By Peter Winslow
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and five aldermen in late May introduced a highly anticipated ordinance to City Council, which if passed would amend provisions of the Municipal Code to permit coach houses and other accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in residential areas.
The proposed measure would expand affordable housing access to thousands of Chicagoans by allowing property owners to build moderate-cost units without requesting a zoning change from the City or receiving aldermanic approval, often a time-consuming and expensive endeavor.
Officials postponed the July 21 City Council vote on the new measure after several aldermen expressed staunch opposition following a July 10 hearing; they have not announced the rescheduled vote date yet.
Aldermen Walter Burnett (27th), Maria E. Hadden (49th), Matthew J. Martin (47th), Harry Osterman (48th), and Thomas Tunney (44th) sponsored the ordinance, with backing from Mayor Lightfoot. The Committee of Housing and Real Estate and the Committee of Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards have jurisdiction over the ordinance.
“The City needs to be creative and realistic about how and where we can increase affordable housing opportunities for renters while also helping property owners deal with the financial demands of their building,” Mayor Lightfoot said in a statement. “With this sustainable and cost-effective approach, we are providing residents with more equitable access to affordable housing options citywide.”
Besides allowing eligible property owners to build rentable units, the ordinance would legalize myriad ADUs throughout the city that currently vary in states of regulatory compliance. Residents commonly build ADUs for elderly parents, adult children, and college students.
The proposed zoning code would define constructed living spaces within attics and basements as “conversion units” and spaces in accessory structures as “coach house units,” according to the City.
If the City Council adopts the new measure, it would end a 63-year-old ban on constructing coach houses and so-called “granny flats.” The City effectively prohibited building such units in 1957 by introducing minimums for lot area and parking requirements as well as barring secondary residential structures on single lots, according to the City.
Where owners can build ADUs
The proposed ordinance would make single-family homes located in most “R” zones—residential zones—and built 20 or more years ago eligible to have one conversion unit, while owners of residential buildings constructed 20 or more years ago could add another 33% of the number of existing units, rounding up or down.
For two-, three-, and four-flats in “R” zones, property owners would have the right to build one ADU, while owners with five units could construct two ADUs, and so forth.
When owners add two or more units to a residential property, half of those units must be rentable at an affordable price, defined as 30% of the income of a household that earns 60% of the area median income.
Owners of vacant properties, single-family homes, and residential buildings could add one coach house to their lot, but only if the property has no existing ADU.
The measure would allow at least one ADU per building in all residential zones with the exception of select single-family districts—RS1 and RS2—which would require a permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Support and criticism
Alderman Patrick D. Thompson (11th) expressed concerns about the proposed measure, stating it unintentionally may create less affordable properties. “This ordinance could lead to faster transition and higher rents for existing tenants,” said Thompson, in a statement following the July 10 hearing.
“If you buy an existing building and have ‘as a right’ the ability to build out the basement or the attic, you can pay more for that building, thus driving up the sales prices in our communities,” he added.
Other aldermen warned about the possibility of absentee ownership, suggesting the City limit ADUs to properties occupied by their owners. Others believe the proposed ordinance fails to ensure new ADUs actually would be affordable for lower income renters.
Alderman Burnett believes the ordinance’s potential opportunities are both beneficial and necessary during this time of economic uncertainty.
“Additional dwelling units could supplement mortgage costs and assist folks with the new cost of living,” Burnett said. “In the past we have talked to community members on multiple occasions to rezone their property. We found ourselves over the years helping them come into compliance. It’s nothing unusual, and it will give people a right to do it, help them get away from the zoning challenges.”
Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) also supports the ordinance. “We have to be careful with every policy, ensure that we make it easier for the average homeowner,” he said. “We need to make sure we help homeowners that have been paying taxes for decades and are a part of our community.
“Organically ADUs are affordable, but the cautionary tale is for developers to add another units, which would be detrimental to the goal of helping out the homeowner. We do not want more developers to take advantage of a broken system. We want to make sure we tailor this ordinance to help the average homeowner.”
Despite repeated attempts to contact other aldermen located in this area, Gazette Chicago did not receive comments from their offices regarding the ADU ordinance’s potential adoption.
To stay updated on information regarding the ADU ordinance, visit www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/doh.html. For Burnett, call (312) 432-1995. For Thompson, call (773) 254-6677.