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Door Opens For Innovative Affordable Housing In Chicago

While protesters were marching and looters were smashing windows, stealing and burning buildings, wheels of progress were quietly turning to create more affordable housing opportunities in the Windy City.

On May 20th, Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot introduced an innovative ordinance to expand housing access to thousands of residents across Chicago by permitting accessory housing units—also known as additional dwelling units (ADU).

The ordinance would allow owners to add moderate-cost rental units in spaces such as attics, basements, and coach houses.

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 1957 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.

After the war, one Old Town three-flat was split 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 blue-collar tenants were earning $50 a week during that era, but those apartments were truly affordable housing by today’s standards.

Following decades of policy decisions that limited their construction, the proposed ordinance would amend the city’s Municipal Code to lawfully permit ADUs in buildings, creating cost-effective housing options in most of Chicago’s neighborhoods, while providing a financial boost to owners with existing ADUs.

“Chicago 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 buildings,” Mayor Lightfoot said.

Recommended for legalization by the Mayor’s Transition Committee and in the Department of Housing’s (DOH) “One Chicago” five-year housing plan, ADUs should greatly increase the supply of available housing and create a financial boost for Chicago building owners and seniors who are struggling to pay sky-high real estate taxes.

In addition, by legalizing housing options that are already part of the fabric of the city’s neighborhoods, the ordinance likely will slow gentrification in fringe neighborhoods in the path of rapid redevelopment.

“Chicago faces the important need of creating more housing units that are affordable to residents in each neighborhood,” said Ald. Harry Osterman (48th Ward), chairman of the City Council Housing and Real Estate committee. “This ordinance enables property owners to create accessory dwelling units in a streamlined process that will add to our affordable housing stock and benefit many Chicagoans.”

“The ordinance is an almost invisible way to increase rental options,” said DOH Commissioner Marisa Novara. “Legalizing ADUs can have a real and positive impact on homeowners needing extra income to cover rising property taxes or adapting to age in place.

Developed in partnership by the Departments of Housing (DOH), Planning and Development (DPD), and Buildings (DOB) with input from an advisory group assembled by the Urban Land Institute’s Chicago chapter, the proposed zoning-code changes would define new living spaces within attics and basements as “conversion units” and spaces in accessory structures as “coach-house units.”

The code would also allow at least one ADU per building in all residential zoning districts. However, ADUs proposed for buildings in select single-family districts (RS1, RS2) would require a “special-use permit” from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Existing ADUs that were constructed without zoning changes or building permits would be allowed to become compliant without penalty through a new permitting and inspection process.

An existing 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.

Housing experts say it is likely that basement or so-called “garden apartments” 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.

It is estimated that as many as 100,000 affordable garden apartment units could be added to the city’s housing stock under the new innovative zoning. 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.

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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