Tiny homes could become more than a novelty in Chicago under a new pilot program Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration envisions to help the housing insecure.
Lightfoot used her annual budget address on Monday to announce she’d dedicate $3 million from the city’s multi-year “Chicago Recovery Plan” budget — a mix of federal and bond funding announced last year -– to create an affordable housing initiative that uses small homes to house people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a stable place to live.
The proposed program could create two or three tiny home communities in Chicago, each encompassing four to eight little houses, ideally on city-owned land, where units would be subsidized by the city, said Department of Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara in an interview with WBEZ.
“I think what’s exciting for me is that this is really a unique chance to expand our ideas about what the housing continuum can and should include for Chicago residents,” Novara said.
Tiny homes are typically less than 500 square feet, according to one real estate blog. Designs can range from a cabin-like structure with minimal necessities such as a bed, or a full-blown miniature home equipped with a kitchen, living space or even a second loft-style level within the home.
“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 is aiming to put out a request for proposals from developers by the second fiscal quarter — or from April to June — of next year.
A movement toward using tiny homes as an affordable housing solution has been growing nationally, although advocates 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 severe backlog of those in need. She was excited to hear a tiny home program could finally come to fruition.
“Chicago is probably the best big city that this could work in – it has the land, it has the infrastructure, it has the transit,” Baim said. “This could provide much better housing options for people that want to live and work in the city, who want to retire here, veterans, youth who are experiencing homelessness, those coming out of college that want to start to build wealth.”
It’s still unclear which populations would be prioritized for the tiny homes. Novara emphasized that whoever the city chooses to build the communities will play a significant role in shaping what they look like and who exactly they’ll serve, but she floated several ideas.
For instance, she said, the winner of a request for proposals could create a “limited equity” co-op that allows groups of people to buy into the community together and own the property — particularly in cases where gentrification in the area around them is leading to displacement of long time residents.
“It is 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 guard against and help people get to the security of ownership, and be able to form a community in a place that they want to say.”
It’s still unclear where the communities could land. Baim floated the idea of the Chicago Medical District — particularly if the program prioritizes those with therapeutic or medical needs who could then access care quickly.
Novara emphasized the communities need to be connected to the city at large.
“We don’t want to create islands that are disconnected from other things that matter to folks in the community,” Novara said. “And so we want to be zeroing in on spaces where we think they have the potential to really be a catalytic location.”
Lightfoot is not the first mayor to explore the use of tiny homes as a way of creating 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 closely involved in advocacy work that led to Emanuel issuing the 2018 request for information.
“All of this started out of a Windy City Times project called Generation Halsted where we followed youth around for three months and about a year later held a big summit with youth who are homeless or recently homeless, to discuss solutions they saw,” Baim said. “One of them was … tiny homes.”
In 2016, Baim and her group, Pride Action Tank, held a tiny-home design competition, and helped bring the winning design — a 336-square-foot home 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 display helped gain momentum that led to the information request issuance under Emanuel, but the effort quickly fell to the wayside after Emanuel announced, just months after issuing the request for information, he wouldn’t run for a third term in office.
Though Lightfoot announced the program in her 2023 budget address, city officials said it’s not contingent on whether that spending plan gets approved, stating the funding was already allocated to the Department of Housing in last year’s budget, and is just now being dedicated to the tiny homes program.
But the idea may need additional City Council approval down the road due to so-called “one lot, one house” zoning laws that only allow a single dwelling unit per city lot in Chicago. Novara pointed to already existing exceptions to that rule that allow for coach houses or basement units in certain areas of the city.
“We’re already kind of blowing open this concept that was embraced as of the 1950s — that kind of a suburban model within the city that said ‘Our ideal is one house, one lot,’” Novara said.
“There’s no reason that needs to be the case everywhere … I think it’s a good example of what we would call ‘gentle density’ in a community — that gives you more than a single unit on a lot but not everything needs to be as big as a multifamily building.”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.