictions contribute to the lack of equity and inclusion that this ordinance seriously lacks.

This ordinance, as written, will create some units of housing for those who already have the capital to invest in unit upgrades or standalone units…which means that the wealthy homeowners will benefit most, while creating very few affordable units.

This ordinance is an example of City Council creating a law that is carved out to benefit the wealthy and barriers are put in place to prevent people of color from accessing those benefits.

That is why this city will remain one of the most segregated cities in the country.

Jon Womack, Northwest Side Building Coalition

My name is Jon Womack and I’m a housing provider on the West and Northwest sides of Chicago, mostly in North Austin and Belmont Cragin. I’m also a member of the Neighborhood Building Owner Alliance and I represent an affiliate group called the Northwest Side Building Coalition.

As everyone here knows, Chicago faces many challenges in terms of housing. We need more affordable housing and we need to better support those impacted by rapid gentrification in a few neighborhoods. Fortunately, unlike many other cities around the country, we have a housing stock that allows us to create more than 100,000 basement units that are naturally affordable.

Most of the buildings I manage are 4-12 units in size and, while I do not have any experience with ground-up development or creating new basement units, I see an immediate opportunity to create 6-10 basement units for 10-15 people to live in.

I share this because I want you to understand there are many more people like me all across the City. We want to be part of the solution, we want to provide more housing. But we also operate on tight margins and need support to get these projects off the ground.

Over the last year, the Urban Land Institute convened a wide range of experts to focus on a single objective: how to create as many ADUs as possible. The report states that less restrictions equate to more ADUs. The inverse is also true. The conversation we’re having should be about removing or minimizing restrictions and obstacles, and how to incentivize and support those with 2-4 flats, as well as those with small and medium-sized multi-family buildings across all of Chicago.

If the intention of the ADU ordinance is also to create the most ADUs and make a significant impact on the housing crises we face, then I believe it falls short, based on its current state, because it places burdens on the very people trying to provide that housing.

Many changes are needed to make this ordinance better — here are a few:

  1. Lower or remove the registration fee of $500 per affordable ADU, or at least have it be paid after the ADU has been built
  2. Reduce or remove long term requirements, such as the 30-year deed restriction that ties the hands of the housing provider and discourages them investing in ADUs and taking on all the risk. If it must stay, it should only apply AFTER the ADU has been built, not as Step 1, before you know for sure if the project will move forward.
  3. Reduce or remove the requirement that 50% of the ADUs created be rented at 60% of the AMI for 30 years — basement units are naturally affordable and rent for less than a 1st or 2nd floor apartment.
  4. Reduce or remove the requirement that buildings 20 years or older be out of scope
  5. Define the metrics that will be tracked and how they will be reported, so we can all measure the success of this ordinance and use that data to inform future policy decisions.

There is no reason for us to “wait and see what happens” with this mediocre ordinance. Let’s learn from other cities like Seattle and Portland. We know now that a less restrictive policy will produce more ADUs in Years 1 and 2, and be a great weapon in battling our housing crises.

A successful ADU policy must focus on incentives and support, not restrictions and obstacles.

Here’s what ADU supporters told City Council at the first hearing was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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.

A zoning ordinance to bring back accessory dwelling units — or ADUs — was introduced Wednesday and poised to go before the Chicago City Council for a final vote in June or July in order to become effective on August 1. But what exactly will a post-ADU ordinance landscape look like? Where will these units be built, and who will be able to afford them?

Accessory dwelling units are essentially smaller secondary units added to residential lots; new coach houses were made illegal in Chicago in 1957. In its most recent five-year housing plan, the city identified the re-legalization of ADUs as an opportunity to provide “relatively affordable housing” and a way to bring extra income and stability to Chicago’s moderate-income families.

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara (panelist, third from left) was speaking at the Woodlawn Community Summit on March 9, 2020, about affordable housing including accessory dwelling units. Photo by Kyle Terry

“The [ADU] ordinance is an almost invisible way to increase moderate-cost rental opportunities across the city that fit-in with the way a neighborhood already looks,” said Marisa Novara, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing on Wednesday. “Legalizing these units is also part of our affordability strategy. They can have a real and positive impact on homeowners that need extra income as they may be experiencing rising property taxes and may need to age in place.”

