OPINION: The Cost of Affordable Housing

By: Philippe Thibault – 3/24

Massachusetts House Bill 4138 goes by the moniker “the Affordable Homes Act.”

This is being layered on top of the recent MBTA Communities bills passed by the legislature in 2020. The MBTA Communities, now law, requires those communities served by or adjacent to communities served by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) to provide zoning for dense residential development. For Dracut, dense residential development means fifteen units per acre and Dracut must dedicate over eighty acres to meet the target of the law.

The MBTA Communities law only requires market rate dwellings be constructed. Communities have the option to mandate that no more than ten percent is designated as affordable.

The MBTA Communities law was enacted within an Economic Development Bill oddly enough and not within a housing bill. I very much dislike how most legislation is named to tug emotions. Who could be against Affordable Housing?

This bill has a far greater cost than affordable housing.

Dracut stands on the eve of a zoning overlay district to provide the capacity of one thousand two hundred new dwelling units required by the MBTA Communities law. That is, if the overlay district is approved at Town Meeting in November.

The new change being contemplated by the State House in Boston would effectively eliminate single family zoning districts not only in Dracut but statewide. The “Affordable Housing Bill,” provides for Accessory Dwelling Units by right.

The language provided by the bill is very generous, more generous than most communities permit for the current accessory dwelling units (sometimes referred to as In-law suites). Dracut has very stringent requirements, one of which is access to the In-law suite must be through the main dwelling. No exterior access is permitted unless a waiver is granted. I have not seen many waivers for exterior doors.

While I served on the Planning Board, an applicant for an In-law Suite was requesting a waiver for the exterior door and to eliminate the access from the main house. I inquired why they felt they were entitled to the waiver. His response was “I don’t want her (his mother in-law) bothering me.” I retorted, “then why are you asking her to live with you?”

The bill proposed will take away local control of a much-needed housing category, accessory dwellings, or in-law suites. Most communities utilized this type of housing to help extended families cope with the economics of medical and care issues. This housing is either for the family members or caregivers typically of a short-term period, although short term could be several years.

The new bill will require that “no municipality shall unreasonably restrict the creation or rental of an accessory dwelling unit that is not a short-term rental.”

Additionally, “the use of land or structures for an accessory dwelling unit …. shall not require owner occupancy of either the accessory dwelling unit or the principal dwelling.” The size of the accessory dwelling unit is also very generous.

Dracut’s limitation is set at seven hundred square feet or ten percent of the main structure’s area. The area designed to is typically seven hundred square feet as there are very few homes in Dracut that exceed seven thousand square feet. This bill would permit accessory units to be nine hundred square feet.

This is comparable to a Cape style home in Dracut, three bedrooms, a bath, kitchen and living room. There is no mention of unfinished basements, but I am sure that would not count to area since most basements are not considered habitable space.

I no longer see how the State can make a claim for accessory dwelling units when the legislation provides the rental of individual dwelling units on property for the primary residence of unrelated persons. This by its definition is two family zoning.

Let us drop the euphemisms and double speak and call this zoning legislation what it is. Lowell has been having its issues with the occupancy of single-family homes that may spill over into Dracut. Private development of student housing for the University has been converting single family homes into student housing. Massachusetts State Building Code permits five unrelated persons to occupy the same dwelling and still be considered a single-family residence.

How long will it be before the main dwelling unit has five students and the accessory dwelling unit has five students? Remember the new bill does not require either dwelling to be owner occupied. A single-family lot can have ten students renting ten bedrooms and there will be ten cars in the driveway (or on the lawn if there is not sufficient driveway space).

I had a discussion with Planning Board members from neighboring communities, one who was in favor of this legislation. Although well intentioned, I do not believe he understands the far reaching and unintended consequences.

While he argued that the residents can maintain their single-family homes and were not required to have accessory dwellings, he did not understand that zoning seeks to be what it is zoned. It seeks its equilibrium and communities have used zoning tools to develop and redevelop neighborhoods.

The likelihood of a property being converted from a two-dwelling property to a single-family property is negligible. Once a neighborhood starts down the path of two-family occupancy, the trend will be difficult to reverse.

Clearly every community and resident are struggling with the need for affordable housing. Dracut by some estimation is deficient on affordable housing by nearly two thousand units. Those who are house poor are included in the calculation. House Bill 4138 does more harm than good to the communities by mandating the effective elimination of single-family zoning. I somehow suspect that is the secret intension by the sponsoring legislator.

This bill should be rejected if it does not permit the accessory dwelling unit as a local option. Over the past few years, we have seen a very obtrusive legislature mandating local housing zoning. How long will it be before all local zoning is mandated by the State, and what will be the ultimate cost of the community? ◊