Category: Zoning

Allowing cottage courts in Chicago requires changing the zoning code

Ed. note: This is a work in progress; I’m looking for feedback, and for good imagery of cottage courts in other cities with neighborhoods that have a similar structure as typical ones in Chicago (I’m specifically referring to block and lot sizes).

Cottage courts (or clusters) are a common multi-family design typology in cities outside of Illinois. You’ll find them in California (where they’re more often called bungalow courts) and Tennessee, for example. They are characterized by having multiple detached one or two-story houses on a single and compact development site. The houses commonly face a shared green space and have shared parking behind them.

A primary benefit of cottage courts is that it creates more for-sale detached houses (which are in very high demand in Chicago) while sharing land [1]. In other words, cottage courts create more detached houses using less land.

It is not possible to build a cottage court in Chicago because of how the zoning code is written. The purpose of this article is to discuss specific text amendments that would have to be collectively adopted in order to allow this housing type.

screenshot of a page from a guide about Missing Middle housing in Chattanooga, TN. The image has a site plan for a cottage court, an isometric view of the rendered cottage court, a narrative about the sample project, and statistics.
A sample cottage court intended for an audience in Chattanooga, TN, created by the Incremental Development Alliance.

Zoning code barriers

  1. The Chicago zoning code allows only one principal building per lot. A detached house constitutes a principal building and only one of them is allowed. The code would have to be changed to allow more than one principal buildings per lot. If the city council wants to limit this allowance to cottage courts then other code would have to be modified to define a cottage court (similarly to how it has a definition of a townhouse).
  2. Cottage courts should be fee simple [2], to make them easier to mortgage and sell, which means subdividing a lot into one lot per house. The Chicago zoning code does not allow subdividing a lot below the minimum lot area for the particular zoning district governing a lot. For example, currently in RS-3, if more than one principal building per lot was allowed, each cottage court house would have to occupy 2,500 s.f., which is an untenable size for cottage court development.
  3. Minimum lot area per unit standards also severely restrict development of cottage courts. To build four houses in an RS-3 zoning district one would need a 10,000 s.f. lot!
  4. Rear setbacks would need to be reducible, preferably without the need for a variation from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Because the houses are oriented to face a common green space at the interior of the lot (not at the front or rear of the lot), the rear of the house may be close to the side property line, violating the rear setback standard of ~30 feet.
  5. Side setbacks would need to be combinable or eliminated as a requirement for cottage court development, so that the houses could be closer together or the designer could have more flexibility in their orientation.
  6. Parking requirements would need to be more flexible, both in quantity and in design. Parking is currently allowed only in the rear setback, but these houses may not have a rear setback because of their inward orientation. To maximize shared green space parking requirements should be reducible for this housing type. The Chicago TOD ordinance may be relevant here, as it now applies in RM-5, and higher, residential zoning districts, but the cottage court needs to be allowable in the RS-3 and RT-4 zoning districts (as these are for more common).

Attorneys, designers, and developers: Are there any other Chicago zoning code standards missing?

Examples of cottage courts

I know of two cottage court examples in Chicago (thanks, Matt and Matt):

  • 7436 S Phillips Ave (et. al.). These were built prior to 1952, according to historic aerial images, and are individually parceled (see barrier #2 above).
  • 7433 S Euclid Pkwy (et. al.). The houses were built between 1938 and 1952, according to historic aerial images, and are individually parceled. Two of the parcels are vacant

All of the images below are from the Missing Middle Housing website, created by Opticos Design, an architecture firm that has popularized the term “missing middle”.

Notes

A tiny house village may also be considered a cottage court. The influential architecture firm, Landon Bone Baker, once designed a proposed tiny house village (knowing full well it was not legal) for Thresholds and Easter Seals in Chicago.

[1] It’s also assumed that sharing land means sharing land costs, and land costs are a significant part of purchasing a house. In the areas where demand for detached houses is the highest, land costs are also the highest. Cottage courts create more detached houses with less land.

[2] fee simple has a legal meaning, but here I mean “the house owner also owns the land beneath the house”, and the pair are collateral for the lender that, on paper, looks like any other detached house the lender has mortgaged.

Why Jefferson Park residents should allow more housing

Short answer: To provide more shoppers for the local businesses. Read on for the longer answer. 

Over on Chicago Cityscape I added a new feature called “market analysis” which measures the number of people who live within specific walking areas (measured by time) and driving areas (measured by distance). 

I am in favor of removing apartment & condo bans in Chicago, especially in areas where they were previously allowed and near train stations.

Jefferson Park is centered around two co-located train stations, serviced by CTA and Metra respectively. There have been multiple proposals for multi-family housing near the stations (collectively called the Jefferson Park Transit Center) and some have been approved. 

Always, however, there are residents who resist these proposals and the number of originally proposed apartments or condos gets reduced in the final version (classic NIMBYism). 

There’re four reasons – at least – why more housing should be allowed near the Jefferson Park Transit Center:

  • Locally owned businesses require a significant amount of shoppers who live nearby and walk up traffic
  • More people should have the opportunity to live near low-cost transportation
  • It will include more affordable housing, through Chicago’s inclusionary zoning rules (the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, ARO)
  • There will be less driving, and therefore lower household transportation costs and less neighborhood pollution

To support the first reason, I used the “market analysis” tool to see just how many people live in a walkable area centered around Veterans Square, a mixed-use office and retail development adjacent to the train stations. 

Only 9,368 people live within a 10 minute walk to Veterans Square (get the Address Snapshot). 

Comparatively, 19,707 people live within a 10 minute walk to The Crotch, or the center of Wicker Park, at the intersection of Milwaukee/North/Damen (get the Address Snapshot). The Blue Line station is about 75 feet south of the center point.

I would grant the low Veterans Square number a small discount based on the proximity to the Kennedy Expressway, which severely truncates walking areas up and down the northwest side. Still, even with that discount, ending up with less than half the amount as the one in Wicker Park, is disturbing. Wicker Park is hardly characterized by high-density housing. In fact, all of the new high-rises are just outside the 10 minute walk shed!

Upzone the 606

Map of the single family-only zoning around the Bloomingdale Trail

The area in green only allows single-family houses to be built.

Something’s gotta give.

This is all of the land area within two blocks of the Bloomingdale Trail that allows only single-family housing to be built (view full map). This isn’t to say that multi-family housing doesn’t exist here; it definitely does, and there’s probably a handful of two-flats on a majority of the blogs.

All of the five parks of the 606 are within this two block radius, and 49.6 percent of the land allows only single-family housing to be built.

But why build a transportation corridor, a park, a new, expensive, public amenity, and not change the kind of housing – which often determines the kind of family and makeup of a household – that can afford to buy a home near here.

It’s already been shown that detached single-family housing prices have grown intensely the closer you get to the trail. That price growth has meant displacement for some, and “no chance to buy or build a house here” for many others.

There are still plenty of vacant lots within the mapped area; lots that should have a 2-4 unit building built on them, but where only a 1-unit building is allowed.

This map was made possible by the new Zoning Assessment tool on Chicago Cityscape. Read about it or use it now.

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?