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Chicago’s Affordale Housing Solution: Garden & Coach-House Units?

With high-rise rents skyrocketing and thousands of indigent people living in tents under dirty, unsanitary viaducts and on Lower Wacker Drive, everyone agrees Chicago needs more affordable housing.

Our new Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, says she is sympathetic to the problem, but how can she help solve it?

With thousands of officially unauthorized apartments already built and affordably rented in ethnic and gentrified neighborhoods alike, this writer has long wondered why ancillary dwelling units such as garden, attic, and over-the-garage coach-house abodes are not allowed under Chicago’s current restrictive zoning.

A 1950s rewrite of the Chicago building and zoning codes “grandfathered” the then existing dwelling units due to the after-effects of the 1930s Great Depression and the severe post World-War II 1940s housing shortages.

During the post-World War II years, one Old Town three-flat was converted into six rental apartments with a seventh unit in the basement, and that was legal, with residences renting for as little as $20 a month. Of course, most tenants were earning $50 a week during that era, but those apartments were truly affordable housing by today’s standards.

Today, where do you think the “City of Big Shoulder’s” blue-collar working-class live? They certainly don’t live in posh high-rises along the lakefront, that’s for sure.

Today, many hard-working people earn less than $10 an hour. Some of them are immigrants, who President Donald Trump would like to kick out of the country.

They often work in the hotel industry as maids and valets, or as hospital attendants, at car washes, or manning a cash register at a convenience store. Many have worked all their lives, raised families and are seeking the American Dream of homeownership. But the dream is illusive.

Now is the time to change the city’s zoning ordinance to allow affordable alternative housing. Basement—or “garden” apartments, attic lofts and even coach-house garage living units should be encouraged, not discouraged.

A fine example of coach-house living over the garage can be seen on the 1700 block of North Fern Court, a tiny street reminiscent of an urban alley in the Old Town neighborhood. There, dozens of 1880s buildings feature residential apartments above what once were turn-of-the-century carriage houses.

Some of these buildings are three-stories high with garage spaces at grade level and two living units above. These unique carriage houses are “grandfathered-in” because they were built long before current city building codes.

In the early 2000s, pioneering North Side developer Paul Bertsche of CA Development launched a project of eight homes and 24 townhomes on a 1.5-acre infill site in West Bucktown.

Bertsche’s proposal to the city requested a zoning variance to allow a 400-square-foot, one-bedroom dwelling unit over the 2-car garage of the single-family homes to provide income to the owners, or as extended “in-law” space. The city rejected the request.

Despite the denial for a zoning variance, the development, known as Bucktown 1800, won a “City Development of the Year” award from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Housing experts say it is likely that basement garden apartment units continue to be affordable because they usually are studios or one-bedroom units with limited square footage. Renters may have to deal with lack of light issues, and relatively low 7-foot ceilings.

However, the rent usually is quite affordable, sometimes only $500 or $600 a month in some neighborhoods. Even in affluent neighborhoods such as Old Town and Logan Square, garden apartment rents typically are 25% to 30% less than above-grade units in the same building.

Mayor Lightfoot should forget about “rent control” as a solution to affordable housing. Most apartment experts believe it is not a practical solution because it would force profit-driven, market-rate developers to cease building new apartments, causing a supply shortage which would eventually drive market rents even higher.

Doug Imber, president of Essex Realty Group Inc., believes that there is only one cost-effective solution to affordable housing.

An idea that is gaining grass-roots support is amending current zoning laws to allow garden-level apartments to be added to existing apartment buildings provided that the units be priced at affordable levels.

“For example, an owner of a two-flat might add a third unit,” said Imber. “An owner of a 40-unit building might have space to add three units. However, existing zoning does not allow adding apartments to an existing building unless additional parking is also provided.” It is estimated that as many as 100,000 affordable garden apartment units could be added to the city’s housing stock using the “Affordable Garden Apartment Plan.” Imber says that would be the same as building 500 high-rises with 200 units in each.

Of course, every garden, attic, coach house, or over-the-garage living unit would have to meet requirements of the current Chicago Building Code, contain at least two exits, have a kitchen and bathroom along with proper air ventilation and heating.

Here are Imber’s arguments for why the city should amend the building code to allow new garden apartments:

• Cost savings. Building an affordable garden apartment in an existing building costs a fraction of constructing an apartment in a new building.

• No tax credits needed. All costs would be paid for by the private apartment owner. No special tax credits would be involved.

• Incentives for disabled. The affordable apartment program could be used to incentivize the creation of accessible housing for people with physical disabilities and veterans while allowing the occupant to pay for accessibility.

“Construction of a garden apartment in an existing building can be completed in just two or three months once permits are obtained, and the cost would be a fraction of new construction,” Imber noted.

“This is in stark contrast to the new-construction cycle that can take two years to complete and cost $200 per square foot,” he said.

If small “Ma and Pa” apartment-building owners were permitted to legally add a garden unit to their single-family home, 2-flat or 3-flat the added residence “would increase the value of the property while charging affordable rents,” Imber said.

For more housing news, visit Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit

“The book is Escaping Condo Jail by Sara Benson and Don DeBat. I would say that anybody thinking about buying a condo, or even anybody serving on a condo board, or anybody who has any connection to a condo, this is must reading—all 600 and something pages. Thanks a lot for a great book!”


Steve Sanders, “Your Money Matters” WGN TV, December 22, 2014

By Don DeBat

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