City Plan Expands Affordable Housing In Five Target Areas
Affordable housing opportunities in the Windy City received a boost with the City Council’s overwhelming approval of five Chicago target areas for new construction of coach houses, basement and attic apartments.
Last spring, Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot introduced an innovative ordinance to expand housing access to thousands of residents across Chicago by permitting additional housing units—also known as accessory dwelling units (ADU).
The ordinance, which repeals Chicago’s 63-year ban on illegal over-the-garage coach houses, or “carriage houses,” so-called basement “garden” apartments and attic units, allows owners to add moderate-cost rental units in those spaces under a special pilot program.
A 1957 rewrite of the Chicago building and zoning codes “grandfathered” such existing dwelling units built prior to 1948 due to the after-effects of the 1930s Great Depression and the severe post World-War II 1940s housing shortages.
Since then, thousands of existing, but officially unauthorized apartments, were affordably rented in ethnic and gentrified neighborhoods alike.
After the war, some North Side three-flats were split into six rental apartments often with a seventh unit in the basement, and that was legal. These small, 500-square-foot apartments rented for as little as $20 a month, and included shared bathrooms, ingress and egress. 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 ordinance amends the city’s Municipal Code to lawfully permit ADUs in five target areas, creating cost-effective housing options in many Chicago’s neighborhoods, while providing a financial boost to owners with existing ADUs.
Here are details on the city’s gerrymandered map covering neighborhood pilot zones allowing affordable accessory units under the ordinance, which goes into effect on May 1, 2021:
• North Side. The zone covers parts of the Lake View, North Center, Lincoln Square, Uptown, Edgewater and West Ridge neighborhood. Rough boundaries of the district run from Halsted Street, north of Diversey and Belmont, and Lake Michigan north of Lawrence, up to Devon, and west to the North Shore Channel.
The North Side target area includes most of the 40th, 44th, 46th, 47th and 48th Wards, and part of the 32nd Ward.
• Northwest Side. This narrow, gerrymandered district west of the North Shore Channel covers sections of West Town, Logan Square, Hermosa, Avondale, Albany Park and Irving Park. It also includes parts of the Near West Side and East Garfield Park neighborhoods.
• West Side. The Far West Side district covers parts of East Garfield Park and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and South Lawndale neighborhoods.
• South Side. This expansive district covers parts of Ashburn, Auburn Gresham, West Lawn, Chicago Lawn, Washington Heights, Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods.
• Southeast Side. The district covers parts of South Chicago, East Side, South Deering and Hegewisch neighborhoods.
Supporters of ADUs say easing restrictions on construction of coach-house, basement and attic units will increase the supply of affordable living spaces, let long-term homeowners earn income from rents, and help multigenerational families stay together with the addition of in-law apartments and “granny flats.”
Under the ADU ordinance, if units are added to an existing apartment building, a percentage of the new residences must include rent restrictions to make them affordable. Tenants can earn up to 60% of the area’s median income. That’s $54,600 per year for a family of four.
Also, affordable units could not be rented on AirBnB or other “vacation home” platforms unless they have city approval. In the West, South and Southeast zones, the city placed a limit of two ADU permits per city block per year.
The City Dept. of Housing’s Low-Income Housing Trust Fund also will be empowered to offer vouchers and establish grant programs to assist low- and moderate-income renters who occupy the new affordable units.
An existing example of coach-house living can be seen on the 1700 block of North Fern Court in the Old Town neighborhood. There, dozens of of 1880s buildings feature residential apartments above what once were turn-of-the-century carriage houses.
Housing experts say it is likely that basement or garden apartments are affordable because they usually are studios or small one-bedroom units. 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.
Of course, every new accessory 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.