Coach houses, basement apartments would be OK citywide under housing proposal

Additional dwelling units, such as coach houses or in-law apartments, are limited to five pilot areas of Chicago after having been banned since 1957.

SHARE Coach houses, basement apartments would be OK citywide under housing proposal
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) speaks during a special City Council meeting in October 2021.

Ald. Andre Vasquez Jr. (40th)

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Chicago’s experiment with allowing additional housing units, such as coach houses or in-law apartments, could go citywide under an ordinance that has drawn support from 15 alderpersons.

A lead sponsor, Ald. Andre Vasquez Jr (40th), said the city’s trial run with additional dwelling units, or ADUs, has diversified the city’s housing stock while introducing more affordable units, even though most have been built in neighborhoods that command high rents.

“We want to have deeper conversations about this issue,” Vasquez said. He said the ordinance will be aired at a future joint session of the City Council’s zoning and housing committees.

It’s uncertain if the matter will get a vote before the municipal election next year. The chairmen of both committees are among alderpersons who have said they are not running for reelection.

Vasquez said one advantage of taking the proposal citywide is that it would legalize basement apartments that were added illegally over the years. He said the city then could inspect and regulate any that might be judged as fire hazards.

The ordinance has the backing of several alderpersons who, like Vasquez, belong to the council’s Progressive Caucus. Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) also is listed as a lead sponsor. The proposal has support from some African American alderpersons. Absent so far are co-sponsorships from Northwest or Southwest Side alderpersons where single-family homes predominate and many people oppose new rental units.

Vasquez said the ordinance was drafted in consultation with the Housing Department, although Mayor Lori Lightfoot “is not on board yet.” The department and the mayor’s office did not answer requests for comment.

The new ordinance would take ADUs citywide while including restrictions for three parts of the city’s South and West sides. There, units could be added on lots only where there is an owner-occupied dwelling. Another limit would prevent a block from getting more than four added units in one year.

Critics have argued that the city’s housing patterns have perpetuated racial segregation and that ADUs can help. Others contend that building more housing is practical for some neighborhoods but not all.

In May 2021, the city opened applications for ADUs for the first time since they were outlawed in 1957. The units were allowed in five pilot areas touching 21 of the city’s 50 wards.

Through August, the city approved applications to build 328 units, most for additional units in multifamily buildings. The city said 35% of the applications were for coach houses, freestanding homes at the rear of a property.

Some 83% of approved ADUs were on the North and Northwest sides, areas already popular with renters; few new units were added in communities with more crime and poverty.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who chairs the zoning committee, said the concept has been embraced in his ward and gotten little pushback in other parts of the pilot areas. Most of the activity he’s seen has been people adding attic or basement apartments, often to help relatives, Tunney said.

“My gut is this is something we ought to get an up-down vote on” before the next City Council is seated in May 2023, Tunney said.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th), the housing committee chair, also said he supports ADU expansion. He said new units planned thus far are relatively affordable by their nature as smaller add-on apartments.

“Places are taking advantage of the pilot program but there hasn’t been a runaway situation or misuse of the rules. Neighborhoods haven’t changed overnight,” he said.

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