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Should Vacant Land Be Used For Tiny Houses And Tree Farms?

What is the city of Chicago and Cook County going to do to rid itself of more than 51,300 vacant and abandoned properties currently inventoried by the Land Bank?

Home Front column readers have offered some creative ideas, from building thousands of “tiny houses” and multi-family “court homes” to transforming blocks of vacant land into urban “tree farms.”

Developer and small renovators often bid but generally do not close on the vacant lots and abandoned properties because of burdensome bureaucratic red tape, according to a new report by County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

Bids on 80% of the properties do not make it through a complex, lengthy 75-point process involved in Cook County’s 81-year-old Land Bank’s “Scavenger-Sale” program. Nearly 7,300 properties have had delinquent taxes for two decades.

Home Front column readers offered several ideas to reduce the vacant-lot glut:

Affordable tiny houses

One viable option could be encouraging developers to build affordable tiny houses and container homes, suggested North Side reader Bill Hagglund.

A tiny house generally is defined as a residential structure consisting of less than 500 square feet of space. Most tiny houses sleep four people and measure less than 400 square feet. The floor plan typically includes a living room, kitchen-dinette, a shower bath, two sleeping lofts, a through-the-wall heating/cooling system and maybe a solar panel or two.

The average cost for a do-it-yourself-built tiny house is about $23,000, but retail cost typically is $75,000 or more. If the buyer of a 500-square-foot tiny-house priced at $100,000 placed a 20% down payment and obtained a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at the going 2.66% interest rate, the monthly payment for principal and interest would only be $406 a month.

Water, sewer, garbage fees, plus gas and electric utilities would only add about $150 to the total, so the gross monthly tiny-house “nut” could be approximately $656 plus real estate taxes.

Developing outside the box

Shipping-container homes are another option for developers willing to think outside the box. A 480-square-foot tiny studio residence could be created by joining three shipping containers placed on a concrete slab and brining in utilities.

In addition to residences, commercial developer Jake Goldstein is utilizing a pair of shipping containers to build 320-square-foot “gym pods” erected on vacant land in the Fulton Market District. These “pop-up” health clubs are designed to fill the gap existing between big-box gyms and specialized workout boutiques.

Urban in-fill homes

Urban architect Hanno Weber co-designed the innovative “Court House” concept for vacant city in-fill lots. Weber, principal of the Chicago-based Hanno Weber & Associates Architecture/Urban Design, created the Court House several years ago for city’s Department of Housing and Department of Environment. The plans likely are gathering dust at City Hall.

Ideally designed to be developed in groups of four units on two side-by-side 25-by-125-foot city lots, Weber said the Court Houses can be built today at a cost of about $200,000 each, not including the land.

Each 3-bedroom, 2½-bath Court House would have 1,400 square feet of living area configured two rooms deep on three levels. Each unit could be marketed to home buyers for a retail price of $240,000 to $250,000.

Designed as slab-on-grade construction, the garden level of the home features a foyer with closet, kitchen, dining room, powder room, laundry and mechanical room. French doors open from the dining room to a spacious and private terrace walled with recycled brick.

A central stairway leads to the second level of the home featuring the living room, the master bedroom, a linen closet and 2 full baths, which are built in a separate module “back-to-back” with the baths of the house on the rear of the lot. Two additional bedrooms are in the attic, or loft level of the home.

View a site plan for a cluster of Court Houses, and you’ll see four attached single-family homes with steeply pitched roofs each built on an outside corner of the two lots, like Medieval carriage houses grouped around a protected 30-by-30-foot interior courtyard.

Access to the traditional-styled stucco homes is through a 6-foot-wide gated court way that is shared by four homeowners. Parking for four cars is provided at the rear.

What trees do they plant?

The city of Chicago and the Land Bank should team up with the Hantz Group of Detroit to develop urban tree farms on vacant land on the South Side and West Side, suggested Old Town homeowner Dan Baldwin.

John Hantz, a 23-year Detroit native, was inspired to plant trees on vacant inner-city land to improve neighborhood morale, safety and value, while returning part of the city’s 40 square miles of barren acreage back to tax rolls.

“For a start, the Hantz Group purchased 1,000 vacant lots in Detroit for about $30 to $100 each to create Hantz Woodlands, an urban tree farm,” Baldwin said. “The lots measure 30 by 150 feet. The trees were planted at a cost of less than $1 and grew in value to $35 in three years.”

However, affordable housing critics say the 1,970 vacant properties in the Hantz Woodlands’ bargain-priced land portfolio eventually will be flipped to market-rate developers at a substantial profit, and generate hefty real estate tax dollars for Detroit.

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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