Chicago’s affordable housing solution: garden & coach-house units?
Loop North News

The Home Front

(Above) Coach house in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

With rents rising and so many homeless, why are thousands of ancillary dwelling units such as garden, attic, and over-the-garage coach-house abodes not allowed under the city’s current restrictive zoning?

26-May-19 – With high-rise rents skyrocketing and 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 housing shortages.

Old Town coach house

During the post-war 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.

Many hard-working people today earn less than $10 an hour. Some of them are immigrants, whom some 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 buildings from the 1880s 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.

Fern Court

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 two-car garage of the single-family homes to provide income to the owners, or as extended “in-law” space. The city rejected the request.

North Side garden apartment

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.

(Left) Garden apartment on the city’s north side.

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 seven-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 percent 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 that would eventually drive market rents even higher.

Garden-level apartments cost-efficient to build, affordable to rent

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

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

“For example, an owner of a two-flat might add a third unit,” said Imber (right). “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.”

Doug Imber

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. That would be the same as building 500 high-rises with 200 units in each, Imber points out.

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, and 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 what constructing an apartment in a new building would cost.

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.”

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

By Don DeBat | Loop North News | debatnet@aol.com

Published 26-May-19 11:44 PM

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