Tagsingle-family housing

Yes, please, to Accessory Dwelling Units and adopting Vancouver’s policy

income property

There’s a couch house back there, providing an income opportunity for the owner of this single-family house. It’s hard to find photos of coach houses in Chicago because, given their position behind the house, it’s hard to see them from the street! Photo by Curtis Locke

I’m a huge opponent of how cities use zoning to keep densities very low and prevent people from moving into a neighborhood to enjoy high quality public schools and good access to transit. This is evidenced by many of my tweets about zoning analyses in Chicago over the last two weeks, and many blog posts I’ve written over the years.

I’m a proponent of Accessory Dwelling Units. In Chicago these are most commonly seen, in practice, as coach houses, which were built before most of us were born. ADUs, because they’re behind the primary building on a lot, are a nearly-hidden, low-impact way to provide affordable housing for a couple more people per lot without affecting the “character” of the neighborhood. And they generate rental income for the family that owns the primary building!

Coach houses, and ADUs, are illegal in Chicago. You’re allowed to keep the one you have, and it can be rented out to anyone else, so long as you don’t renovate it.

Bryn Davidson is an architect based in Vancouver, B.C., and his firm, Lanefab, designs ADUs in that city, a housing type that was legalized in 2009. He wrote an article in CityLab today and there are *so many quotable parts*.

In the article, Davidson offers five strategies for a city that’s developing an ADU legalization policy.

In the “Keep the approvals process simple” strategy, Davidson says that Vancouver’s policy means homeowners “don’t have to solicit feedback from neighbors”, adding, “The…is perhaps the most important. In North America we have a long history of granting neighbors truly extraordinary veto powers when it comes to adding new housing. Going forward, if we want to treat younger generations and renters more fairly, we need to stop trying to litigate housing on a lot-by-lot basis.”

This is one of the worst things about zoning today. Zoning is supposed to be the way that you tell property owners what they can expect to be able to build, and it’s a way for cities or residents to manage certain aspects about the way their area looks and who is living there.

But if everywhere in the city (cough Chicago cough) where people want to build is improperly zoned to begin with – for example, allowing only single-family houses near train stations in areas that have hundreds of apartment buildings that predate that zoning – you get a situation where so many property owners have to ask their city council member for a zoning change.

The next quotable is…the entire parking strategy. But here’s some choice parts:

  • “We argued at length about parking in Vancouver, but in the end, opted to require only one onsite parking space…”
  • “Some neighbors will get irate about the new competition for street parking, but here’s the counterpoint: If a neighbor is complaining about street parking, it’s because they’re using their garage…for something else”
  • “Either way, a lot of single-family-home residents are parking on city property for free while extracting extra value out of their private land.”

Chicago is experiencing gentrification, with rising property values and taxes in neighborhoods filled with households that can least afford it. Many of these households live in a single-family house – what do you think about giving them the opportunity to renovate and rent out an existing coach house in North Lawndale, or build a new coach house in Humboldt Park?

Chicago’s TOD rule is the only reason multi-family is being built in neighborhoods

This is the ordinance that says residential developments have to provide 0.5 car parking spaces per home, and that the minimum home size can be smaller.

How many units? At least 1,500. Here’re the 19 buildings I know about that are being built within 600 and 1,200 feet* of a Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ station – the only areas, essentially, where multi-family housing can be developed.

Why can’t dense housing be built elsewhere? Because the most desirable living areas in Chicago – along retail streets in Logan Square, North Center, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and West Town – are zoned for single-family use. (And ad-hoc zoning districts taking the place of community land use planning.)

How do I know popular neighborhoods are zoned for single-family use? Because Daniel Hertz’s new Simplified Chicago Zoning Map makes it easy to see. Yep, even along those dense business districts and even outside the train stations.

Do the single-family home zones contain single-family homes now? Absolutely not! Much of the buildings in areas zoned for single-family homes have everything but! The particular view of the map that Hertz uses in his blog post shows that even adjacent to CTA stations, and within 1 block, there are only single-family zones (in red). There are many multi-family buildings in these red zones.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only.

Red areas are zoned for single-family homes only. View the map.

What ends up happening there? Teardowns. And the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce finds believes that non-matching zoning – it matches neither the existing uses nor the needs for the neighborhood – and teardowns are going to cut into consumer spending on its lively retail streets. Lakeview is seeing a population change to families which tend to have less disposable income.

