City Open started its eighth season this month, hosting a second simulated town hall. City Open hosted its first simulated town hall a year ago as a way to kick off the season with an engaging event that gets people to think critically about stakeholders, issues, and potential barriers. Both simulated town halls revolved around a proposed policy to build ADUs in a particular neighborhood. Both turned into a fun game of charades; attendees adopting personas (designed by Anjulie Rao and Arnold Kassensarm) who were nothing like themselves, and acting out a role based on their perceptions and observations of development in Chicago.
Thank you to SmithGroup who hosted our rambunctious group of urban planners, architects, community organizers, and even an electrical engineer. And we're glad several SmithGroup employees joined in the town hall.
Brett Wiedl from SmithGroup introduces the first session of the season
The purpose of simulating a town hall-style meeting was to elicit reactions to a policy proposal so that our group can better educate its members, see opportunities for further research, and identify which stakeholders aren't involved in the conversation who should be. The project at the center of this simulated town hall-style meeting was a fictitious proposal to legalize ADUs in Pilsen after they had already been legalized in Lincoln Park and Avondale.
Some of the character prompts given to Town Hall participants
The Lightfoot administration is drafting an ordinance to be introduced this spring that would re-legalize basement units, attic units, and coach houses. Re-legalizing ADUs could have a big effect in creating new and renovating existing but nonconforming ADUs, which tend to be more affordable and cheaper to build than single-family houses and two flats. ADUs are complementary to all neighborhood housing types because they're like smaller apartments tucked behind houses, two and three-flats, and on the ground floor of older courtyard buildings. Please also make sure to check out Chicago Cityscape's blog on writing a letter to your alderperson around ADU support as well.
City Open asked Robbie Markus, the Vice President of the Evanston Development Cooperative (EDC), and a first-timer at the workshop, to give his thoughts about the simulated town hall, and why he's involved in ADU policy development.
My name is Robbie Markus, and I’m the Vice President of the Evanston Development Cooperative (EDC). EDC is an Evanston worker and resident-owned cooperative that designs and builds energy-efficient accessory dwelling units (ADUs) with a local workforce of residents and a strong commitment to affordability. The City of Evanston has passed several ordinances legalizing coach houses in the past two years to incentivize ADU development, opening up opportunities for older adults and young families alike to access this housing option.
I went to City Open to hear how people think about ADUs in a community beyond Evanston. Housing preferences, types and costs can vary drastically by city, suburb, or town, making it critical to hear different communities’ perspectives. I wanted to hear how Chicago residents see ADUs as a way to address housing challenges, as this perspective can inform the design, construction, and financing of homes that best meet people’s needs
Steven Vance gives a brief presentation on ADUs before the town hall simulation
The game was very similar to real town halls, primarily because you knew little about the beliefs of the person sitting right next to you. As participants started to express themselves, it felt like democracy - messy, discursive and thought-provoking. Given that my character was an advertising executive that rents out an ADU as an AirBnB and works in River North, it was engaging to be forced into a new lens of thought. I found myself defending a property owner’s right to rent out an ADU in any capacity. By the end of the game, this event helped me see why I personally believe that putting restrictions on ADUs as short-term rentals can de-commodify housing, helping to ensure that ADUs don’t exacerbate housing costs in the Chicagoland area.
Town hall participants thinking about their characters and debating the pros and cons of ADUs
Moving forward, there are two big steps necessary for ADUs to become an attainable housing option in the Chicagoland region. First, municipalities (Chicago and a majority of surrounding suburbs) need to pass their own ADU zoning ordinances, allowing and incentivizing homeowners to build this housing option on their property. Second, financial institutions will need to create “ADU loan products” that make construction easier to finance for middle-income homeowners. As this Urban Institute article explains, current ADU financing options often prevent homeowners with an existing mortgage from accessing this housing option. City-backed “affordable ADU” programs, like that in the City of Boston, can also ensure that ADUs help income-qualifying residents. These next steps could help ADUs become accessible to homeowners as an affordable, sensible housing option across the Chicagoland area.
A secure, affordable home is a simple, fundamental human need, yet our systems of politics, business, and governance often make housing such an “intractable” issue, where residents throw up their hands at the behest of a developer. I greatly appreciate City Open’s work to change this narrative, putting decision-making on housing issues back into the hands of residents and local communities.
STEVEN VANCE is an urban planner who loves to make maps. He founded Chicago Cityscape, a local real estate information service.
ROBBIE MARKUS is the Vice President of the Evanston Development Cooperative