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Chicago Housing Commissioner: Vacant Lots Could Be Single-Family Homes

An architecture contest to design a 21st century bungalow for Chicago may also inform the city’s homeownership efforts.

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Marisa Novara, Chicago’s housing commissioner, at the announcement for the winner of an architecture contest to design an affordable single-family starter home for Chicago neighborhoods.

Linda Lutton

The head of Chicago’s recently resurrected Department of Housing said it’s time for the city to ramp up efforts to help moderate-income people buy homes, and she can “absolutely” imagine city-owned vacant lots being tapped for the effort.

“I think we are ripe as a city to build back up a homeownership strategy,” Marisa Novara said, adding that city efforts to promote homeownership took a back seat when the recession hit and never bounced back.

“There just was not a homeownership market, particularly in our most disinvested communities, which is where the market really bottomed out,” Novara said.

Novara made her comments to WBEZ this week at an event announcing the winner of an architecture contest to find the “next Chicago bungalow” — that is, a single-family, new construction starter home affordable to Chicago working families.

The winning home design was created by Chicago- based architect Greg Tamborino. As part of the prize, Tamborino’s $250,000 home is slated to be built on two vacant lots in Chicago, one in Bronzeville and one near Garfield Park.

Affordable housing advocates hope their contest — which garnered 130 entries from across the world — spurs more affordable single-family home creation in the city.

“This is a design competition, but the intent is we’ll be able to take these ideas, these various concepts, designs — and be able to apply these on many, many city-owned lots [and] other privately owned lots throughout the city,” said David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, one of the contest organizers.

“If you look at our communities — particularly those on the South and West side[s] where we’ve been losing population — we’ve got to find affordable ways to get people and families to move back,” Doig said.

Novara, who was in the audience as Doig spoke, is on board with the idea.

“As a department, I’m excited to see this as a possibility for how we begin to expand a homeownership strategy in the city,” she said. Before being tapped by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to be housing commissioner, Novara was a vice president at the Metropolitan Planning Council and was part of the task force that came up with the architecture contest.

The city has thousands of vacant lots, mostly on the city’s South and West sides.

Asked if she could imagine giving those away to moderate-income families to build single-family homes, Novara said yes. “I think this could absolutely be part of a neighborhood strategy that gets at housing for a range of incomes — and that we could absolutely use city-owned land to incorporate a plan for all of the families along that income spectrum,” Novara said.

The city used to do just that through its now-defunct home ownership program, New Homes for Chicago. That initiative began in 1990 and created 1,296 new-construction homes sold to low- and moderate-income families before it fizzled out during the recession.

In her former position at the Metropolitan Planning Council, Novara helped author a report that recommended the city create a “New Homes for Chicago 2.0 program” that would give subsidies to new homeowners and convert “city-owned vacant lots into productive use in targeted neighborhoods.”

The city began a pilot program in five neighborhoods in June 2018, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Novara said addressing homeownership battles additional issues.

“When we think about issues our city faces — like profound racial wealth gaps — homeownership is one of the ways that we can help people in communities to build wealth back through real estate, and through finding a place to call home.”

Linda Lutton covers neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.

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