By Colin McCandless, Contributing Writer
REGION – It’s certainly no secret that there’s a housing shortage in Massachusetts, especially in the greater Boston area. State legislators and municipalities have been tasked with examining different solutions to address the need. So how do you add more housing without changing the look and feel of neighborhoods?
One option gradually gaining more traction involves providing additional housing on existing single-family owned lots.
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are defined as a self-contained apartment in an owner-occupied single-family home or lot. They can be either attached to the principal residence or housed in a separate structure on the same property, such as a garage or carriage house. Sometimes also referred to as accessory apartments, in-law apartments, “granny flats” or secondary units, ADUs contain a kitchen, a bath and typically have at least one bedroom.
ADUs and zoning laws
A 2018 study conducted by the Boston-based non-profit public policy research organization, Pioneer Institute, was titled the “State of Zoning for Accessory Dwelling Units.” It found that “loosening local zoning laws to allow for the development of more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) would help ease the region’s housing shortage without creating any significant problems.”
The report indicated that as of 2018, 37 of the 100 Boston-area communities allowed ADUs and permitted them to “be rented out, though typically with significant restrictions.” Thirty-one other municipalities allowed ADUs, but with the caveat that only the homeowner’s relatives or a caretaker could occupy them. The remaining 32 communities, it found, did not permit zoning for ADUs.
Amy Dain, who authored the report, told the Fifty Plus Advocate that “housing advocates have been promoting ADUs for decades, and the regulations remain highly restrictive overall.”
Some municipalities have since approved measures allowing ADUs while others are considering proposals, thanks in part to a Massachusetts state law implemented in early 2021 that lowers the threshold for approving housing-related zoning code or bylaw amendments.
The Housing Choice legislation requires only a simple majority vote by a town council, city council or town meeting to pass a zoning proposal like permitting ADUs, eliminating the previous two-thirds majority requirement.
Dain said that “overall, though, the rate of change in this area has been slow,” with respect to allowing ADUs.
City of Salem amends existing ADU uses
Five years ago, the city of Salem adopted a zoning amendment targeted to older adults and championed by the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, allowing ADUs on a limited basis for family members and caregivers only, that required a special permit.
The change wasn’t impactful, though, according to Salem Planning and Community Development Department Deputy Director Amanda Chiancola. “It was so restrictive, it didn’t create enough housing options,” she recalled. “We really wanted to create a flexible process.”
In the winter of 2021, Salem passed an amendment to its city zoning ordinance for a new accessory use of ADUs that removed some of the prior amendment’s restrictions, allowing ADUs in single-family, two-family and three-family houses “by right,” with no special permit requirement.
Salem worked on the ADU proposal for three years, but despite recommendations from housing advocates and an AARP endorsement, the amendment failed twice before being adopted. Concerns included that allowing ADUs would ruin the neighborhood character or that they would necessitate a major investment, limiting applicants.
Chiancola highlighted ADUs’ benefits. “They’re great for older adults, for seniors.” She added that it also gives an opportunity to first-time home buyers, who can earn additional income from a long-term ADU rental to help them afford a mortgage. She further explained that most people in Salem work in retail or the service sector and can’t afford housing there. Because the units are smaller (Salem’s bylaws limit ADUs to 900 square feet or 75 percent of the main house), they generally cost less than full-size rentals.
“It creates housing options for people in Salem who really need it,” she said.
Town of Arlington approves ADUs
The town of Arlington voted in spring 2021 to approve an amendment to its zoning bylaws, allowing ADUs in single-family and two-family homes and duplex dwellings. Arlington defines an ADU as a “self-contained housing unit” featuring a bedroom, a kitchen and bathroom facilities, which is situated “on the same lot as a principal dwelling.”
They are permitted by right in any residential and business-zoned districts, and the amendment doesn’t restrict who can reside in ADUs, meaning that it doesn’t have to be occupied by family or a caregiver. “The main limitation on ADUs in Arlington is that they cannot be used as a short-term rental,” said Arlington Planning and Community Development Director Jennifer Raitt. This is also a stipulation of Salem’s ADU amendment. Also similar to Salem, the creation of an ADU in Arlington doesn’t require any additional off-street parking.
Framingham exploring the benefits
ADUs are currently illegal in the City of Framingham. But elected officials are working with the planning board to investigate whether allowing them would benefit residents, according to Erika Oliver Jerram, acting director of Framingham’s division of planning and community development.
During the summer, Framingham disseminated a survey and conducted extensive public outreach to “take the temperature of the community” on the issue of ADUs, said Jerram. Seniors expressed significant interest. Jerram explained that over the last 20 years there has been a movement within the planning world for seniors to “age in place.” “This is a great way for folks to do this if it’s done right,” she said.
If approved, ADUs would be defined in a special zoning ordinance or as a zoning provision stipulating what would be allowed in Framingham. Jerram referenced the Housing Choice law as helping provide the impetus for more municipalities to explore ADU amendments as another approach to addressing housing needs. “Offering diverse housing options is key to a healthy, thriving community,” she said. “It (ADUs) allows density without changing the fabric of your community.”
Salem wants to see other municipalities support allowing ADUs. “We hope other communities take advantage of it,” asserted Chiancola. “We need houses.”