What is a Chicago two-flat?

Brooklyn has brownstone, Philadelphia has row houses, and Chicago has two-flats. Many Chicagoans are unaware of this architectural trademark because, as with most inventions, necessity was the mother the two-flat.

What is a two-flat?

Built primarily between 1900 and 1920, a two-flat is a two-story building with an apartment unit on each floor. Most two-flats have a brick or greystone exterior. A fusion of a single-family house and an apartment building, the two-flat was intended as a financial investment. The owner of a two-flat could live in one apartment unit and rent out the other for additional income.

A page from "Book of plans / Chicago House Wrecking Co." (1913) courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images

OK, but why Chicago?

In the late 1800s as Chicago was growing, European immigrants made up almost half of the city’s population. Such an influx of residents increased the demand for housing, so instead of building out, developers built up. Neighborhoods like Pilsen, North Lawndale, and South Lawndale have a large inventory of two-flats because of the large number of Eastern European immigrants who settled there over a hundred years ago.

Two-flats were a housing response to changing economics as the city sought to accommodate more residents on a typical Chicago lot. Immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century could often afford to buy a two-flat by the early 20th century, graduating from renting to owning. This model for homeownership built tight-knit communities throughout Chicago and allowed for financial growth.

How many two-flats are still around today?

According to WBEZ, two- to four-unit apartment buildings made up 27 percent of Chicago’s housing stock in 2014. At that time, the city had an estimated 76,000 two-flats. In neighborhoods like Brighton Park, New City, and the aforementioned South Lawndale, these two-flats make up two-thirds of the housing stock and a significant portion of the city’s affordable housing. 

However, that number is shrinking.

Homes in Brighton Park

Why is the two-flat disappearing?

Two-flats are expensive to maintain. Due to the housing crisis in 2008, many two-flats are currently vacant. Some are unowned while others are owned by developers who don’t occupy them.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the city lost 20,000 two-flats, three-flats, and four-flats between 2010 and 2016. These buildings were torn down to make way for new, high-cost builds. While this change may seem like progress, it makes affordable housing harder to find and often prices out middle- and working-class residents. 

Also, without the same housing demand as in the early 20th century, some two-flats are being converted back into single-family homes. According to the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University, this reduces the supply of rental stock, putting pressure on remaining rental properties.

What does the future of the two-flat look like?

The future of the Chicago two-flat looks a little bleak. With increased demand for single-family housing and a lack of support for small, privately owned rental properties, the loss of these iconic buildings may continue. Not only will the loss of two-flats erase a part of Chicago’s immigrant history, it will also eliminate a much-needed avenue for renters who want to transition to homeowners. But Chicago is an adaptable city, and the fate of its architectural claim to fame is still uncertain.

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