Co-op-owned builder sees affordable housing and climate action in ‘granny flats’

They worked with the city of Evanston, Illinois on zoning changes to allow secondary suites.

Aaron and Diane Barnhart knew they wanted to sell their home in Kansas City, Missouri, to downsize. And as soon as Diane said she wanted to return to Evanston, Illinois, where the couple had both lived for a decade, they knew exactly where they wanted to be in the town just north of Chicago: near the Reba Place Church. This is where the couple met, where they got married and where their community was centered. The church has a history as a progressive force in Evanston. As part of her social justice mission, she bought several single-family homes during the “white flight” of the 1970s and rented them out at below-market rates. The church functions as a “collective urban commune”, as Aaron describes it, as well as a place of worship.

Given the small radius the Barnharts wanted to live in, they knew the market was going to be “super tight,” Aaron says. They didn’t want a big house or to be in a condominium. Through conversations with friends at church, the Barnharts learned that Evanston had recently re-zoned to make it accessory dwelling units (ADUs) – low-footprint dwellings commonly referred to as carriage houses or high-rise apartments. -mother – easier to build. (The change took effect in 2020.) The church made a proposal: They could build an ADU in the backyard of one of the Reba properties. For the Barnharts, saying yes was an easy decision.

“It’s more than just a house, it’s an urban planning tool,” says Aaron. “And it’s a tool for social justice. But we loved it simply because it would give us a home that ticked all of our boxes, including being right in the heart of the Reba community.

Their perfectly sized home is being built by the Evanston Development Cooperative, a co-operative builder specializing in ADUs. The worker co-op is also a local advocate for size-efficient homes as a way to address often-related issues of race, climate change and affordable housing. It was founded in 2018, at the same time as the city took the first step to update its zoning code for ADUs.

“I think we accelerated what the city was already doing,” says Robinson Markus, one of EDC’s co-founders and co-owners. “We have been intimately involved in these conversations about how to shape policy.”

Prior to EDC’s founding, the city did the work of legalizing existing ADUs, which were technically illegal due to city zoning changes in the 1950s to prioritize single-family housing. In 2020, thanks in part to EDC’s advocacy, two additional key changes were made: allowing ADUs to be built on any residential property and legalizing internal ADUs, such as converting an attic or basement . Before the updates, only single-family homes and not duplexes — which are disproportionately found in colored neighborhoods in Evanston — were allowed to build ADUs. Resolving that post was a fairness issue, Markus says.

“Only certain parts of the city have been allowed to create intergenerational wealth and increase their property value through this mechanism,” he says, “while other parts of the city have often been denied this opportunity. “.

Last year, Evanston made history as the first city to institute a reparations program. It is specifically focused on redressing the harms of “discriminatory housing policies and practices and inaction on the part of the city.” But over the past 20 years, the city’s black population has shrunk; many people cite the rising cost of housing as the reason, according to Markus. Last year, the median sale price of a home in Evanston was $450,000.

“We are in such a crisis with the cost of housing that we have to put all options on the table,” says Markus. “Secondary suites alone will not reduce the housing cost pressures our city faces. But on the other hand, it costs nothing for a city to change its zoning code to allow these units.

Building ADU may not be a silver bullet, but it can open up housing options in the city: According to EDC calculations, building ADU on Evanston properties has the potential to add 10,000 additional housing units.

EDC worked with the city to show residents the options they now have for building ADUs. With the city, they co-published an ADU guide for Evanston, including a step-by-step guide from zoning analysis to move-in. The co-op is also working with the city on an affordable housing pilot project, with a two-bedroom unit for a small family currently being built behind a duplex. The pilot project uses housing and urban development funds specifically targeted to non-profit affordable housing developers. (A previous pilot project funded by the city’s housing fund and a private landlord was unsuccessful.)

And the units built by EDC are geared towards a climate change future. By design, ADUs increase density and reduce driving distances (or convert a car trip). Their compact footprint means lower utility bills because a smaller space requires less energy to heat and cool. They are constructed with insulated panels that are extremely airtight, not allowing heat to seep in or cold air to seep in.

At their current scale, EDC is building one unit at a time. They have nine projects currently underway, including the future Barnhart home. The couple’s motivation was to age in place, but other EDC clients include a duplex owner planning to move into an ADU in his backyard so he can stay in the neighborhood earning rent money of the two units. Another client is building his unit as a home-based business.

Ultimately, EDC’s vision is to expand the operation while maintaining its worker ownership model.

“Yes, this is affordable housing,” Robinson said. “Yes, it is about climate action. But it’s also about the people who have called Evanston home much longer than I have, feeling like they belong and belong in this community thanks to a more democratic enterprise.

Ashira Morris is a freelance journalist based between Sofia, Bulgaria and Tallahassee, Florida. His work, focusing on local environments and the forces that shape them, has been published by National Geographic, Foreign Policy and The Guardian.

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