Homebuilding: More roofs over more heads

Filed Under: August 2017 Issue, Toolbox Articles

By Tony Shepley
What do aging in place, workforce housing, and “It’s too expensive to live here” all have in common? They all have a common solution: accessory dwelling units (ADUs, for those who like acronyms), the right of a property owner to have an additional legal dwelling unit on their existing property.
Whether it’s a room over the garage or a mother-in-law cottage out back, it just plain makes sense and solves multiple issues. From the college student still in school, to the young professional just starting their career, to someone saving up for a deposit on their first house, we have a lot of people in Southeastern Massachusetts who could really benefit from affordable market rate rentals. That’s right, market rate. Give the market supply and it will adjust prices to meet demands.
Currently, ADUs in most towns have very restrictive requirements, such as requiring all occupants to be related to each other. Let’s flip that around. Perhaps it’s time for junior to get out of the house and find a nest elsewhere and give mom and dad a break! Someone else’s family is often easier than your own. My recommendation is to require that one of the units in a house with accessory housing be owner-occupied, but skip the requirement that everyone be related. This opens up affordability and gives owners some financial help.
Aging in place used to mean staying in the house you grew up in or raised your family in, with the kids taking over the lead role and caring for the parents, as the parents grew older. How about a modern version of that system to help with the fact that families have become more mobile and spread out? How about the potential of having a tenant in the accessory unit, who could not only help financially with rent contribution, but might also help with caretaking for older landlords. Also, for our second-homeowners, why not allow an accessory unit that could house a housekeeper, to keep an eye on the place in the absence of the owner.
An ultimate aging in place flip could see the primary owner downsizing into the accessory unit, and the younger tenant, now starting a family, moving into the primary residence as their need for space increases. Isn’t this the way it used to work? Actually, before we zoned ourselves into suburban sprawl, this is the way it worked − for centuries.
Towns want to be able to control housing and, frankly, some towns enjoy low-income housing subsidies and grants that they are scared of losing. My hometown, to my embarrassment, combs the classifieds looking for “illegal” apartments to shut down, while also patting themselves on the back for having an “Amnesty Program” that is supposed to be promoting ADUs, however, this amnesty program has created less than one ADU per year since its inception 17 years ago. Instead of looking for culprits, this program should live up to its name and help people legalize accessory units and relax the requirements to allow sensible balance.
Expanding accessory use under market-rate conditions won’t hurt low-income housing. It will increase the supply of market-rate rentals and help moderate them. Do we condemn a resident to live in low-income housing forever or do we give them a next step up?
Legal accessory housing will also increase the tax base for a town willing to embrace the concept instead of shunning it. Currently, every town has different requirements for ADUs, and most are designed to prevent or at least stifle.
The key to successful ADUs is standardized language from town to town, allowing legal units by right instead of by special permit, and dropping the requirement that tenants be related to the homeowner. If we’re serious about aging in place, sensible workforce housing, the cost of living, and the outward migration of our youth, expanded accessory housing is one answer that hits all points of the problem. ADUs are a very effective low-impact tool, and when properly used are an important part of a healthy community’s housing balance.
Tony Shepley is owner and president of Shepley Wood Products. He can be reached at  (508) 862-6200 or tshepley@shepleywood.com.

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