More housing in a popular neighborhood means more shoppers, more property taxes, more “boots on the ground”, more “pedestrian congestion” in front of our local businesses.

Doesn’t the ordinance make station-adjacent parcels friendly to multi-family housing because of the TOD ordinance? Yes, and no. As Hertz points out, “virtually every sizable development involves a zoning variance or planned development process that goes beyond the zoning you’ll see on the map”.

The TOD ordinance is 19 months old and working exactly as intended, building more housing next to train stations, and giving more people the opportunity to have access to affordable transportation. So it needs an upgrade to be able to do more. Since, in Chicago, zoning is our land use plan, we need the best kind of zoning rules and this is one of the best.

Imagine what the TOD ordinance could do if it were expanded. Think, making the parking requirement relief and allowing different unit sizes by-right instead of going through an arduous and expensive zoning change process. Then, expanding the rule to include more than just 600 feet (which is less than a block) from a train station – people walk several blocks to get to CTA stations, and bike even more. And, beefing up the affordable housing requirements.

Let’s do this, Commissioner Andrew Mooney. Let’s do this, housing advocates. Let’s do this, transit advocates. I’m looking at you, Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), We Are/Somos Logan Square, Pilsen Alliance, Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Active Transportation Alliance, and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).

* The distance depends on existing Pedestrian Street zoning. If the property is on a designated Pedestrian Street then the station can be up to 1,200 for the ordinance to apply, double the normal 600 feet.

The effects of TOD bonuses versus what a transit overlay district could do

I responded to Carter O’Brien’s comment on an EveryBlock discussion about a gentrification series on WBEZ, Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate. I reposted the comment here because I want to talk about the problems of piecemeal zoning and how the city’s TOD ordinance can be improved to generate more and diverse housing types (by types I’m talking about quantity of units and stories, not rent vs. own).

@Carter: I think we might be on the same page about something. You wrote:

The question becomes to what degree should zoning be used to encourage one form of land use over another. That’s the tool in the City’s toolbox, so to speak.

Substantial zoning bonuses which will create brand new high rise towers in a neighborhood of lower-density historic architecture will encourage the settling of one economic class of people and the removal of another. [snip] The evidence is that we see shrinking populations of lower-middle class people raising families by the L stops in Wicker Park, Bucktown, Old Town, Lincoln Park and Lake View.

[Actually, pause now and go read Carter’s full comment – he mentions teardowns as an issue that should be part of a gentrifying neighborhood discussion.]

I like that the TOD ordinance seems to be fueling proposals to build many units near transit stations, but it may be building more many units than the community prefers.

I’d like to see transit-oriented zoning also used as a tool to also spur smaller, multi-unit buildings (two flats, three flats, four flats, courtyard buildings) by perhaps preventing low-density buildings so close to transit.

Across from Goethe Elementary School a huge parcel of land is being turned into 7 single-family homes on Medill Ave. That’s great land near a good school and 3 blocks from the California Blue Line station.

Zoning could have been used to require 2-4 unit buildings so that more families have a chance of benefiting from that location but instead the zoning district here makes building 2-4 unit residences on those parcels illegal.

A “transit overlay district” would be something new to Chicago and could do away with the piecemeal zoning of differing densities, one right next to or mixed in with the other. You might see Bx-1 next to Cx-2 and then a Rx-4. Create concentric zoning circles that keep the density uniformly high nearest the train station and then drop off the further away you get.

zoning districts around the California Blue Line station

This map includes the California Blue Line station and the Goethe school houses (empty area northwest of the RM-5 zone on Medill Avenue). The school is outlined inside PD 349.

Quick zoning primer

  • Adapted from Second City Zoning’s plain-English zoning district descriptions.
  • B = retail and apartments above
  • C = commercial (more business types than B) and apartments above
  • RS = single-family homes only
  • RT = 2-4 flats, single-family allowed
  • RM = multi-unit, single-family allowed

The -x number of a district indicates the density allowed (this works for single-family homes, too, setting the minimum parcel area upon which the house is built).

Note: This post has slightly different text from my EveryBlock comment because I had to edit that one for length (the site accepts 2,000 characters maximum).

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