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Andrew Gallimore already knew a little about “tiny houses,” before he found a lot in Evanston where he might like to build one two years ago.
To be sure, some of his information came from watching TV shows which have gotten “a little ridiculous” on the subject, he said.
In those portrayals, “they’re tiny houses on wheels, and they’ve got eight kids and a dog and, you know …” Mr. Gallimore said.
His interest was a bit more practical. He envisioned building a tiny home on a small lot to provide an independent living opportunity for his older brother, who has special needs. “A tiny home would be an ideal solution for my family,” Mr. Gallimore told a Zoning Committee looking into the issue.
When a lot came up for sale about a mile from his house, he said, “I thought it might fit the bill.”
Mr. Gallimore bought the 16.5 foot wide, 2,450-square-foot property at 1918 Noyes St., for $20,000 from a seller who had purchased it in a tax sale the previous year.
Just to be sure, Mr. Gallimore, who has a real estate license, checked in with the City about his plans.
The initial response he got back was not encouraging.
“There are a couple of thing that make it unbuildable,” it started off.
With staff working with him, Mr. Gallimore spent the last two years reversing that view.
Evanston City Council members rewarded that effort last month, approving a text amendment to the City’s zoning code permitting the establishment of what are referred to as “Efficiency Homes.”
Before Mr. Gallimore brought the issue to them, City staff had fielded a variety of inquiries in recent years regarding tiny homes “that could be permanently located on small or odd-shaped lots that are otherwise challenging to build on,” pointed out Meagan Jones, the City’s Neighborhood and Land Use Planner, in a memo to the City Council.
In 2020, Mr. Gallimore applied for a zoning text amendment in order to establish a definition and regulations for this type of residence, she noted.
Along with his application, Mr. Gallimore, provided a map, which showed the locations of irregular lots that could be built on, Ms. Jones said.
“The information used is based on Cook County Assessor data for vacant lots, which the applicant then cross-referenced with available City data on parcel sizes and current uses,” Ms. Jones said of the methodology used. For the purposes of the list, the lot size was limited to 3,300 square feet and smaller with the average lot size being 2,887 square feet. This resulted in 35 [eligible] properties, dispersed throughout Evanston,” she said.
Working Toward a Definition
Mr. Gallimore’s interest led to discussions at City Plan Commission and Zoning Committee meetings where a definition was developed for the new housing category.
Efficiency House: “A small residential building with a ground floor area of 500 square feet or less, containing not more than one dwelling unit entirely surrounded by open space on the same lot and permanently affixed to a foundation. A mobile home or recreational vehicle shall not be considered an efficiency home.”
Because Efficiency Homes “are intended for small or odd-shaped lots that are otherwise challenging to build on, and since Efficiency Homes by [proposed] definition are small in size,” staff noted, some other details were added too. Under the ordinance change:
— Efficiency Homes would be allowed in any of the City’s residential zoning districts;
— The homes would require a 27-foot front yard setback, a three-foot rear yard setback and a side yard setback of three feet, except for side yards abutting a street, where 10 feet would be required.
— The maximum building height would be 28 feet.
At the March 8 City Council meeting, Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, held over action on the issue, raising concern about the need to notify adjacent homeowners if an Efficiency Home was to be built.
“We’re giving the developers of these non-conforming parcels some relief from side yard setbacks, and I think adjacent property owners need to know about that,” she said.
Staff responded in a follow-up memo that notification to all residential parcels about the proposed change could be prohibitive, running more than $17,000 in a Citywide mailing.
In addition, it could set a precedent, requiring officials to do the same in future text amendments – arguments that Ald. Fiske accepted.
Proposal Could Benefit the “Missing Middle”
A number of affordable housing advocates spoke in support of the Efficiency Homes proposal when it came to the Council, saying it would address an important need.
Speaking in support of the text amendment at the March 22 City Council meeting, Matt Rodgers, the former chair of the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals Committee, told aldermen, “This change will allow for development on small and odd shaped lots that are otherwise challenging to build on. We’re talking about very specific types of homes on very specific sites – there’s a small number of properties affected.
“Most of them are in the neighborhood of 2,800 to 3,300 square feet with a 20-to-25 -foot lot frontage,” he said. “Some are privately owned and some are owned by the City.”
Mr. Rodgers said the new units could create an opportunity for people in the “missing middle,” allowing them to buy a home in the $250,000-to-$300,000 price range in Evanston with up-to-date amenities and meeting existing code.
Another speaker, Robinson Marcus, Vice President of the Evanston Development Cooperative, noted that staff had estimated in a report in January a median home price in Evanston at $450,000 – “and this number is expected to go up by 9.7% in 2021 according to this presentation,” he said.
“Our City continues to be desirable, despite it being landlocked, with a finite amount of space,” he told aldermen. “And as a result, housing prices are getting out of hand, especially for low- and moderate-income people and those looking for affordable homeownership and connected with rising housing costs. We have seen a gradually declining percentage of Black residents in Evanston over the last decades. So with this in mind, it’s exciting to see our City exploring new ways to activate underutilized small plots of land rather than continuing to let them sit vacant,” he said.
Mr. Gallimore, a former resident of Evanston who now lives just west of McCormick Boulevard, was particularly excited about the proposal’s approval.
“We’re just so overjoyed that after two years we were able to get this amendment passed. We are very grateful to City staff for working with us and guiding us through the process. The Evanston Development Cooperative [local experts and providers of coach houses], and Connections for the Homeless were both very supportive in terms of advocacy for the tax amendment, as they both saw the potential to create market rate affordable housing for the ‘missing middle’ in Evanston.”
Mr. Gallimore said he is looking forward to sitting down with an architect soon to go over plans and, if granted approval, start construction as early as this summer.
He said the new home will be “particularly a great place for my brother,” who has been living at home with their parents.
“We looked for small apartments for him to get to try out, independent living, you know, there’s nothing. Even if it was affordable, wasn’t really the right location for him. I mean he’s really independent. He held down a job for 20 years at a restaurant [in Evanston]. The new home is close to Northwestern where all his friends, favorite sports teams, and, you know, everything. It fits the bill.”