How can we solve our affordable-housing problem? The current crisis has been brewing for many years, and has intensified as the city has become a real estate boomtown, with escalating prices and low vacancies. Result: couch surfers, car sleepers, creekside campers and chronically homeless individuals. Many of us live in a stressful nether land, a part-time job or a paycheck away from shelter insecurity.
The root of the problem is simple: too many people, too little housing. Growth, prosperity and lagging housing investment have created a self-reinforcing downward spiral, one that may seem insoluble. It doesn’t help matters that our problems are nothing new for other prosperous American cities, especially those in mild climates. But that doesn’t mean we can’t develop solutions, just as General William Palmer did in 1872.
The general’s men drove the city’s first stake at what is now the southeast corner of Cascade and Pikes Peak avenues. Palmer had already started marketing Colorado Springs, sending out circulars throughout the United States and England. His team included the men who had created the successful campaign for the Greeley Colony. The flyers invited anyone “who is possessed of good moral character to become a member of the Fountain Colony by the payment to the Treasurer of one hundred dollars, which will be credited to him on the selection of such lots and lands as he may desire.”
Irving Howbert wrote in his 1925 autobiography, “Within a few months, colonists began arriving in considerable numbers. In fact, they came so rapidly as to make it difficult to take care of them.”
Palmer would open a two-story hotel on Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street in January 1872 to cater to the colonists, but he also needed housing for workers and employees. Thanks to the Chicago Fire of 1871, a solution was at hand.
The fire destroyed 15,000 buildings and left 100,000 people homeless. Out of the ashes entrepreneurs created so-called relief shanties, available as prefab lumber kits for $125. Palmer bought 150 of these 550-square-foot portable houses and set them up around town.
“These houses undoubtedly prevented much suffering during the first winter of the town’s existence,” Howbert continued, “and were in use to a considerable extent for several years thereafter.”
Not unlike our present elected officials and business leaders, Palmer understood that the housing crisis was bad for business, bad for the city’s image, and worst for those directly afflicted.
Unlike them, he acted decisively, imaginatively and immediately.
Times have changed. In our deeply bureaucratized society, no one has a sword that can cut through the Gordian knot. Our solutions will be partial, halting and underfunded. That said, here’s a step we can take to mitigate the problem.
You can’t buy a prefab Chicago house for $125, but you may be able to build an “accessory dwelling unit” in your backyard. Such buildings can have no more than 750 finished square feet, are subject to multiple setback, building and location regulations and can only be constructed in R2, R4, R5, SU and C5 zones. The property must meet the minimum lot size required for two-family residential use. In the R2 zone, that minimum size is 7,000 square feet, while in the R4, R5, SU and C5 zones, the minimum lot size is 6,000 square feet.
If your house is in an R1 (single-family) zone, ADUs are not permitted.
And therein lies the problem. Thanks to single-use residential zoning and the widespread belief among homeowners that increased neighborhood density lowers property values, building an ADU isn’t as simple as it should be. I’ve seriously thought about it, but the regulatory and financial barriers are daunting. And although much of the historic Westside is zoned to permit ADUs, setback and lot size requirements forbid most homeowners from building them.
Imagine a program to encourage such construction, complete with affordable, city-sponsored financing. Such a program would require that the cottages be long-term rentals, not used as Airbnb short-term cash machines. It might result in a surge of new Chicago houses in Westside backyards, bringing shelter and security to hundreds of residents. If city council puts such a program together, I’ll break ground this summer and at least one family won’t have to worry about freezing next winter.
And if enough of us work together, maybe we can build 150 ADUs and match Gen.Palmer.