Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and a Bronzeville resident. Photo courtesy of courtesy of Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights

The Promises and Pitfalls of Accessory Dwelling Units

Residents and activists discuss what legalizing accessory dwelling units could really mean for the fight over equitable and affordable housing

I grew up in a garden unit on an African and Caribbean block of Rogers Park. As a kid, my block felt alive. The Jamaican elders would give me life advice as I greeted them, Nigerian parties would take over the apartments above us, and the smell of my family’s Ethiopian cooking would make our neighbors wish they could join our home for dinner.

Although our rent was cheaper than our neighbors, we had the largest apartment in the building. Having a space that we could call our own for family gatherings, mournings, and celebrations gave my family a sense of pride and comfort. Just as diverse as the cultural backgrounds of the residents, the buildings on my block were a mixture of four-flats, courtyards, rowhomes, and classic bungalows. If I wanted to admire Chicago architecture, I just had to step outside of my apartment. More importantly, though, I was happy to have a home.

The garden unit I grew up in is unfortunately considered illegal across many parts of Chicago. These forms of housing, along with other accessory dwelling units (ADUs) such as coach houses and attic units, have long been a part of the city’s urban fabric. Their smaller size have helped them serve as naturally occurring forms of affordable housing. As rents have been rising in Hyde Park, I now live in a coach house built in the early 1900s because it is one of the few apartments I can afford.

ADUs have been banned since the 1950s due to fears of overcrowding. Unfortunately, the more recent trend of housing loss has exacerbated the practice of unpermitted units across the city. This has been particularly true in Pilsen and Little Village, where residents who need affordable rent have to live with safety concerns and fears of getting evicted by city inspectors. There has been a citywide push to re-allow ADUs as a way to increase the affordable housing stock. An ordinance was introduced to City Council last month proposing that ADUs be allowed as-of-right across most of Chicago. 

Department of Housing (DOH) and Department of Planning and Development (DPD) commissioners Marisa Novara and Maurice Cox spoke at the 11th Annual Woodlawn Community Summit in early March about how ADUs could benefit Woodlawn. As the Obama Presidential Center has been driving concerns around gentrification and housing prices, they discussed ADUs as an “incremental way to gently insert density” while increasing affordability in the neighborhood. 

However, the definition of affordability is relative, and the price of new units is not guaranteed to be affordable to residents in different parts of the city. The city’s ADU ordinance would require that half of converted basement and attic units are affordable to residents making 60% of the area median income (AMI), which ranges from $38,000 to $72,000, depending on family size. While this would be affordable to a household in Lakeview, these rates would be unaffordable to most households in Woodlawn, since sixty percent of citywide AMI is significantly higher than the neighborhood’s median income. 

Much of the discussion around ADUs has focused on legalizing and constructing them, with little discussion of their impact on (and potential for) the South Side. 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has even argued that ADUs should be referred to more colloquially as coach houses or garden apartments, to better reach residents.

In turn, I interviewed local residents and community leaders across the South Side so they could share their thoughts on the matter.

Bronzeville, Kenwood, and Oakland

I met with Jawanza Malone, Bronzeville resident and executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), a grassroots organization that advocates for low-income and working families. Jawanza has fought for affordable housing for low-income residents and is familiar with ADUs both in concept and in practice. 

Jawanza discussed how ADUs already exist on the South Side, though they are banned in most neighborhoods due to zoning limits. “People are already living in illegal basements, illegal coach houses, because people need somewhere to live, and that’s what has been available at affordable rents because people knew they were illegal.” Jawanza mentioned the possibility that even if ADUs were legalized across the city, landlords would still offer them at lower quality than other units. “What happens when we have substandard conditions we’re asking people to live in? It seems like it creates more problems than it actually solves. I don’t think that’s the way for us to go.” 

Jawanza expressed skepticism that ADUs will be affordable for low-income Black residents. “The idea, also, that we’re gonna have this watershed moment in terms of providing housing for people by opening us the basement units and coach houses is just ridiculous. As far as we know now, there’s a deficit of 182,000 units. We’re not gonna get there by opening up basements and coach houses.” He argued that because real estate interests have marketed ADUs as affordable options for cities across the country, affordable housing activists are gaslighted into supporting them if they vocalize their concerns or opposition. 