Accessory units can take a variety of forms, such as over-garage coach houses or stand-alone backyard cottages (see examples from around the country).

In Chicago, the most straightforward, affordable, and abundant option could be basement conversions in existing structures. A recent report drafted by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) that called on Chicago to model its legislation on what’s worked best in other metropolitan areas identified nearly 77,000 two- to four-flat buildings with potentially habitable basements.

Basement ADUs cost less to build and therefore can be rented at a lower rate, advocates say. Based on estimates in the ULI report, a lower-level space needing structural changes and other improvements will cost roughly $150,000 to be converted into an ADU. If such a space complies with code requirements and does not require significant structural work, the price tag could fall to $75,000 — well below the cost of a typical housing unit.

Monica Chadha, founder and principal architect of Civic Projects, shared these real financing figures for a sample project. She is currently adding two basement units to an existing six-flat. The project is made possibly by a zoning change Chadha acquired. If the ADU ordinance were in effect when she started the project, the zoning change would not have been necessary.

Though ADUs are cheaper to build, there are no guarantees that newly created units have to be rented below market rate. The city’s proposed ordinance only requires property owners who add multiple interior ADUs to offer 50 percent of the units (rounded down to the nearest whole number) at an affordable rate.

An even more urgent consideration is the legislation’s impact on any existing ADUs that don’t fully comply with the rules. If property owners have to invest in substantial repairs and upgrades, what happens to renters in the meantime? How can owners hope to recoup costs without passing higher rents onto lower-income tenants?

These are the concerns of Diane Limas, president of the Communities United board, a grassroots organization advocating for the preservation of affordable housing in the gentrifying Albany Park neighborhood.

“We saw developers deconverting multi-unit buildings and the families living in not-so-safe basement units facing displacement,” Limas said. “These residents were grateful to be there because it’s the only housing they could afford and they would be homeless otherwise. Our discussions around ADUs started with the goal to put a dent in the affordable housing crisis and prevent the displacement of low-income and middle-class families. But what landlord wouldn’t raise rents after having to make such a large investment?”

Diane Limas (center) was a member of the Urban Land Institute’s Accessory Dwelling Units task force, representing Communities United. Photo via the ULI ADU task force report.

The authors of the ULI report say the city needs to be “mindful” of displacing residents in any existing ADUs that don’t comply, but it’s unclear how officials would enforce safety standards without issuing fines or threatening tenants with eviction.

Yet, despite lingering concerns, there is evidence that ADUs tend to be relatively affordable within their respective communities. Another ULI-assisted report (PDF) examined ADU legislation in the West Coast cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., found the “majority of accessory unit rent below market-rate” and therefore could be considered a form of affordable housing. It also showed that close friends or family members of the owners occupied nearly a third of accessory units, and more than half of those units were offered rent-free.

A survey of 210 ADUs in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., to learn how property owners funded their ADUs. A plurality borrowed against the equity in the existing property. Source: 2017 Terner Center-ULI study of ADU owners.

It remains to be seen where and to what extent ADUs will take off in Chicago once they become legal again. But until the city or other organizations come up with solutions to address the financial hurdles facing our underserved communities, it’s safe to assume that the first wave of new ADUs will show up in areas where property owners have access to capital.

Limas says the city should instead prioritize the creation and preservation of affordable ADUs before opening the door to a flood of new market-rate units. “Why don’t we start by helping the people who need it first?” she added. “For owners of two- to four-flats, where do they even get $75,000?”

Chicago’s ADU ordinance will need support to maximize its effectiveness across all 50 wards, but a robust ADU financing program isn’t expected until after the zoning ordinance goes into effect this summer.

“Chicago needs more affordable housing, and we know that a big piece of that is due to restrictive zoning,” said Molly Ekerdt, co-chair of ULI Chicago’s public policy committee and a vice president of Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH). “But amending the code won’t solve all of the problems. In the case of ADUs, it’s also building out the programs and tools to educate homeowners and provide the necessary incentives. There’s more work to be done.”

