When we purchased our home in June, it was a residential two-flat – or in other words, it was a building with two apartments. However, there were three families that lived here, one on each of the two floors and in the basement. The basement, otherwise known as our home’s garden unit, was a fully liveable, inhabitable space; a space with two large bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and the building’s only washer and dryer. Regardless, it wasn’t recognized as a third unit by the city, and with our minds so set on just diving into the first and second floors – three cheers for a single family home! – we put the basement on the back burner, giving it little to no thought as we sledged our way through every room in the house.
But by mid-July, we thought, wait a minute. It was time to revisit that basement.
The thought had crossed our minds before, so we say again, this house has a garden unit! While we toyed with the idea of renting the garden (it was a discussion we had many times, not only to supplement our mortgage, but also to help fund the restoration of our 120-year-old-house), we knew it would need some work to make it feel warm and inviting. It has a tile floor (which isn’t our first choice), but the rooms were large (by city standards), and the ceiling height, windows, entrance and exit (both separate from “our” part of the house) were all up to city code.
At that time, the issue wasn’t so much the work to be done, rather, it was a matter of could we? We were told by our attorney at the closing table that our new home is zoned for no more than 2 residential units, and although we would eventually – technically – only have two units, a great place to confirm our suspicions would be a meeting with our alderman. (And yes, this means that the garden unit was formerly rented under the table, something that is not uncommon in Chicago.) This was music to ears for a couple of reasons, mainly because our alderman is awesome. He attends Tour de Fat every year (our favorite summer festival!) and has been a huge proponent of making our neighborhood an exciting place to live. But for this purpose, we know that he also holds an open floor for his ward every Monday night. Those that live in his ward (aka: us) can personally meet with him, ask questions, receive advice and have a sense of what to do next.
In our case, we told him that our hope was to reside within the first and second floor units as a duplex-up and maintain the garden unit as a rental apartment. (And as luck would have it, our alderman had parked his bicycle in his office, so there was no shortage of bike talk thrown in for good measure!) In addition, our ultimate goal was to restore the original character in our older home – a dream we’ve had for too many years to count. He not only enthusiastically supported our idea, but he proceeded to tell us, here’s what you do now:
ONE) Write a letter to the city zoning department, explaining our current situation and intent. Our alderman would provide an additional letter of support if needed (luckily, it wasn’t). TWO) After receiving their response, follow through with whatever is necessary – if anything – to complete the zoning requirements. THREE) Rent the garden unit.
But the actual breakdown went a little something like this:
ONE) Write a letter. TWO) Wait 30 days, then call the city and say to their answering service, we wrote you a letter; what’s next? THREE) Shriek with happiness when the city calls you back… and then asks you for floor plans. FOUR) Send them floor plans. Wait. FIVE) Call them again after another 30 days and say to their answering service, we sent you the requested plans; what’s next? SIX) Feel deflated when the city requests more information, misunderstanding your intent. SEVEN + EIGHT) Mail each other several more letters, re-explaining your intent – back and forth, back and forth. NINE) Hear the good news you’ve been waiting for: As long as you aren’t increasing the floor area of the building and maintaining no more than two residential units, your zoning is in good standing.
TEN) Scream with joy! Celebrate with a glass of wine.
The entire process took several months (and cost us $50), but we’re glad that we approached the situation through the proper channels and finally (finally!) received the news we’d been crossing our fingers (and toes, arms and legs) for. Some have told us that we were crazy to be overly thorough, but for peace of mind, it was absolutely worth it. (The alternative would have been to rent the unit without permission, then maybe get slapped with a hefty fine.)
Since receiving the good news, the last couple of weeks have been a garden-unit-cleaning-frenzy – and as you can imagine, it has seen its ups and downs. The renovation-and-clean-up related road bumps are to be expected (as with every stone we’ve turned over in this house), but our goal is not to fix things fast, but to do them right. Nights and weekends are spent in our demo clothes (it’s been disheartening to know that our estimation of how much work the basement needed was skewed), and while it’s hard to tell during times of frustration, we have come a long way.
And so, slowly – in-between the upstairs construction and every day life – we’re inching our way towards not only turning our house into a place we love, but hopefully creating an apartment for someone else to enjoy, too.