EPISODE 21: What If We Put Another House in Your Backyard?

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The rising cost of homes in Evanston is driving gentrification and displacement. A worker-owned real estate developer wants to make housing more affordable by adding places to live — even in your backyard. 

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Transcript


Straw media. For us it's also
sort of a more holistic way to think

about this term housing affordability. It's
creating an economy where construction workers can also

afford to live in our city.
This is Lucas greenly from next city,

a show about change makers and their
stories. Truth is, there are solutions

to the problems oppressing people in cities. If you're listening, I hope it's

because you want to spread good ideas
from one city to the next city.

This week, what if we put
a house in your backyard, sometimes referred

to as a grainy flat, but
officially known as an Adyu or access redwelling

unit? It's a small dwelling unit
that is part of a larger unit like

a house. When done right,
adding these units to existing homes can bring

relief to homeowners facing gentrification and displacement
or to tenants getting squeezed by skyrocketing rents.

So how would you feel about adding
one of these to your home?

Today on the show we will learn
about a company that is focused on building

a dus. This story is a
next city TRIFECTA. It's about a solution

to make housing more affordable. It's
about a real estate developer that is worker

owned. Oh and by the way, one of the worker owners is a

climate scientist, so the unique way
they're building is especially green. Reporter Ashira

Morris takes us to Evanston, Illinois, where we will be introduced to the

Evans Development Cooperative. So let's start
with what are accessory dwelling units? It's

not a catchy term. People might
have heard of granny flats. I'm not

sure that's much better. So what
are they for people who don't know?

Yeah, I think that's a great
place to start, because whether it's accessory

dwelling unit or a Du, I
mean an acronym is even worse. Right.

I feel like the it doesn't really
say what it is. And,

like you said, you know,
people might have either heard of a granny

flat or a carriage house, as
they're sometimes called, but I think they

can be summed up as like a
small unit of housing that is part of

a bigger unit of housing. So
in some instances that means it's a separate

detached structure on the grounds of a
single family home. But that also could

mean someone taking their attic orther basement
and converting it to a space that has

usually like a bedroom, of bathroom
and some sort of living space, but

with a, you know, a
smaller footprint. HMM. So you reported

on Evanston Illinois, where they passed
to law in two thousand and twenty to

make it, I guess, easier
to build. These houses may bee in

your backyard. Why are people arguing
that we need a lot more at us?

I think the biggest motivation is affordable
housing crisis, so a lack of

places where people can live on the
money that they're earning. And in somewhere

like Evanston at least, my understanding
is that the city had already done a

pretty good job of densely developing taller
apartment buildings on major corridors and so like.

The next kind of logical step was
to look at these more residential areas

where, because of prioritization of single
family housing, you know, there's kind

of ample stock of this single family
housing in neighborhoods and it was an opportunity

to build denser housing without, you
know, plopping a twenty story apartment complex

like in the middle of a residential
neighborhood. And I think you also have

this issue of density here as well. You know, if you're able to

put someone's home closer into a city
or a town, then you know instead

of continuing to build outward, you
know you're developing areas that already have like

essential services and community life around them, and that is kind of an implicit

climate solution as well. The evanton
develop in cooperative specializes in building a to

use. The reason the story is
an x city Trifecta is because they see

all these problems as connected. Yet
so one of the founders was motivated,

I guess, by affordable housing and
the other one was especially motivated by climate

action. They really see it as
this sort of innerly like climate race.

Affordable housing, maxis and the ADUS
are a way to solve for these interlinked

problems at the same time. After
the break we will talk to Robbie Marcus,

who is a proud worker owner with
the Evanston development cooperative and one of

the people who helped bring it to
life. Welcome back to next city.

This week we are talking about accessory
dwelling units. You might know them as

granny flats, carriage houses in law
apartments. For a growing number of people

they're just called home sweet home.
Robbie Marcus, a worker owner with the

Evanston Development Cooperative, explains how this
solution by many names, is helping solve

multiple problems for his community. The
first thing I want to start with is

this idea that you are a worker
cooperative, which set you apart from a

lot of other builders. And,
as I understand it, does that mean

even like the trade workers and subcontractors
might become worker owners? What's the plan?