Simply put, the movement to bring back ADUs won’t solve Chicago’s affordability crisis on its own. Nor will it present ideal solutions for every property owner or low-income renter. The legislation does, however, show a willingness to try something different to increase the overall housing supply and bring affordable, lot-by-lot density to Chicago’s neighborhoods — even if the definition of “affordable” isn’t universally agreed upon.

Coach houses & basement units will add more housing options, but will they be affordable? was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Chicago’s ADU ordinance was introduced — see what you could build

The moment has finally arrived. The ordinance to re-legalize coach houses and other types of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) was introduced to City Council on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. The new law would allow property owners to add one or more dwelling unit to their houses and vacant lots without needing an expensive and tentative zoning change.

If adopted, the new ADU ordinance — O2020-2850— would take effect on August 1, 2020. That happens to be the same time when the 2019 Chicago Building Code — based on IBC 2018 — becomes mandatory for all renovation and new construction projects.

I would like to thank all of the people at the Buildings, Housing, and Planning & Development departments (I’ve listed their names at the end), and Alders Matt Martin (47th) and Harry Osterman (48th), who drafted this and put it forward. Now that it’s been introduced it can be heard by Zoning and Housing committees. The chairs of those two committees, Alders Osterman and Tunney, have agreed to hold a joint meeting to discuss the ordinance.

A rear (coach house without a garage) in West Town. Photo by Gabriel X. Michael

This question and answer-style article is based on the best of my understanding of the introduced ordinance; don’t think of this as an interpretation of zoning code, as that is purely the domain of the zoning administration staff. I may improve or correct this article at any time. (Updated May 23, 2020, to add new questions about existing non-conforming units

  1. What’s being legalized?

The ordinance would allow one or more dwelling units to be added as a coach house or to an existing residential building without requiring a zoning change. The ordinance divides ADUs into two types:

  1. coach houses, which are the small buildings in the rear of a lot with or without a garage (common across Chicago), with one dwelling unit
  2. conversion units, which are the other types of dwelling units, via additions and renovations in existing buildings 20 years or older. Only units built according to this code would be considered conversion units; units that exist on or before July 31, 2020, that seem like conversion units are not considered conversion units.

2. What kind of ADU could I build on my property?

Interested homeowners and landlords would have to choose which type of ADU would be most appropriate for their property and budget. We’ve created a directory of architects and developers in Chicago who have said they want to design ADUs for Chicagoans.

To help everyone visualize what’s going to be possible, Mark Pomarico and James Young, architects at the firm Booth Hansen, designed these posters showing many of the unique layouts that would be allowed under this ordinance. Other architects may design additional layouts!

Booth Hansen architects Mark Pomarico and James Young created these graphics to illustrate ADU designs that would be legal upon adoption of the ordinance.

3. How many ADUs could be built on a property?

Property owners in “R” zones can choose to add either one or more conversion units or a coach house. Coach houses would not be able to be built on any lot that has a conversion unit.

If adding conversion units

Owners of single-family houses that are 20 years or older would be able to build one “conversion unit”. All other residential buildings that are 20 years or older would be able to add 33 percent of the number of existing units, and rounding up or down.

  • 2-flats: 2x0.33 = 0.66 rounding up to 1 unit
  • 3-flats: 3x0.33 = 0.99 rounding up to 1 unit
  • 4-flats: 4x0.33 = 1.32 rounding down to 1 unit
  • 5-flats: 5x0.33 = 1.65 rounding up to 2 units
  • 6-flats: 6x0.33 = 1.98 rounding up to 2 units
  • And so on.

If adding a coach house

All properties that are either vacant or have a single-family house, 2-flat, 3-flat, or 4-flat would be able to add one coach house as long as there is no conversion unit on the lot.

4. Would any of the ADUs have to be affordable?

Some of them may need to be rented affordably. When two or more conversion units are being added to a residential building (that has five or more units), either at the same time, or at different times, 50 percent of them (always rounding down) have to be rented at an affordable price. The affordable rental price would be required for 30 years.

