Push to Legalize Coach Houses, Granny Flats Stalls Amid Opposition From Aldermen

Video: Should Chicago bring back coach houses? Alds. Matt Martin and Patrick Thompson weigh in on “Chicago Tonight.”

An effort to ease Chicago’s affordable housing crisis by permitting basement, attic and coach house dwellings stalled Friday amid opposition from aldermen concerned they would not be able to stop unwanted units from being built in their wards.

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The measure, which has the backing of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, has been touted by officials as a way to quickly and inexpensively add affordable rental units while helping longtime homeowners stay in their homes while property taxes are on the rise.

But several aldermen objected to the plan crafted by the Lightfoot administration, which would allow the additional units to be built across the city without the approval of the ward’s alderman. That would be a significant blow to Chicago’s decades-old practice giving aldermen a veto over new developments.

When she took office, Lightfoot vowed to roll back aldermanic prerogative in an effort to root out the corruption that has long plagued Chicago’s City Hall. While aldermen no longer have the authority to stop licenses and permits under changes imposed by Lightfoot, the mayor has yet to change the zoning code, where the heart of aldermanic power lies.

Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, the 11th Ward alderman whose grandfather and uncle each presided over City Hall and used aldermanic prerogative to build a loyal City Council that marched in lock step with their priorities, led the charge against the proposal.

Daley Thompson said the measure would have “unintended consequences” by increasing density in neighborhoods like Bridgeport where residents pride themselves on the suburban-like feel and don’t want new residents to make finding a parking spot on their block more difficult or add to traffic congestion.

“A bureaucrat at City Hall should not be making this decision,” Daley Thompson said, referring to Bridgeport as a “bedroom community.”

Alds. David Moore (17th Ward) and Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) said additional dwelling units should be limited to properties that are occupied by their owners, as a way to help longtime residents stay in their homes and communities.

Other aldermen said the measure, which would reverse Chicago’s ban on coach houses and granny flats that dates back to 1957, did not do enough to ensure the new units would be affordable for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans.

Owners of two- to four-unit flats who add coach houses or granny flats would not have to rent those spaces at a reduced rate for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans, under the mayor’s proposal.

However, large apartment complexes that add additional dwelling units would have to rent half of the units to Chicagoans who earn no more than 60% of the area’s median income, which is $53,460 for a family of four.

Alds. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward) and Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) said city officials should do more to ensure the coach houses and granny flats are affordable for low-income Chicagoans.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd Ward) said the measure’s ban on coach houses and granny flats from being rented on short-term housing rentals, such as Airbnb, would be “unenforceable” and create chaos in her North Side neighborhood.

But other aldermen, including Vasquez and Ald. James Cappleman (46th Ward), warned their colleagues about putting too many restrictions and regulations on the creation of coach houses and granny flats, which would make them more expensive to build and less likely to make a dent in Chicago’s affordable housing shortfall.

The additional units could only be built as part of a structure that is at least 20 years old, a requirement that drew criticism from an organization representing homebuilders as “arbitrary.”

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th Ward), the chair of the Housing Committee, said lifting the ban on coach houses and granny flats would not solve Chicago’s affordable housing shortfall, which a study by the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University pegged at 120,000 units.

“But it is another tool in the toolbox,” Osterman said, adding that he would no longer call for a vote on the measure on July 21 as originally planned in light of the opposition.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

Note: This story was first published on Friday, July 10, 2020. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” video.

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