Coach house plan is irrelevant to city’s housing woes

It’s touted as a solution for affordable housing, but it does little for neighborhoods where crime has chased out much of the population.

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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

Anybody who lives in Chicago should have a decent respect for urban planning. This is the city of the Burnham Plan, whose influence stemmed as much from the values it advanced as its actual results.

It emphasized public access to the lakefront, efficient roads and rail systems to move people and commerce, and an interior network of parks to give residents an escape from crowds and noise.

Planners — aligned with politicians, businesses and popular sentiment — also have contributed to our greatest mistakes as a city. Think of the housing projects we had to tear down. But we all get it wrong sometimes, and the profession mostly has earnest people who consider issues we can’t in our workaday lives.

There is, however, an element of the profession that needs to be called out. It’s busybodyism.

With political influence because of the concern about affordable housing, planners in some places want to repeal zoning that allows only for single-family homes. Minneapolis outlawed single-family districts to encourage lower prices and local diversity. The Oregon legislature enacted a ban for its municipalities. Several California cities, including landlocked San Francisco, are discussing a ban.

Trouble is, a single-family neighborhood is one of choice for many people. The orthodox planning view is that single-family homes historically have reinforced segregation. While that’s true, quieter bedroom communities in the city or suburbs are an aspiration for people regardless of race.

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Others don’t mind sharing walls and the neighbors’ cooking smells, and that’s fine. Chicago is big enough for these differences.

While no one is talking here about a ban on single-family zoning, there’s an active proposal to add density throughout the city. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and five aldermen have submitted an ordinance to legalize coach houses, rear-of-the-lot homes behind the main building on a property. It also would legalize basement or attic apartments and allow owners of apartment buildings to add basement units within the existing structure.

The city has banned most of this since 1957, although thousands of these units exist, either because they predated the ban or were built illegally.

With modifications, the ordinance was inspired by a report from the Urban Land Institute Chicago, a membership group, apparently with a busybody contingent.

It proposed full acceptance of the so-called Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, throughout the city, with incentives to lower the cost, no community reviews, no requirement that owners live on the property getting a coach house and no rules for short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb.

Worried about loud parties or lack of parking? Tough. They have their model neighborhood, and they want you in it.

Lightfoot’s ordinance sensibly scaled back some of this. She’d ban short-term rentals, for example. But there would be no aldermanic or community review except in neighborhoods zoned for larger lots.

During an online hearing July 10 of the City Council’s housing and zoning committees, the ordinance was picked apart.

Ald. David Moore (17th) doubted it would do anything for his ward, where vacant lots attract no builder interest. Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) worried the proposal wouldn’t work citywide. Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said the Airbnb prohibition would be impossible to police. Even Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) voiced misgivings, and he’s a co-sponsor.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) was especially outspoken, a defender of the bungalow belt. I caught up with Thompson last week. He said the ordinance needs a rewrite, especially on community notice of plans for added units.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said of the proposal. “I don’t think it achieves the goal of affordable housing. It will create units in communities that are already thriving.”

Its unintended consequences, he said, will include driving prices higher in hot areas where investors can squeeze income from every available backyard.

“It will do nothing to bring affordable housing into communities that need population to support the retail,” he said. Thompson said if people want more housing in an area, get it the old-fashioned way, with a zoning change.

His arguments lead me to where I’ve found the affordable-housing debate mystifying. Activists treat it only as a problem where there’s high demand and gentrification pressure. Everybody wants cheap housing in Wicker Park or Lincoln Square.

What about Garfield Park or Gresham, or any other place that can’t compete for residents and jobs because of crime and bad schools? Chicago doesn’t have a shortage of affordable housing. It has a shortage of safe, livable neighborhoods.

City planners and their allies can start a task force for the real problems of Chicago. A need for coach houses isn’t among them.

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