The affordable price would be determined annually as the rent equal to 30 percent of the income of a household earning 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). Using the Chicago Department of Housing’s maximum rents table, the 60 percent AMI for a two-person household is $42,780. Thirty percent of that $12,834 per year, or $1,069.50 per month.

That probably doesn’t sound affordable, and it’s not affordable to a lot of people. Allowing ADUs are one part of a comprehensive affordable housing policy in Chicago, and this is a start. The ULI ADU task force discussed and recommended many funding and financing ideas that the Chicago City Council would need to design and adopt.

The designated affordable conversion units are different than affordable units in new construction housing that’s required by the Affordable Requirements Ordinance (ARO). ARO units are income restricted.

Conversion units would not be income-restricted and could be rented to anyone regardless of income. This accomplishes two things: It reduces the burden on property owners and the Department of Housing to verify the income of a potential renter, and it ensures that undocumented tenants are not checked.

5. Where in Chicago could an ADU be built?

Coach houses and conversion units would be permitted, as of right, in all residential districts starting with RS-3. That means they would be allowed, without a zoning change, in RS-3, RT-3.5 (a rare district), RT-4, RM-4.5, RM-5, RM-5.5, RM-6, and RM-6.5.

That is great news because RS-3 and RT-4 are the most common residential zoning districts in Chicago, covering the vast majority of “R”-zoned areas.

As for RS-1 and RS-2, property owners in those areas would have to obtain a special use permit via the Zoning Board of Appeals. They would most likely have to hire lawyers and independent experts. The ULI ADU task force recommended a more accommodating policy, saying that the option to build an ADU should be permitted in all zoning districts.

There are some community areas where RS-1 and RS-2 are the dominant residential zoning district. In Ashburn, 94.7 percent of properties in “R” districts are in RS-2 districts, meaning that the owners of over 11,800 properties would have to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to get permission to build a conversion unit or coach house.

Requiring that ADUS have a “special use” from the ZBA in these two zoning districts would limit the effectiveness of the ordinance in many communities, and inhibit the flexibility of a homeowner to add a unit to reflect changes in their household and family. For example, many ADUs in the United States are built for elderly parents, adult children, friends and family with disabilities who need to live close to a caregiver, and college students.

6. Could a coach house be built with a new construction house or multi-flat?


7. Could a coach house be built on a vacant lot?

Yes. A coach house would be allowed to be built prior to the construction of a “front” house (which is called a principal building in zoning code jargon).

This will be a great policy as it will give vacant lots a new lease on life. Chicago’s 10,000+ vacant lots can be developed sooner with smaller and less expensive housing, perhaps with modular construction.

8. How big could a coach house be?

The ordinance would limit coach houses to 22 feet in height. The two-story + loft coach house on the rear of the lot where I live in Humboldt Park is a hair under 24 feet tall.

The ordinance would limit a coach house’s footprint to 60 percent of the required rear setback, and a floor area of 700 s.f.

Minimum sizes are influenced by the existing building code rules on the minimum size of bedrooms.

9. Could existing coach houses be modified?

Yes. The current zoning code allows only incidental repairs and normal maintenance, but the ADU code would allow expansions to the area and height extents described above.

10. How big could a conversion unit be?

The ADU ordinance doesn’t have direct limitations on the size of the conversion unit. The size of the conversion unit would be determined by a combination of the owner’s desire and the zoning standards as they apply to the existing building’s height and envelope (bulk). The minimum lot area (MLA) and minimum lot area per unit standards would not apply.

Practically speaking, here’s what that means. Say you own a 2-flat on a standard lot size of 3,125 s.f. and the lot is zoned RT-4 (this is one of the most common building scenarios in Chicago). The allowable floor area for that 2-flat is 3,750 s.f., but the units are each 1,300 s.f. totaling 2,600 s.f. of floor area. There is a remainder of 1,150 s.f. This 2-flat can gain a third unit, as an added floor, up to the allowable building height of 38 feet, or in a converted basement.

Depending on other zoning standards that may apply to the lot’s setbacks and yard requirements, a rear addition may be allowed.

