'Bungalow Belt' City Council members brace for battle over 'granny flat' expansion

Council members from the Southwest and Northwest sides, with wards dominated by single-family homes, said allowing homeowners to turn attics, basements and garages into revenue-generating “granny flats” could create problems.

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A row of Chicago bungalows in winter

Some members of the Chicago City Council fear that a blanket expansion of the city ordinance allowing homeowners to build small apartments in their basements, attics or over their garages would damage neighborhoods that are mostly made up of single-family homes.

Sun-Times file

Bungalow Belt alderpersons are bracing for a political battle to prevent Mayor Brandon Johnson from giving single-family homeowners carte blanche to turn their attics, basements and garages into revenue-generating “granny flats.”

Southwest Side Ald. Marty Quinn (13th) said he’s not necessarily opposed to the ordinance championed by acting Zoning Committee Chair Bennett Lawson (44th). It would authorize those kinds of “additional dwelling units” to be built citywide, as a way to help ease Chicago’s 120,000-unit shortage of affordable housing. The units, often called “granny flats” because they can be used for older relatives, are for now confined to five pilot areas.

But Quinn doesn’t want that expansion to “compromise the integrity” of wards like his, which are “95%” single -family homes.

“It becomes a pressure point … on parking, traffic [and] garbage, which could lead to additional rats. … There’s noise issues. These blocks with raised ranches or bungalows aren’t set up for that. There’s [also] a safety component,” Quinn said, pointing to a fatal fire in an illegal attic apartment near Midway Airport five years ago.

“My fear is there would be a one-size-fits-all approach that would potentially cut out an alderman’s viewpoint. … You want to take the pulse of the residents of the block that this could have an adverse impact on. My constituents always need a front-row seat, and my fear is, they would have a nose-bleed seat,” he said.

Quinn said any citywide expansion of the additional dwelling unit ordinance must require single family homeowners to obtain a special-use permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. That would at least give the local alderperson a last chance to object.

He said his fear is that Johnson is more concerned about creating more affordable housing than he is about preserving the long-standing tradition of deferring to the wishes of the local alderperson on zoning issues.

It would be the second recent example of Johnson taking on the unwritten rule that, as a candidate, he vowed to respect. The other example involves a residential high-rise project next to the stalled Lincoln Yards development that cleared the Chicago Plan Commission over the objections of 32nd Ward Ald. Scott Waguespack.

“The mayor would be getting away from his pledge about co-equal branches of government,” Quinn said. “I don’t think there are many aldermen who would want to concede what happens on individual blocks in their wards.”

An empty street near the intersection of West Greenleaf and North Ravenswood Avenues in Rogers Park, Friday afternoon, March 27, 2020. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Problems with parking and trash are among the issues some City Council members worry could result from a citywide expansion of the a pilot program allowing homeowners to build “additional dwelling units” on their property. Some Council members want to make sure they have final say on allowing specific ADU requests in their wards.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The mayor’s office refused to comment on the sensitive, behind-the-scenes negotiations that will ultimately determine how far the city goes in expanding the three-year, five-area pilot.

Johnson’s sweeping “Cut the Tape” report aimed at overhauling Chicago’s arcane and bloated development processes included “expansion of the Additional Dwelling Units Pilot.” It also called for the city to “explore universal affordability preference that would allow buildings to add more housing by right without triggering a planned development, but only if the additional units are affordable.”

Lawson said the expansion he proposed — now pending before the Zoning Committee — would allow for granny flats to be built “by right” in every district, with the exception of areas zoned R-1 and R-2 reserved “only for single-family homes.” There, a special-use permit would be required after an “extra process” at the Zoning Board of Appeals, he said.

“We’ve had housing issues in our city. ... There has been some discussion, especially given our conversations with HUD around [fair] housing, that, to go truly citywide and be by-right everywhere would be preferable, to … help share some of those issues,” Lawson said.

He’s been “in conversations with” the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, he said, and “that’s what they want to explore.”

One of the five pilot areas is in Lawson’s north lakefront ward, which includes Wrigleyville and Lake View. Over the last three years, it has created a “couple dozen” additional dwelling units and only one block with more than one extra unit, he said.

“I would hope everyone would give it a chance, no matter what we come out with, because it’s a good tool. But it’s not going to radically change the fabric of anyone’s block,” Lawson said, describing himself as a “pro-density guy.”

“A lot of what we’re doing is legalizing what’s already there,” he said.

Even so, Lawson said he is not at all certain Johnson would have the votes to win what be might be viewed as his second challenge to a tradition of deferring to the local Council member, sometimes referred to as “aldermanic prerogative.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) also isn’t certain. He resigned as Johnson’s Zoning chair and floor leader after being accused of bullying and intimidating colleagues over a nonbinding referendum that would have allowed voters to weigh in on whether or not Chicago should remain a sanctuary city.

“The mayor’s office has been promoting consensus ... to ensure that, whichever ordinance advances in the Zoning Committee is an ordinance that can pass the full City Council,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“I’m a big believer in ADU expansion. But I do know that, ultimately, you need to count to 26" votes.

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