Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is forging ahead with a plan to build “tiny homes” on vacant city lots to create “permanent housing options” for Chicago’s “most vulnerable residents.” Under fire for ordering a homeless encampment on Lower Wacker Drive to vacate the site while the city fences it off to prevent their return, City Hall has issued a “request-for-information” from housing developers and non-profit housing agencies interested in building tiny homes.
Responses that will help the city “assess the viability of tiny homes within the context of local neighborhoods, the municipal code and affordable housing resources” are due back July 13. Development costs must “not exceed $2 million.” That means Chicago will be starting with a pilot about as small in scale as the homes themselves.
Interested developers were asked to “target specific sites and populations”–– including the chronically homeless, low-income residents, veterans and senior citizens –– and explain “the rationale for any proposed changes to the city’s zoning ordinance.”Tiny homes are stand-alone homes that generally include less than 500 square feet of living space, including kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping areas. Some models include a bedroom or second-floor loft area. Others include a combination bedroom and sitting area.
The Chicago experiment will be bankrolled by revenues generated by the city’s home-sharing fee and fees paid by developers who choose to contribute to the city’s Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund in lieu of building affording units on the site of their projects. With an estimated 8,700 homeless residents, Chicago is a perfect place to test the tiny homes movement, according to Nonie Brennan, CEO of All Chicago, which provides “backbone support” to Chicago’s homeless population.
She predicted a “tremendous amount of interest” from developers and non-profit housing agencies in a city that has already hosted a tiny homes conference.“We see it bubbling up in other communities and I feel very fortunate to live in a place that’s gonna be at the forefront of this,” Brennan said. “It’s a good way to create additional affordable housing. I don’t think it’s the only answer. But it’s one way to do it. There are people interested in developing this type of housing. And often, it can be developed quite quickly and become an asset to our community.”
As for the $2 million limit, Brennan said, “I see this as a beginning. This is a place to start. I’m hoping we’re gonna grow from this.”Last fall, the City Council held a hearing on the tiny homes concept, after Ald. Edward Burke (14th) urged the mayor to explore “out-of-the-box solutions to a chronic problem” of homelessness that “all major urban centers face.” Burke argued then that Chicago should follow the lead of “10 states –– from Florida to New York to California and in the Pacific Northwest” and build 320-square-foot homes that cost just $2,000 and can be put up in a few weeks.
“These tiny houses afford a level of privacy unavailable in crowded and often dangerous homeless shelters,” Burke said.Aldermen were told on that day that the city had been “approached by a number of developers,” including Catholic Charities, and that Emanuel was exploring the possibility of building “at least one, maybe two” projects on “vacant city land.” “While we agree that tiny homes can be built and frankly should probably be encouraged as part of a broad strategy to increase the supply of housing and access to affordable housing, we must be thoughtful and considerate of those intended to live in these tiny homes,” Anthony Simpkins, managing deputy commissioner of the Housing Bureau of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said then.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) grew up in Cabrini Green and serves on the board of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.His fast-growing West Loop ward also has homeless people living under viaducts along Hubbard Street who “don’t want to go” to shelters for fear of the “gang-banging and extortion” that goes on there, the alderman said. “People just want their own space. They want their shopping cart, their suitcases or whatever they have in their own space. And no matter how many times you move `em, they’re gonna take all that stuff and find them a spot for their own space,” Burnett said.
“This would give them an opportunity to have dignity, to have their own space. They can lock their door. They can protect whatever they have and have a place to lay their head. It’s a very humane thing.”