At its Sept. 2 meeting, the Village of Oak Park’s Plan Commission was poised to recommend an ordinance to the Village Board on accessory dwelling units (ADUs). While the majority of the board agreed to a motion to revise the proposed ordinance, a vote on the revision will not take place until the Oct. 7 meeting.

In 2020, a previous village board charged the Plan Commission to consider ADUs. Craig Failor, Oak Park’s village planner, is not sure what the motivation was for drafting zoning changes to permit ADUs under the umbrella of economic development, but he thinks that may have been based on the area’s abundant supply of large homes. ADUs would allow some residents to age in place with separate units for caregivers or family.

 “ADUs seem to be becoming more and more prevalent in large cities,” Failor said. “Chicago just passed an ordinance allowing them.”

Over the summer, Failor prepared workshops to inform the Plan Commission about various aspects of ADUs and looked to other 

“Evanston has a great ADU ordinance which is something we are going to be looking at and following,” he said.

Based on those workshops, the Plan Commission asked Failor to create zoning changes that would permit ADUs with the following caveats: Only one ADU will be allowed per single-family home; no ADU can exceed 1,000 square feet; no additional parking requirements for an ADU beyond the two parking spaces required for every single-family home; and there must be a separate entrance for ADUs that are created in an existing home’s attic or basement.

Previously, in 2017, the Village allowed coach house dwellings built above garages to be used as ADUs.

The Sept. 2 proposed ordinance expanded the permitted forms of ADUs to allow attics or basements in single family homes to be converted. The proposal also contemplates standalone ADUs, which are not connected to an existing home or garage.

On Sept. 2, the Plan Commission reviewed the proposed ordinance and discussed the ramifications of passing such an ordinance.

ADUs are not affordable housing

Iris Sims, who chairs the Plan Commission, stated the purpose of the zoning changes in Oak Park is not related to affordable housing. While other states, such as California, are authorizing ADUs as one approach to create affordable housing, she said that is not the intention in Oak Park.

Instead, she said that in Oak Park, the purpose is to provide adaptability for homeowners — current and future — to give them the flexibility to deal with situations like aging parents or adult children returning home.

She noted that ADUs are expensive endeavors and, therefore, unlikely to become a significant part of affordable housing stock. 

Failor says that while River Forest is considering permitting ADUs as part of its affordable housing ordinance, in Oak Park that doesn’t make sense. He says that a conversion of existing space could start at $50,000, and building a “mini-house” would likely run $100,000 to $200,000.

 “It’s not cheap,” he said.

In November 2020, David Schwartz, founder of Chicago Granny Flats, stated that a stand-alone ADU from his company started at $150,000 for the simplest model and increased in price from there.

Plan commissioner Paul Beckwith noted that he while he would like the commission to do as much as possible to keep low-income people in Oak Park, the ADU ordinance does not address that.

Parking, density, zoning concerns

Commissioner Lawrence Brozek, raised concerns about parking and density in certain neighborhoods.

“If 10 single family homes could produce 10 ADUs, already deficient parking could be aggravated,” Brozek said.

He suggested that just as a new, mid-rise building that added 10 units to a neighborhood would need zoning review, it could be that each ADU should require zoning review. 

Commissioner Jon Hale, also agreed that not requiring additional parking for ADUs could be problematic, especially in areas of the village where parking is already scarce.

Brozek questioned whether a single-family home with a separate ADU in the attic or basement would in essence become a multi-family home. 

Commissioner Jeffrey Clark asked what the practical difference would be between such a building and two-flat. Hale clarified that an ADU would not be permitted to be a converted second-floor of a residence, which would create a two-flat, because there would be two dwelling units of roughly the same size.

Hale also questioned whether owners of ADUs would be permitted to lease them on short-term rental platforms, such as Airbnb. The village is currently working on rules for short-term rentals, and Failor says that absent any restrictions in the ADU ordinance, there is nothing to keep them from being used as short-term rentals.

As proposed, like the 2017 Coach House ordinance, the ADU ordinance would allow ADUs to be built adjacent to or within single family homes with a lot size of at least 6,500 square feet.

Sims remarked that that requirement was seen as helpful in maintaining the integrity of neighborhoods composed of primarily single-family homes.

Commissioner Thomas Gallagher said that neither the Plan Commission nor the village board should be in a position to disenfranchise a homeowner based on lot size. Others noted that the lot size requirement would prohibit ADUs in many sections of the village.

Property tax ramifications

Several commissioners raised questions about what would happen to the assessment of a single-family home if an ADU was added. Failor reported that he asked Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar about this issue, and ElSaffar said that, technically, an ADU would have a separate list of attributes and its own value that would figure into a home’s tax assessment. At this point there is not data on how coach houses currently used as ADUs effect local tax bills.

Gallagher expressed concern that the tax question should be settled.

“[Cook County Assessor and Oak Park resident] Fritz Kaegi lives right down the street. … We ought to be able to talk to him about this,” Gallagher said. “If I build a coach house or ADU in my attic, what will go up?

“I doubt the answer would make a material difference to our decision on this ordinance, but I would not want the village to make a decision or enable something that ends up hurting a member of the community,” he added. “If someone builds an ADU for additional income and gets hit with a huge assessment increase, we have blood on our hands.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Clark, raised the example of a large home with an attic converted into an ADU and asked what would happen if a family of three moved into the attic, but the assessment was lowered when the house was split into two units.

Under this scenario, said Clark, “We’re adding people using services but they’re not paying for it. This puts more pressure and more burden on the village,” 

A majority of the board, minus Brozek, agreed to ask Failor to revise the language of the proposed ordinance to remove lot-size restrictions and allow ADUs to be constructed as detached structures or in the first-floor of a garage. 

The revised ordinance will be voted on at the Plan Commission meeting on Oct. 7 at 7 p.m. The public hearing will be conducted remotely and streamed live on VOP-TV and The commission’s recommendation will be passed on to the Oak Park Village Board, which has final say over whether any recommendation would be adopted.

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