Absolutely, yeah. So there are
different ways to structure a worker cooperative

or a worker owned business, and
the way we decided to do it as

a construction worker cooperative is to allow
both employees, who say, get a

WT like myself, to be worker
owners of the cooperative, but also to

allow contract years, who have strong
ties to the community, many of them

went to high school here in Evanston, to also become work owners of the

Co op. And so we sort
of have a bit of a different model

than other worker cooperatives, where it's
just the employees that are shareholders and voting

members. And another important facet of
that is that we also have a worker

led board, for of the seven
seats on our board of directors are actually

reserved for worker members in the coop, which ensures that really protecting workers rights

is embedded within our DNA. How
did you come to decide that this was

going to be the way you wanted
to start out? So we were initially

started by two folks that met at
Northwestern University with entirely different backgrounds. I

was on the social sciences side,
researching the intersection of Housing and race in

the Ovenston community. I was looking
at the changing racial demographics of one historically

red luned neighborhood in Evanston and was
trying to look at the before and after

relating to the subprime mortgage crisis.
And one of the my fellow work owners

that I started UBC with the CO
was actually a climate scientist at northwestern who

was interested in the intersection of energy
efficiency in the built environment. And so

we met while we were both still
at the university and realize that these issues

of climate and race and housing were
tremendously interconnected. And once we sort of

knew that, we wanted to think
out a social enterprise with those key issues

and values of the core housing affordability, local workforce development, racial equity and

sort of equitable community development. That's
what got us to a worker cooperative.

We didn't exactly want to be a
nonprofit because we didn't want to be tied

to potentially the missions of certain foundations
and and be steered. We really wanted

the core decisionmaking to be made by
workers who live in this community and I

think the key thinking was that,
you know, urban planning, maybe cannon,

should be determined by people who have
been in ovens in their entire lives,

especially people of Color and Evanston who
maybe have been historically excluded from determining

how the city looks and how the
city is structured. It is important that

the workers are making decisions because they
are the ones that are living in the

city being affected by those decisions.
Here at next city we've reported so many

examples of worker cooperatives. You can
check out our episode on the Drivers Coop

that runs a worker owned right share
APP in New York City. The drivers

are the owners. We spoke with
formerly incarcerated women in Chicago who faced discrimination

when trying to get jobs and decided
to found and share ownership in a commercial

kitchen called Chi fresh kitchen. The
EVANSTON development cooperative was founded in December two

thousand and eighteen and they started out
as a housing advocacy organization working to make

it easier for people to legally build
a toy us in their back yard.

A lot of our time early on
was actually sort of more on the advocacy

side. When we first got started, Evanston had a pretty restrictive accessory dwelling

unit code and it was pretty hard
to build anything and so really before we

got a ton of projects going,
we were sort of more of a housing

advocacy organization. And then fast forward
to three years later. Now we have

ten to twelve active projects in Evanston. So if you look at Evanston Zoning

Code, a huge portion of our
city is zoned for single family and historically,

Richard Rossians the color of laws,
an excellent book which details this single

family z owning, has historic.
We've been a tool that has segregated on

the basis of recent class and for
Evanston, which is a suburb with increasingly

rising land costs and housing costs,
we saw the accessory dwelling unit as one

way to address the cost of housing, especially in what's called an Rdi built

up suburb where just about all the
land in Evinston is already has housing stock.

There vacant land is extremely hard to
come by and if you can find

it it's quite expensive by itself.
And so then with the accessory dwelling unit,

you're going to build it for less
than anything else you can build a

single family house or a duplex for
in Evanston. And you're also removing land

costs from the equation, which are
quite quite quite high in Evanston. You

mentioned that land costs are quite quite
quite high in Evanston and I guess I

wonder how do you answer people who
say, yeah, the rent could be

cheaper right? Are People inclined to
just make the market rate regardless? Is

there anything ensuring that rent is cheaper? There are creative partnerships. They can

be had. For example, one
ongoing project that we have is in partnership

with the city of Evanston and an
affordable housing developer in the region, and

so they own a property with an
existing duplex at the front and there was

a vacant backyard. We partnered with
them in the city of Evanston to add

a two bedroom unit intended for a
small family. That unit, upon completion,

will be rented out or below sixty
percent of the median income and I

think it will come down to public
private partnerships. We've seen that in other

California municipalities. I think Boston and
Denver have also rolled out programs where the

city is in some capacity financing accessory
dwelling units that meet a certain area median

income threshold and ensure that either,
in some cases, the whole owner is

income qualifying or the renter is income
qualifying or both. We certainly do our

best and some of our projects are
Evanston homeowners that are doing this, say

for aging parents or for, say, the own or of a duplex to

downsize into their backyard and rent out
both units in their duplex as a way

to age in place and stay in
the community. For us we do sort

of both projects with homeowners and affordable
projects to keep the lights on for our

coop. Frankly, and then also
underlying all of that is the idea that

it's a worker owned business that is
sharing profit through patronage dividends with its worker

owners who live in the community.
And so then for us it's also sort

of a more holistic way to think
about this term housing affordability. It's creating

an economy where construction workers can also
afford to live in our city and you've

just gotten a whole bunch of financing
for a big project. Is that right?

