Institute for Housing Studies Guides Local Policies to Preserve Two-to-Four-Unit Housing

Author: Elizabeth Burton
Date Posted: December 9, 2021

The Institute for Housing Studies (IHS) provided timely analysis and hands-on assistance that influenced Chicago’s government to implement policies to help preserve the city’s unsubsidized affordable housing. A focus of the IHS analysis was two-to-four-unit residential buildings, which account for 25 percent of Chicago’s housing units and compose a substantial share of unsubsidized affordable housing. In January 2020, to address the diminishing stock of these buildings, the Chicago City Council passed a temporary six-month moratorium on demolitions of residential buildings surrounding the west part of The 606 trail, a 2.7-mile elevated park and trail on the northwest side of Chicago, where residents are dealing with rapidly increasing housing costs and displacement pressure. The legislation cited IHS research on how the destruction of multifamily two-to-four-unit buildings has led to hundreds of displaced households. From 2013 to 2019, 11,775 rental and owner-occupied housing units were lost from two-to-four-unit buildings. Of all multiunit properties, 47.5 percent were converted to single-family homes, and the remainder became vacant land, were refurbished for nonresidential use, or became other residential property types.  

After the temporary moratorium, IHS staff provided direct assistance in 2020 to the Chicago Department of Housing as the agency formulated new policies to reduce displacement. In January 2021, the Chicago City Council passed two anti-deconversion ordinances to discourage property owners from demolishing unsubsidized housing, one in the area that surrounds The 606 trail, including the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods, and the other in Pilsen, a predominantly Hispanic and Latinx neighborhood in the Lower West Side of Chicago. The anti-deconversion policy prohibits the construction of single-family homes and the conversion of multifamily-unit buildings to single-family residences. The IHS shared insights to inform the types of buildings covered by the legislation and the criteria for the restricted areas. 

Additionally, the council enacted a pilot program for Pilsen that imposes a $15,000 surcharge for the demolition of a detached house, townhouse, or two-flat building and a $5,000 surcharge per dwelling unit for the demolition of a multiunit residential building. The Chicago Community Land Trust, which provides employed residents with opportunities to purchase homes, receives the generated revenue from the pilot program. Although the policies and pilot do not directly address the increasing cost of housing and stagnant incomes, they restrict the ability to decrease the unsubsidized affordable housing supply in gentrifying neighborhoods.  

The IHS was able to influence local policy because of long-term partnerships with policymakers and community organizations built from rigorous analysis and ongoing engagement. With both community trust and topical expertise, the IHS guided the Chicago City Council’s political action to preserve two-to-four-unit residential buildings in communities surrounding The 606 trail and the Pilsen neighborhood. The IHS will continue to raise awareness of the threats to affordable housing in Chicago and monitor the effects of the new policies. 

This story was written by Elizabeth Burton at the Urban Institute, with the support of the Geoff Smith and Sarah Duda at the Institute for Housing Studies. DePaul University's Institute for Housing Studies is the Chicago Partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All Partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods

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