As we continued talking, we got to the discussion of gentrification across the mid-South Side. Over forty percent of residents make less than $25,000 in the area, while much of the new construction is for homes being sold over $500,000. Jawanza expressed concern that renovations which add ADUs, or bring unpermitted ones up to code, would not mitigate the displacement of low-income Black residents, since if ADUs became legal, landlords could charge pre-existing units the same rent as other apartments in the building. 

Englewood

Ashley is a recent college graduate from Englewood and has lived across different parts of the community. Her family now lives in a two-flat, a staple of the neighborhood’s housing stock, with a garden unit and a coach house in the rear. 

Chicago’s DOH sees ADUs as a way for “multi-generational households to remain close” while reducing crowding. Now that she has graduated, Ashley has been wanting her own space to continue her studies. The coach house was rented to her cousin while he was looking for his own place to move and continue his work. To her, moving to one of the other units in the building would be appealing—though she has some concerns. “I don’t want to see people every day. But, I mean, if something goes on [in the other units] I can go upstairs, so I don’t think it would be a problem,” she said.

Many two-flats across Englewood have existing basements that can be adapted into housing. Ashley imagines that the renovated garden units in the community would remain affordable for residents—though she is concerned that newly constructed ADUs would be just as pricey as new units in other parts of the city.

Although housing in the area costs less than in other communities, many Englewood residents are rent-burdened. This issue continues as past home building programs in the neighborhood, despite being designated as affordable, have given subsidies to homebuyers making up to $100,000—almost five times higher than Englewood’s median income. 

Ashley is concerned that white residents migrating to the South Side, who won’t build relationships with the community, would be the ones predominately living in new units. I asked how new ADUs can prioritize support of existing Black residents. “I think they should be affordable, because if you think about it, with gentrification and the stuff going on, you want Black people in the community. And so you want [ADUs] to be affordable for them, at least maybe initially, because there’s a lot of low-income folks.”

South Shore

Ebonée Green is a South Shore resident and a member of the Obama Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition, where she has been involved with ensuring that her community is not displaced from the construction of the Obama Presidential Center. A fall 2019 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that within two miles of the planned Obama Center, rent in new constructions and renovations are continuing to rise, with evidence suggesting that “landlords are charging higher rents to new tenants compared to longer term tenants.” South Shore, which already has the city’s highest eviction rate, is at risk of losing many low-income residents to displacement.

Ebonée’s first experience living in an ADU was a garden unit in Uptown that was poorly maintained, to the point where the landlord had covered up decaying floorboards with carpet. “All of our stuff got covered in mold, and I actually still have a mold allergy from it,” she said. Although the experience gave her a bias against garden units, Ebonée now lives in a condo-quality 2-bedroom garden unit in South Shore, which she describes as the nicest apartment she has lived in Chicago. The apartment has new hardwood floors, insulated walls, and naturally lit rooms for $1,250 a month. While her rent is cheaper than other apartments in the building, it is higher than that of other places she had previously rented in South Shore, as well as the 3-bedroom I grew up in Rogers Park. Ebonée expressed concern that even lower-middle class residents may not be able to afford new ADUs if they are legalized in South Shore.

When asked about opening the city to ADUs and expanding the inventory of housing options, Ebonée said she is supportive of the idea but thinks it won’t immediately address affordability. “I don’t think that’s wrong thinking, but I do think that it’s gonna require a lot more oversight and it should not work around affordable housing.” She said South Shore’s immediate priority should be ensuring that new construction due to the Obama Center is affordable to residents. ADUs could help if they were legislated to benefit low-income Black residents—rather than relying on market demand to determine their rent. 

We each shared our own experiences—positive and negative—with living in a garden unit, and started discussing the implications of designating them as affordable units. “There’s something about putting affordable units in the garden, and forcing people underground, [that] just feels not right,” Ebonée brought up. She’s fortunate enough that her apartment receives enough natural light and has tall ceilings, but many older ADUs were not built with similar amenities. “Most of the poor people in Chicago, not all, are Black already and just to add that extra kind of psychological and physical health thing to it is messed up.”

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David Zegeye is an astrophysics graduate student at the University of Chicago and a freelance writer for Streetsblog Chicago and Cityscape Chicago. To David, pondering what is beyond our skies is deeply connected to understanding the history of our land. He focuses on writing about the inequity in the city’s affordable housing and transit systems. This is his first piece for the Weekly.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Mr. Zegeye for sharing the opinions of others related to ADU’s in Chicago. I will look forward to more of your updates.

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