Yeah, so we have a line
of credit with the local Enterprise Assistance

Fund. So they're known as leaf
and they are primarily a community development financial

institution based in Boston, I believe, in Massachusetts, which primarily provides financing

to many of their are words our
cooperatives, either worker cooperatives or food cooperatives

or social enterprises of some sort,
and they primarily focus on organizations which are

either directly hiring lowanmoderate income workers or
they also finance housing cooperatives, like limited

equity housing cooperatives that are doing affordable
collective ownership setups, and we have an

existing line of credit with them,
primarily to just finance ongoing construction. That's

correct. As a cooperative it is
hard to find financing a lot of times,

right it where you restricted and kind
of your options and how did that

go? It is definitely a hindrance
and I think it also depends fremendously on

the state you're in. So when
we first got started, it was in

two thousand and eighteen before Illinois had
passed a new worker cooperative bill which is

a lot more friendly for worker cooperative. So when we incorporated, we actually

incorporated under I would call it a
little bit of a crazy one thousand nine

hundred and fifteen cooperative act in Illinois, which is perhaps, in my mind,

primarily designed for agricultural cooperatives, like
farmers cooperatives in Burule Illinois. But

we got incorporated under it and the
the primary thing about that legislation was that

from a from a fundraising perspective,
as you said, we could only sell

up to tenzero dollars in shares to
each person and under the new Illinois bill

there's no cap on that. So
if a cooperative got started under this new

bill they would have maybe a little
bit more flexibility and fundraising. But but

that was one hindrance which we ran
into when we were first getting started.

And other than that, I think
the primary thing is when thinking about like

PPP loans during the pandemic or other
applications for traditional banks, you often feel

like you're sort of fitting square peg
into around all where these banks are asking

for all of your owners. You
say well, we have like fifty plus

owners like and so that that can
be a bit of a hindrance sometimes and

very often when we meet with sort
of more conventional banks, they just often

sort of in my mind, kind
of throw their hands up and just get

confused at the idea. And so
the reality that there are cdfis out there

that work specifically with cooperatives are a
huge lifeline, I think, for not

just our worker coop but others across
the country. Not many banks are used

to working with businesses that are owned
by the workforce. But that's not the

only thing that makes the EVANSTON development
cooperative unique. We will talk about the

ways they address the climate crisis after
the break. Welcome back to next city.

We are here with Robbie Marcus,
a worker owner of the EVANSTON development

cooperative. He helped launched the cooperative
with a partner who is a climate scientist.

So the atus it produces are especially
energy efficient. SIPS, is the

acronym, Provide an extremely air type
building envelope, which means that there's not

a lot in Chicago. There's not
a lot of freezing air coming in through

the building in these fridge in Chicago
winters, which means you need to utilize

less energy to heat and cool the
building. They are also super well insulated.

One sort of technical statistic is the
R value, which is the level

of insulation in the building, and
these panels have an our value of our

twenty six, which is quite high. And so it provides sort of you

can almost think of it like a
jetty cooler for your house, a Jetti

Cooler for your house. I love
that, and healthy for the climate.

I only just recently heard about this
idea of having these airtight sort of homes

as a better way of heating and
cooling the house. Is it more expective

to produce it this way? I'm
sure people are wondering, because it in

the long run it's lowering your utility
bills. It certainly lowers you utility bills

in the long run. And in
short, we think it's. In all

honesty, it's fluctuating based on where
the cost of lumber is going these days.

So the cost of lumber is just
kind of all over the place right

now and you really have no idea
what it's going to be the next day.

