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Chicago should legalize coach houses, new report concludes

Urban Land Institute Chicago says the additional units would help address the city’s lack of affordable housing.

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 could increase its stock of affordable housing and invigorate its neighborhoods by lifting its longtime ban on coach houses and similar dwelling units, a group of real estate experts and urban planners said in a report to be released Thursday.

The report by Urban Land Institute Chicago called on city officials to streamline the permitting process and take other steps to encourage construction of the units, which can be freestanding or additions to a property’s main building. The units are often called carriage houses, granny flats or in-law apartments.

To policymakers, the formal name is accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said she supports allowing ADUs where they are wanted.

Her administration plans to introduce an ordinance lifting the ban on ADUs while providing controls on their design. With city government focused on the pandemic, it’s unclear when the City Council will take up the subject.

Accessory housing would increase density. It’s not known if that’s an easy argument to make in an age of social distancing, particularly when ADUs can carry a bad reputation for being poorly designed, ramshackle housing. Many other examples are well built.

“The administration’s proposed ADU ordinance is not only a way to increase available housing throughout Chicago, it is also a safety and stimulus effort, designed to allow for very gentle density within existing neighborhood character,” Lightfoot’s Department of Housing said. “In fact, if ever the need arises again, ADUs will create a type of density that could allow for multi-generational households to remain close, but also create options for social distancing in a basement unit or coach house on the same property.”

The ULI Chicago report touched on the pandemic in its conclusion. “The need for safe and affordable housing is likely to increase as more households in the Chicago region face unemployment and rising economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said. “Accessory Dwelling Units provide an innovative way for Chicago to address the growing housing challenge by adding to its inventory of affordable housing, providing financial stability for homeowners and by energizing neighborhoods.”

ADUs have been banned in Chicago since a 1957 rewrite of its zoning code. Many such units exist and were either added illegally or were grandfathered as legal in the 1957 code. The report cited data published on the Chicago Cityscape blog that used building footprints to estimate Chicago has 2,400 coach houses.

The report recommended ADUs be allowed in any residential zoning district, and in multi-family buildings that have ground-floor commercial space. It suggests guidelines for setbacks, preservation of backyard space and other design issues.

The units typically are a basement apartment or a building at the rear of a lot. The thinking is they can be rented for less than the prevailing market rate. The report said cities such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, are expanding ADUs.

Compiled by a committee of more than 75 contributors that included city officials, the report said allowing ADUs would help young renters and seniors who want to downsize but stay in their neighborhood. It also cited evidence Chicago has been losing its supply of two- to four-flats, which have served as a source of cheaper apartments.