By Richard Day and Alec Schwengler
It’s no secret that Chicago faces a housing crisis. In 2020, the city’s Housing Department estimated that the city faces a shortfall of 120,000 affordable units. And that number has almost certainly risen as rents have spiked, especially in supply-constrained wealthy neighborhoods.
Making room for new residents can be politically tricky. But while Chicago’s housing crisis is old news, new members of the City Council are already starting to tackle the problem.
No single ordinance will solve Chicago’s affordability challenges. But we can’t hope to address our housing shortage unless we actually build more housing. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. In many parts of the city, it’s illegal to build more low-cost units, including accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, and classic Chicago three-flats.
PREVIOUS IMAGE Image NEXT IMAGEHistorically, homeowners could build small backyard or basement ADUs to house family members or generate a bit of income. These units dot the city — yet their construction is essentially outlawed today. According to real estate data provider Chicago Cityscape, in
the five pilot areas where ADUs are allowed, reported construction costs are much lower than for other types of housing, with a median cost of just $75,000 for basement units and nearly $145,000 for coach houses. Permitting them citywide would support the gentle density and lower-cost housing units that enable residents to stay in their neighborhoods, while also creating high-paying construction jobs.
Classic Chicago two- and three-flats should also be legalized across the city. These units are Chicago’s most affordable source of market rate housing, according to the DePaul Institute for Housing Studies. But as the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance has shown, starting in the 1970s, restrictive zoning changes have made it progressively harder to build new housing on the North and Northwest sides. As a result, three-flats are illegal to build in many high-income neighborhoods, including areas in proximity to CTA lines.
Legalizing ADUs and three-flats would have climate and financial benefits as well.
Residents who live in dense neighborhoods with access to mass transit drive less and are responsible for far lower carbon emissions than if they relocate to the suburbs, according to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley. And a combination of more residents and lower housing costs means more resources to fund essential city services, neighborhood investments and, of course, our pension obligations.
But just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean the City Council is ready to spring into action. Unsure of the level of support, the council has taken half-measures. In 2020, the city took limited steps to legalize ADUs, restricting them to five pilot areas. And while the initial draft of last year’s Connected Communities Ordinance would have legalized three-flats near rail stations citywide, that provision was cut at the last minute.
That’s why, in the run-up to the election, our organizations, Streetsblog Chicago and Urban Environmentalists, asked every City Council candidate where they stood on ADUs and three-flats. We hoped to show that pro-housing candidates could win and that there was appetite from voters for more leadership on housing across the city.
The results were extremely encouraging. We received responses from winning candidates in 27 wards, and all but two of them backed the ADU expansion. And support for the ADU expansion goes beyond our respondents. In total, 27 members of the council either told us they endorsed citywide ADUs or have already co-sponsored legislation to do so. Twenty council members, or more than two-thirds of our respondents, also supported legalizing three-flats. Another 11 council incumbents didn’t respond to our survey but did vote for the Connected Communities Ordinance. If just half of these incumbents can get
behind the original version of the bill, three-flat legalization also has majority support on the council.
We were also struck by the breadth of support for more housing. While recent battles over density and displacement have been concentrated on the North and Northwest sides, Chicago’s pro-housing lawmakers exist across the city, from Ald. Maria Hadden in Rogers Park to Ald. Anthony Beale on the Far South Side. Chicago’s newest lawmakers areleading the way — all eight newly elected council members we heard from support citywide ADUs, and a strong majority back legalizing three-flats as well. Better yet, we saw newly minted Ald. Bennett Lawson back up his words with action and introduce
legislation to legalize ADUs citywide.
As the new City Council gets to work, advocates will be ready to demand the affordable and abundant housing Chicago desperately needs. We know we have the votes.Richard Day writes for Streetsblog Chicago, a nonpartisan news site covering transportation and sustainable communities. Alec Schwengler is a volunteer with the Illinois chapter of Urban Environmentalists, a community of 8,000-plus grassroots
activists transforming cities and towns through land use policy reform.