Co-op takes on building granny flats
Aaron Barnhart and Diane Eickhoff knew they wanted to sell their house in Kansas City, Missouri, to downsize. And as soon as Eickhoff said she wanted to move back to Evanston, Illinois, where the couple had both lived for a decade, they knew exactly where they wanted to be: near the Reba Place Church. It’s where they met, got married, and where their community was centred. The church has a progressive history in Evanston; as part of its social justice mission, it bought multiple single-family homes during the ‘white flight’ in the 1970s and rented them at below-market rates. The church functions as a “collective urban commune”, as Barnhart describes it, as well as a place of worship.
Given the small radius they wanted to live in, they knew the market was going to be “super tight”, Barnhart told Next City. They didn’t want a large house or to be in an apartment building. Through conversations with friends at church, they learned that Evanston had recently changed its zoning laws to make accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — small-footprint housing commonly known as granny flats — easier to build. The church made them a proposal: they could build an ADU in the backyard of one of the Reba properties. Saying yes was easy.
“It’s more than just a house — it’s an urban planning tool,” Barnhart says. “And it’s a social justice tool. But we just liked it because it would give us a house that checked all our boxes, including being right in the heart of the Reba community.”
Their perfectly-sized house is being built by the Evanston Development Cooperative (EDC), a worker-owned builder specialising in ADUs. “I think we accelerated what the city was already doing,” says Robinson Markus, one of EDC’s co-founders and co-owners. “We were intimately involved in these conversations on how to shape the policy.”
In 2020, thanks in part to EDC’s advocacy, the city approved the construction of ADUs on any residential property and legalised internal ADUs such as attic or basement conversions. Up until then, only single-family homes and not duplexes — which are disproportionately in Evanston’s neighbourhoods of colour — were allowed to build ADUs. Resolving that was an equity issue, Markus says. “Only certain parts of the city were allowed to build intergenerational wealth and increase their property value through this mechanism,” he notes, “while other parts of the city were often being denied this opportunity.”
Last year, Evanston made history as the first US city to institute a reparations program, which aims to specifically mend the harms of “discriminatory housing policies and practices and inaction on the city’s part”. But over the past 20 years, the city’s Black population has been declining. Many people cite the rising cost of housing, says Markus. “We are in such a crisis with the cost of housing that we have to put every option on the table. [ADUs] will not single-handedly alleviate the housing cost pressures facing our city. But on the other hand, it does not cost a city any dollars to amend its zoning code to allow for these units.”
According to EDC calculations, building ADUs on Evanston properties has the potential to add 10,000 extra housing units. And to encourage that potential, EDC and the city have co-published a step-by-step guidebook covering zoning, regulations, and financing, as well as build options right through to move-in.
By design, ADUs increase density and reduce driving distances and can turn a drive into a walk or a bike ride. Their compact footprint means lower utility bills, as a smaller space takes less energy to heat and cool. They’re constructed of insulated panels that are extremely airtight, not allowing heat to seep out or cold air to creep in.
For now, EDC is building one unit at a time, though it currently has nine projects underway, including Barnhart and Eickhoff’s. 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 neighbourhood earning rent money from both units. Another client is building their unit as a home business. Another is a two-bedroom ADU for a small family behind a duplex as part of a federally-funded affordable housing pilot project specifically designed for nonprofit affordable housing developers.
Down the line, EDC’s vision is to scale-up the operation while maintaining their worker-owned model. “Yes, it’s about affordable housing. Yes, it’s about climate action,” Markus says. “But it’s also about the people who have called Evanston home far longer than I have, feeling like they have ownership and a sense of place in this community through a more democratic business.”
TOP An Evanston Development Cooperative affordable housing project