Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to build tiny home communities in Chicago

Tiny houses could become more than a novelty in Chicago under a new pilot program that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration plans to make housing precarious.

Lightfoot used her annual budget speech on Monday to announce she would allocate $3 million from the city’s multiyear “Chicago Recovery Plan” budget — a mix of federal and bond funding announced last year — to support an affordable housing initiative. that uses small houses to house people who otherwise could not afford a stable place to live.

The proposed program could create two or three small home communities in Chicago, each with four to eight small homes, ideally on city-owned land, where units would be subsidized by the city, said Marisa Novara, commissioner of the Department of Housing, in an interview with WBEZ.

“I think what’s exciting to me is that this is a really unique opportunity to expand our ideas about what the housing continuum can and should encompass for Chicago residents,” Novara said.

Small houses are usually less than 500 square feet, according to a real estate blog. Designs can range from a cabin-like structure with minimal necessities such as a bed, or an entire miniature house equipped with a kitchen, living space, or even a second loft-like floor in the house.

“Our expectations are that each [tiny home] would include an individual bathroom, kitchen and some outdoor space,” Novara said.

The details of the program are still being worked out, Novara said. The city aims to file a request for proposals from developers by the second fiscal quarter — or April to June — of next year.

A movement toward using tiny homes as an affordable housing solution has grown nationally, though proponents have faced zoning and building code challenges along the way. according to Kaiser Health News.

Tracy Baim, the current president and publisher of the Chicago Reader, has been a longtime advocate of using tiny homes to increase affordable housing in the city, which has a serious backlog of those in need. She was excited to hear that a tiny home program could finally come to fruition.

“Chicago is probably the best big city this could work in — it’s got the land, it’s got the infrastructure, it’s got the transit,” Baim said. “This could provide much better housing options for people who want to live and work in the city, who want to retire here, veterans, youth who are homeless, those who are coming out of college and want to build wealth.”

It is still unclear which populations are given priority for the tiny houses. Novara emphasized that whoever the city chooses to build the communities will play an important role in shaping how they look and exactly who they will serve, but she came up with several ideas.

For example, she said that the winner of a request for proposals could create a “limited equity” co-op that would allow groups of people to join together in the community to buy and own the property — especially in cases where gentrification in the area to around them leads to the displacement of long-term residents.

“It’s a way for people to own a home in a very, very affordable way in a community that is becoming very, very unaffordable,” Novara said. “So that’s a level of instability that we want to protect against and help people get security of ownership and be able to form a community in a place they want to say.”

It is still unclear where the communities may land. Baim came up with the idea of ​​the Chicago Medical District – especially if the program prioritizes people with therapeutic or medical needs who can then access care quickly.

Novara emphasized that the communities should be connected to the city as a whole.

“We don’t want to create islands that are disconnected from other things that are important to people in the community,” Novara said. “And so we want to focus on spaces that we think have the potential to really be a catalyzing venue.”

Lightfoot isn’t the first mayor to explore the use of tiny houses as a way to create affordable housing in the city. In 2018, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a “request for information”. to learn more about the viability of such a program.

Baim said she and a group of LGBTQ+ advocates were heavily involved in the advocacy that led to Emanuel’s 2018 request for information.

“This all started from a Windy City Times project called Generation Halsted, where we followed young people for three months and about a year later held a big summit with young people who are homeless or have recently become homeless, to discuss solutions they saw, said Baim. . “One of them was … small houses.”

In 2016, Baim and her group, Pride Action Tank, held a small house design competition and helped the winning design – a 30 square meter house with a brick exterior – to the Back of the Yards neighborhood for tours. It was open for tours there until the fall of 2017.

Baim said the screening helped gain momentum that led to the issuance of requests for information under Emanuel, but the effort soon fizzled out after Emanuel announced, just months after the request for information was released, that he would not be running would run for a third term.

Although Lightfoot announced the program in its 2023 budget speech, city officials said it does not depend on whether that spending plan is approved. housing program.

But the idea may require additional City Council approval over time due to so-called “one lot, one house” zoning laws that allow only one housing unit per Chicago city lot. Novara pointed to pre-existing exceptions to that rule that allow carriage houses or basements in certain parts of the city.

“We’re already kind of blowing open this concept that’s been embraced since the 1950s — that kind of urban suburban model that said, ‘Our ideal is one house, one lot,'” Novara said.

“There’s no reason why that should be the case everywhere… I think it’s a good example of what we would call ‘soft density’ in a community – that gives you more than a single unit on a lot, but not everything has to be as big as a multi-family home.”

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.

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