11. Could the ADUs be rented on short-term rental websites, like Airbnb?

Not really, because rental periods of 31 or fewer consecutive days aren’t allowed. I guess you could use a short-term rental website to rent a unit out for longer than 31 days.

However, a new conversion unit or coach house could be rented for free to any member of an owner or tenant’s household for any length of time, including for a period of 31 or fewer consecutive days. This rule would not apply to conversion units and coach houses that existed on or before July 31, 2020.

12. How much parking would be required?

No parking is required for conversion units or coach houses. When building a coach house, the existing required parking must remain. However, the ordinance would reduce the required parking for single-family houses in the RS districts from two spaces to one space, allowing the removal of a space in order to flexibly situate a new coach house on a lot.

13. Does this ordinance abolish single-family-only zoning?

Almost. While single-family-only zoning is a detriment to cities because of the pattern of segregation and unaffordable housing it has left in its wake, the ordinance isn’t the same as eliminating Chicago’s single-family-only zoning of RS-1, RS-2, and in most cases RS-3. This is because a conversion unit would be allowed only in buildings that are 20 years old or older, and the ordinance proposes zoning entitlement limitations in RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts.

14. How would existing non-conforming units be treated?

Existing non-conforming units are non-conforming for one or two reasons: (A) the zoning standards for the lot do not allow an additional unit, or a unit exceeding a certain size; (B) the unit does not comply with the building code.

To resolve both situations, the unit could become conforming without a zoning change by the owner submitting plans and pulling a building permit.

It’s possible that a non-conforming unit that complies with the building code (B) but not the zoning code (A) could request a Department of Buildings inspection, but this is my guess as such a rule has not been established or proposed.

15. How would the affordable conversion units be enforced?

The proposed ordinance would enforce the affordability requirement for those conversion units subject to the affordability requirement in a few ways. When a conversion unit that must be rented at the affordable rate set by the ordinance would be established, it would have to be registered with the Department of Housing, and a notice identifying the conversion unit would have to be recorded against the property with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. The notice becomes the public record that the unit is an affordable conversion unit and serves as notice to subsequent property owners.

Additionally, each year, the owner of affordable conversion units would have to submit an affidavit to the Dept. of Housing “certifying” that the unit is being rented at the rate calculated by the ordinance. The rules for submitting the affidavit and the evidence required would be developed after the ordinance is adopted.

16. Who at City Hall drafted and shepherded this ordinance introduction?

In no particular order: Steve Valenziano, Cyndi Roubik, Paul Williams, Patrick Murphey, Bryan Esenberg, Daniel Kay Hertz, and Grant Ullrich. All of them were also members of the ULI ADU task force.

Editor’s note: Thank you to Anjulie Rao for helping me edit and humanize this article.

Chicago’s ADU ordinance was introduced — see what you could build was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

There’s a new sense of urgency to approve the city’s plan to bring Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) back to Chicago as the COVID-19 health crisis amplifies systemic economic inequality and the need for safe, affordable housing. While the ordinance to legalize ADUs isn’t expected to go before the City Council until later this summer, a new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) hints at what the upcoming legislation could look like. The report also highlights specific barriers that will need to be overcome for Chicago to implement a successful and equitable policy.

Editor’s note: Steven Vance, CEO of Chicago Cityscape, was a member of the ULI task force that created the recommendations in the report.

A coach house in Pilsen. Photo by Gabriel X. Michael

Accessory Dwelling Units — which are smaller, independent residences added to a single-family or multi-flat house — come in many forms including over-garage coach houses, attached rear additions, standalone backyard cottages, and basement or attic build-outs within existing buildings. Illegal in Chicago since the 1950s, this type of housing has the potential to boost income for homeowners, allow seniors to age in place, and replace the much-needed affordable housing and density being lost to demolitions and deconversion of existing two- to four-flat buildings.

The city will need to get the ordinance right to fully unlock all of the benefits ADUs have to offer and to encourage their construction, especially in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods where real estate markets are softer and property owners have less capital to invest.

