A SMALL PART OF the solution to the state’s glaring housing shortage could be in everyone’s backyard.
Gov. Maura Healey’s $4.1 billion housing bond bill, rolled out last week, includes zoning reform that would allow accessory dwelling units to be built as of right throughout the state. These units, sometimes known as “granny flats,” are small additions to a house or standalone structures on a lot with separate entrances, kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms from the main single-family dwelling.
“This is important,” Healey said in unveiling the bond bill. “The data shows what ADUs yield, and this step is going to unblock one of the most well established, organic, and, importantly, community-centric forms of housing access.”
The state estimates that the zoning change could create more than 8,000 accessory dwelling units over five years, based on adoption rates in other states.
That’s a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of new units needed in Massachusetts, but accessory dwelling units are often considered the low-hanging fruit of efforts to boost housing production. Because of their size – capped at 900 square feet in the housing bond bill – ADUs can be tucked into residential areas where new units are otherwise limited due to space or political constraints.
“Of all of the state-level policy options I have heard considered, there is one simple change I wish the state would make right away,” researcher and consultant Amy Dain wrote in CommonWealth eight years ago. “Allow accessory apartments; do not leave the decision to municipalities.”
ADU policy changes were among the ideas that Housing Secretary Ed Augustus raised in a conversation on The Codcast in September. ‘
States like California and New Hampshire have seen great success with their ADU zoning policies, streamlining the approval and construction process and allowing the units to be rented out, Augustus said at the time. California updated its laws this month to allow ADUs to be sold separately, like condominiums, rather than just rented out by the homeowner.
Officials tend to publicly pitch the small units not as homes for prospective renters, but as a way to keep family members close and housed.
“Often those units are filled by a family member who needs care,” Augustus said. “They might be an elderly parent, or grandparent, or a disabled child, so the family can better take care of them but provide a unit that’s attached to the house or on the same footprint as the primary residence. And the benefit of that is it doesn’t necessarily cost the state any money to do that.”
Even if the family-centric concept is a common framing, the language of the bond bill does not allow cities and towns to force ADUs to be owner-occupied or include parking requirements within half a mile of public transit.
Cities and towns would have some control over the ADUs under the bond bill language. The units could be subject to “reasonable regulations” like structure size and setbacks, or limitations on short-term rentals.
The soft-pitch notwithstanding, and with the Legislature yet to weigh in on the measure, ADU zoning changes have sparked community friction for many years.
Cities including Boston have carved out pilot programs to assist homeowners in constructing these small units on their property, seeking to add “gentle density” to single family areas in neighborhoods like Mattapan.
Other municipalities have found the units a much harder sell, with residents often objecting that ADU allowances in single-family zones effectively turn the neighborhoods into multi-family zones. Lowell’s city council last week shelved a long-debated ADU policy change that until recently, according to the Lowell Sun, had majority support from the council and mayor.
The forthcoming bond bill threw a wrench into the debate.
Mayor Sokhary Chau said during a council meeting that he expected the bond bill to include ADU language, and “after learning this timely news, I do believe that voting now on ADUs seems foolhardy and imprudent for our city.”
Others, however, claimed a change of heart on the measure in the wake of public pushback against ADUs in Lowell. “I was for this ordinance, but what did change in the last couple of weeks, more people did find out about this,” City Councilor John Leahy said in his brief remarks, according to the Sun. “More people got involved, more people had more questions. I will be changing my vote at this time. I wouldn’t be representing the district properly if I didn’t listen to them.”