Chicago will build its first tiny homes on city property to eliminate land acquisition costs and put four to eight units on each lot to “communal space” that supports “creation of a community,” a top mayoral aide said Friday.
Testifying at City Council budget hearings, Housing Commissioner Marisa Novara put some meat on the bone of the long-awaited $3 million program bankrolled by existing federal housing money and teased in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s 2023 budget address.
The Chicago program, at least four years in the making, will finally launch with a request for proposals during the first half of 2023.
The market will ultimately determine the precise level of assistance required. But Novara said the city will attempt to hold down the cost by confining the solicitation to city-owned lots and providing hefty subsidies for each of the initial units.
“We would be welcoming proposals on city-owned land to take the cost of land acquisition out of the picture. We anticipate proposals that might be four to eight units on a single lot, more if it’s a double lot. And we do envision that, for most groups, there would be a communal space as well because we do see this as the creation of a community of some sort,” Novara told alderpersons.
“We may need to provide assistance in the range of $100,000 to $120,000 per unit. And we envision a range of uses. It could be a group of income-restricted artists. It could be a group of folks that are looking to build a limited equity cooperative community. And it could be a group of folks that really struggle with housing types that involve hallways and elevators and other communal spaces and really would do better with their own front door.”
Brien Cron, president and founder of Chicago Tiny House, said he does not believe a six-figure subsidy will be required.
“You don’t have to get that extravagant with tiny houses. Tiny houses are created to meet a need — not a want or specialty. We have plans right now to build a structure that’s 500 square feet that’s completely ADA accessible. It can hold up to two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room and bathroom. … It’ll have full utilities, any style heating — either gas or electric. We can even implement solar power. It will have air conditioning. What else do you need in a house?” Cron said.
“We’re looking at a budget of $25,000 per house plus utilities. So, we’re looking at maybe $40,000 total. If the city provided the land and they give me a subsidy of $40,000, we’ve got it golden. We are not in it for the money. We just want to recoup what we spend into these communities.”
Novara’s plan to launch the Chicago program on city-owned land was music to Cron’s ears.
In 2018, Cron thought he had a deal with then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to build tiny homes on vacant city land in Englewood and West Humboldt Park only to have the city hand those same parcels over to contractors for construction of standard single-family homes. He could only conclude that Emanuel’s Tiny Homes RFP was “bogus” and the now-former mayor was “against the entire project from the get-go.”
With Lightfoot and Novara four-square behind the project, Cron believes it’s full speed ahead on his plan to build four distinct tiny homes communities — “one on each side of Chicago.”
“The only thing I do not want to see is big developers coming in making profits off the poor. I hope to God a Chicago-based company gets the contract and not a developer,” Cron said.
Under questioning from retiring Ald. James Cappleman (46th), Novara said it was “very likely” that some of the tiny homes could be modular homes. She noted that “more standard-sized, single-family” modular homes are also planned for half of the 250 lots being prepared for development in the West Side’s 24th Ward.
“We’re seeing leaps and bounds in that industry. There’s two modular factory builders in the city. We’re really excited about their … ability to work year-round in a way that we can’t accomplish in Chicago when we have to pour foundations. It’s a promising avenue, and we always invite innovation,” Novara said.
South Side Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) asked Novara about the possibility of building tiny homes in former railroad shipping containers.
“It’s very hard to re-use existing shipping containers based on what they may have shipped,” the commissioner said.