And so I would think over the
past months, on some days these

sips have been cheaper, on some
days they've been about the same and on

some days they've probably been a little
bit more. It's hard to tell how

it's going to compare in the long
run just because I have no sense of

the cost of lumber moving forward.
So let's talk about your research, which

kind of brought you into this.
I'm curious about the decline in, I

think it's black on ownership and then
also just black residents and Evanston, and

what you think has led to that
and how you think eighty US connect to

helping solve that problem. Yeah,
so when I was doing that research we

were looking at the effect of the
subprime mortgage crisis on specifically sensus tract eight

hundred and ninety two, which is
in West Central Evanston. It was religned

in the early to mid twentieth century. And Yeah, during that research we

were looking at mortgage or nation data, so we were interest and you can

look at mortgage orge nation data by
race. So we were looking at mort

Georginations by race after the market crashed. And you know it's tough because it's

just one census tract and so you
questioned the sample size from a statistics perspective,

but we were looking at an influx
of middle class white homeowners in a

neighborhood that had never had middle class
white homeowners. As to your broader point

on the displacement of residents of color, it is certainly an ongoing, pressing

issue in this community. Do you
think eighty us will help with this in

some way or is it sort of
an indirect thing? I think the way

to think about it would be based
on conversations we've had with city staff.

I think one of the primary conversations
and thoughts we've had is there are aging

income qualifying seniors in Evanston who are
struggling to figure out how to stay and

if you look at Evanston census data, we have a huge mismatch between household

size and size of house, if
that makes sense, where we have pretty

sizeable single family homes across this city
and so many of these houses are occupied

by one or two people. And
so one conversation we've had specifically around the

displacement of residents of color with the
city is the idea that in some capacity

the accessory dwelling unit could be sort
of an intergenerational wealth building solution for a

senior that's trying to figure out how
to stay here and perhaps whether it's you

know, downsizing into the unit in
the backyard and getting the rental income from

their main home, or whether we're
partnering with a Community Land Trust to add

the accessory dwelling unit and that can
prevent foreclosure. And more broadly, I

think partnering with Community Land Trust on
accessory dwelling units are a fantastic way to

just address housing affordability more broadly,
and we are looking at a partnership with

our local community land trust right now
on a few different projects in a few

different ways. Last thing I'll ask
is do you think that adus could be

used as a tool for evil instead
of good? Like could they in some

ways cause displacement? Is that something
that you hear? Is a worry from

people, and how do you think
you mitigate that? I think the the

primary concern that comes to mind from
me, which is maybe more of an

Evanston issue them some other cities.
I'm thinking about absentee landlords on northwestern's campus

who may not have the best interest
for the community in mind. I frankly

know that many of these absolute landlords
don't have the best interests of the community

of mind. I yeah, I
loved off campus in some of that housing

and and yeah, there is sort
of off campus, a contingent of absentee

landlords who own property and some of
the single family neighborhoods that do not care

about the community. They don't live
at Evanston and for them, if they

see this and think that they can
squeeze in another rental unit and get another

x dollars a month and rental income, they'll do it. And frankly,

from my own lived experiences, they
don't care too much about the health and

wellbeing of the students or the effect
of the students on the surrounding community.

And so, all in all,
do I think accessory dwelling units are a

meaningful solution for cities that are trying
to think about how to address housing affordability?

Yes, especially if you're looking at
neighborhoods that our own single family only

and there's no other way to add
a unit. But as with anything,

there are nuances and policy should be
thought through. And all the more reason

that's important that you're worker owned,
because it matters who owned the is building

the eight US ray and also,
I think, with a worker co opstance

in the community there's intentionality around the
effects of the projects on the community.

So even when someone comes to you
and says, Hey, I want to

do this. If those social values
are embedded in the organization, then the

worker owners should get together and say, well, do we understand why this

person wants to take on this project, that they live here? Is this

a project that we would want to
see next like in our block? You

know, we hope you enjoyed this
episode of next city, a show about

change makers and their stories. Together
we can spread good ideas from one city

to the next city. Thank you
for listening this week. Thank you to

a Shirah Morris, who first reported
the story for next city. Thank you

to our guest, Robbie Marcus,
from the Evanston Development Cooperative. Our audio

producer is Silvana Alcala. Our scriptwriter
is Francesca Mammlin. Our executive producers are

Tyler Nielsen and Ryan Tillitson. By
the way, next city is a news

organization with a nonprofit model. If
you like what we're doing here, please

consider pitching in to support our work. visit next city dot org slash membership

to make a donation. We would
love to hear any feedback from our listeners.

Please feel free to email us at
Info at next city dot Org and,

if you haven't already, subscribe to
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Next City
Join Lucas Grindley, executive director at Next City, where we believe journalists have the power to amplify solutions and spread workable ideas. Each week Lucas will... View More

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