The ULI report incorporated the feedback from dozens of urban planners, real estate experts, architects, city officials, community groups, lenders, and other stakeholders to form a series of recommendations for Chicago’s future ADU legislation. The report also examined what it took for the ADU policies in other cities like Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles to take hold and flourish. The hope is that Chicago can avoid some of the same barriers and early mistakes.

Models drawn by Mark Pomarico and James Young, architects who work at Booth Hansen, were helpful in understanding how regulations affect design and development feasibility.

“The findings will help create an ordinance that we hope to get passed by August,” said Harry Osterman, alderman of the 48th Ward and chairman of the Committee on Housing, at a ULI-hosted webinar on Thursday. “We’re in very challenging times right now, and housing is going to play a critical part in where we go as a city. This ordinance is a tool to create additional units that are affordable and available for seniors.”

The report recommends a “less is more” approach to ADU regulation by allowing new units to be built as-of-right in all residential zoning districts. It also suggests targeting “chronically vacant” ground-floor commercial space for conversion into accessible residential units that can take advantage of at-grade entrances.

Other zoning recommendations include relaxing off-street parking minimums, minimum lot area per dwelling unit rules, and open space requirements. The cumulative effect will result in much greater flexibility in where an ADU can be placed on a standard Chicago lot. In the name of increased flexibility, the report advocates lifting requirements for property owners to reside at the address and to allow short-term rentals like Airbnb.

Chicago’s new building code, which is set to go into effect this summer, is already ADU-friendly and allows greater flexibility when it comes to less expensive wood-frame construction.

“We were preparing for an ordinance like this to come along and, building code-wise, we’re ready,” said Chicago Building Commissioner Judy Frydland at Thursday’s meeting. “We are streamlining our permit process and will work with people to keep down the cost. Our priority is to ensure the safety of residents.”

According to the report, a “solutions-focused” approach to building inspections should provide an easy way for homeowners to legalize existing non-compliant units and not discourage property owners from exploring ADUs due to the threat of possible fines or repair costs. The city also needs to be mindful of displacing residents living in existing ADUs with code infractions, the report says.

The ADU regulations are also looking at reducing minimum ceiling heights for basement units, which can eliminate the need for costly excavations, and flexibility when it comes to utility hook-ups. Another cost-saving measure could be pre-approved architectural designs for ADUs and the use of modular construction.

Though less expensive than a typical housing unit, the cost of building an ADU is still a significant investment that many Chicago property owners may not be able to shoulder.

Financing still remains one of the biggest hurdles in the path of creating the maximum number of new units.

The report identified the need for ADU-friendly financing mechanisms like short-term bridge loans supported by the city or the ability to borrow money against the future value of the ADU (lenders usually don’t consider the future value of a unit when lending). A possible solution could be homeowners partnering with developers and entering into a land-lease agreement in which the developer finances, builds, and owns the ADU but rents the land from the property owner (there’s at least one company doing this on the West Coast).

New homeowner-friendly programs and resources are needed to help homeowners understand what is required to build an ADU. This could include checklists, pre-approved designs, cost estimates, an online dashboard, and collaboration with community intermediaries and non-profit groups.

In a city were aldermanic privilege has historically resulted in a piece-meal approach to zoning and land-use policy, the upcoming ADU ordinance aims to cover all 50 wards, according to Osterman. The 48th Ward official says he and aldermen Tom Tunney (44th) and Matt Martin (47th) will speak to other members of the City Council in the coming weeks to gauge support.

“It’s important that we implement the ADU ordinance across the board, given the magnitude of it,” explained Osterman. “Part of our conversations with aldermen is to have them understand it on a citywide level but then also what the actual effect will be in their communities.”

“When we convened in-person in December last year to develop recommendations, we certainly didn’t expect to come face to face with a pandemic,” added Cindy McSherry, executive director at ULI Chicago. “But the last two months really underscored the importance of access to safe and stable housing for everyone. We look forward to exploring how ADUs can play a piece in addressing the need for increased housing and the housing challenges we have in the city.”

Chicago’s future ADU ordinance should learn from other cities’ mistakes 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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