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Spring 2019 – Workshop #1: How (Not?) to Run a Community Meeting

City Open’s spring 2019 season kicked off on Wednesday 2/20 at our new location: The Great Cities Institute at UIC. We also kicked off a new seasonal format which will focus on building internal capacity in order to serve as a resource for the city on one overarching theme. The theme for this season is: Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Each workshop will then focus on learning the technique and frameworks of one method so that it can be applied to the theme.

Season Theme: Accessory Dwelling Units

Workshop Method: Community Meeting

Photos by Gabriel X. Michael (@_GXM)

We started off with a primer by Steven Vance on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) as they exist in Chicago. ADUs reference a variety of accommodations such as a granny flat, English flat, coach house, rear house, garden apartment, or renovated attic, and most often reference a “house behind a house.” There are a lot of benefits to ADUs such as an increased supply of affordable housing, extra income for families, and mother-in-law units. ADUs can help fill a large gap in affordable housing, especially in Chicago which is getting richer and poorer at the same time (it’s losing its middle class). ADUs were banned in 1957 when Chicago was at its peak population (3.5 million) due to fears of overcrowding. After this first ban occurred in 1957 for accessory “homes,” there was a further ban in 2004 for accessory “buildings.” The real kicker? If an ADU goes unrented for a period of a year, the owner forfeits the right to ever rent it again. The bans have created a legal precedent in Chicago demanding the question: Can ADUs be legal again in Chicago? The City Council just adopted a 5 year housing plan and the Planning Department intends to propose legislation soon. Check out Steve’s current petition to re-legalize coach and rear houses and newly legalize ADUs in Chicago.

Photo by Paola Aguirre

The goal of the community meeting simulation was to role play information asymmetry between stakeholders and get familiar with the unpredictability of communities and structures. The simulation was inspired by observations that community meeting participants often have a preconceived notion of how their community should be and ignore the existence of contradictory opinions. In this spirit, workshop participants were given a variety of roles from a proverbial hat and were encouraged to advocate for the needs of their character. The community meeting was “called” by an Alderman so that a local family could present their plans to build an ADU on their property as a mother-in-law unit.

Photo by Paola Aguirre

The Oscar-worthy performances by the simulation participants hit a range of scales from personal impact regarding rent or home prices to larger impact on the broader neighborhood and “neighborhood character” (and the diverse assumptions about both the people and buildings that make up the neighborhood). Concerns included higher rent, need to preserve affordable housing, and the larger issues associated with gentrification and displacement. There were also concerns voiced about the increased density of the neighborhood, the prospect of short term rentals, and increased crime, as well as the impact of construction noise and the use of non-union labor in building ADUs. Those in favor of the proposal discussed property values increasing, a second income for home owners (rent or short term rentals), higher property taxes (to reinvest back into the neighborhood), and more amenities for residents and tourists.

Photo by Paola Aguirre

The larger questions and needs that emerged from the simulation were:

▪ Provide clear information policy and legislation processes related to timing and impact

▪ What are the criteria and principles for assessment of this proposal?

◦ Density

◦ Affordability

◦ Equity

◦ Scale (how many is too many?)

◦ Management

◦ Property values / taxes

▪ How is (public) documentation of comments/feedback or technical assistance provided? Who should do that?

▪ Multiple sessions - education at smaller scale (clinics)

▪ Participants are often quite knowledgeable and can be a resource

During the simulation debrief, the overarching question was: how can the format of community meetings encourage an environment that builds upon resident perspectives (as opposed to responding directly to individual concerns)? That is, how can meetings foster a dialogue between participants versus a volley of opinions between residents and those in positions of power. Stay tuned as we tackle this issue throughout the season.

Special thanks to the design team of this workshop: Steven Vance, Anjulie Rao and Morgan Malone.

You can find notes from this workshop here.


LINDSEY CONKLIN is an anthropologist and researcher who works at the intersection of social impact design, the built environment, and community development.

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