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City Council OKs easing ban on coach houses

In-law apartments and other accessory dwelling units, forbidden in Chicago since 1957, are now allowed in five broad areas under a pilot program proposed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

A coach house in the 1900 block of South Morgan Street that dates from 1879. 
A coach house in the 1900 block of South Morgan Street that dates from 1879. 
Gabriel X. Michael/Urban Land Institute Chicago

Chicago’s 63-year-old ban on coach houses and basement or attic apartments was repealed in five broad areas of the city under a pilot program approved Wednesday by the City Council.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot had proposed the program, and it was endorsed Tuesday by two aldermanic committees.

Council approval was overwhelming, with only two “No” votes: Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) and Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th).

It allows construction of accessory dwelling units — ADUs — within five zones, provided the additional space otherwise meets building and safety codes. Coach houses or carriage houses — single-family homes in the rear of a property — and so-called in-law apartments are among the homes that fall under the ADU umbrella.

Supporters said easing restrictions on those types of units will increase the supply of affordable living space, help multigenerational families stay together and let longtime homeowners earn income from rents. Critics have said lifting the ban citywide could disrupt neighborhoods that have mostly single-family zoning.

Lightfoot’s proposal presented a compromise that drew wide support, including from some of her persistent critics. City officials said they would study the ordinance’s impact on the pilot zones on the North, Northwest, West, South and Southeast sides.

Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara traced the 1957 ban on accessory dwellings to rapid population growth after World War II that had demographers “incorrectly forecasting” that Chicago’s population would reach 4 million by 1980.

“There was a major push for suburbanization and more individual space and there was fear of overcrowding within the city,” Novara said. But today, the city is a different place and experiencing population loss, she said.

“Many homeowners are struggling to stay in their homes as their property taxes rise. Many aging homeowners would like to stay in their homes as they age if they had the income to make needed repairs. And as we have seen with COVID-19, many households are living intergenerationally and want more options to be able to do so,” she said.

She said loosening restrictions will not by itself address Chicago’s need for affordable housing but will help by creating below-market rental units without changing a neighborhood’s character.

Housing Committee Chairman Harry Osterman (48th) agreed ADUs are only “one tool amongst many” needed to confront Chicago’s affordable housing crisis.

“It’s a tool that private homeowners and property owners can use to add units that, by nature, are affordable,” Osterman said, noting that “education is gonna be critical.”

The pilot zones in the ordinance:

North: covering parts of the West Ridge, Edgewater, Uptown, Lake View, North Center and Lincoln Square communities.

Northwest: covering parts of the Albany Park, Irving Park, Avondale, Hermosa, Logan Square, West Town, Near West Side, and East Garfield Park communities.

West: covering parts of the East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and South Lawndale communities.

South: covering parts of the Ashburn, Auburn Gresham, West Lawn, Chicago Lawn, Washington Heights, Roseland, Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing, Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park and Woodlawn communities.

Southeast: covering parts of the South Chicago, East Side, South Deering and Hegewisch communities.

If units are added to an apartment building, 50% of the new homes must have rent restrictions to make them affordable to those earning up to 60% of the area’s median income; that’s $54,600 a year for a family of four. The ordinance calls for, but does not fund, a grant program to help low-income homeowners build an ADU.

Units could not be rented on Airbnb or other platforms unless they have city approval.

Additional rules apply in the West, South and Southeast zones, such as a limit of two ADU permits per block per year.

North Side Ald. James Cappleman (46th) was “delighted” by the compromise. “My very first apartment in 1972 was a coach house. Very inexpensive when I was going to school. So it really helped me,” Cappleman said at Tuesday’s meeting.

South Side Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said the mayor’s original proposal to lift the ADU ban everywhere “was very broad and overreaching.” She said the compromise “provides a way of testing whether ADUs are going to be something that communities want.”

Despite the ban on coach houses and similar structures, thousands are believed to exist in Chicago either because they were built illegally or they predated the 1957 ordinance.