by City Councilor John Drinkwater
Later this month, many of our youngest residents will fan out across the city seeking treats at your door, and perhaps trying to give you a good-natured scare. When it comes to scares though, even the creepiest costumed trick-or-treater has nothing on the group of residents that were traversing certain Lowell neighborhoods this past weekend, dropping off leaflets warning of “The Death of Single-Family Zoning.”
And the murderous culprits seeking to “transform your neighborhood by allowing conversion of single-family houses to two-family houses?” I guess that would be the majority of City Councilors (myself included) who have advanced a proposed ordinance for a potential vote next week that would allow for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in Lowell.
Please, do not believe these hyperbolic scare tactics about ADUs, or in-law apartments as they are more commonly known.
As defined in the proposed ordinance, an ADU is an independent living unit that includes a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living space that may be contained within or attached to a single-family residence, or within an existing accessory structure such as a detached garage. Importantly, unlike a two-family house, a home that includes an ADU must continue to maintain the size and character of a single-family home, including all existing zoning requirements, and must be owner-occupied.
Allowing for ADUs in Lowell can help us add desperately needed rental housing units to address our affordability crisis, provide housing options for seniors who wish to downsize, and bring us in line with surrounding communities including Tyngsboro, Dracut, Tewksbury, Billerica, Chelmsford and Westford, among many other communities that allow ADUs.
Unless anyone cares to make the argument that single-family zoning is officially dead in these distinctly suburban communities, most of which have allowed ADUs through their zoning code for decades, then the claims that ADUs equal the end of single-family zoning are exposed for what they are – overheated rhetoric aimed to thwart a common-sense step towards addressing our housing crisis.
Also missing from these extreme arguments against ADUs is any evidence from our surrounding communities, or even from other Massachusetts cities that have more recently passed ADU ordinances such as Salem, Haverhill, Medford, or Revere, that ADUs have had a negative impact. While those communities, as well as states like New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut that have recently passed laws requiring local approval of ADUs faced some initial pushback as well, the horror stories have simply failed to come to fruition.
Lowell is suffering from the same challenges as these other states and localities that have already taken action. More than half of Lowell residents are renters, and of those, more than half are rent-burdened – meaning more than one-third of their household income goes towards housing costs. Contributing to this cost burden is the fact that Lowell consistently falls short of the amount of new housing production needed to meet demand. ADUs alone will not solve this problem, but allowing them is an incremental change that can modestly add housing units over time, without disrupting neighborhood character. They also provide a good housing alternative for families who wish to keep aging relatives close by, while allowing seniors to downsize and maintain their independence, and freeing up larger primary dwellings for younger families. That’s why the AARP supports ADUs.
Through the year-plus of public meetings that have occurred on ADUs at the Zoning & Housing Subcommittees, the Planning Board, and the full City Council, many residents who spoke in opposition stated that they do not oppose ADUs per se; just the current form of the ordinance, and that the process ought to slow down so the Council could consider changes. Since that time, the City Council has spent several more hours discussing the topic, including a three-plus hour special meeting so that every Councilor had the opportunity to bring forward as many amendments as they wished, with several substantial changes being adopted.
These changes, which make the ordinance significantly more restrictive than originally proposed, include stricter off-street parking requirements to equal one parking spot per bedroom; a limit of two bedrooms; a special permit requirement for detached ADUs; a special permit requirement for an ADU on any lot smaller than 7,000 square feet; a limit of 5 ADUs per year in any City Council district; and a limit on the amount of rent that can be charged at no more than 70% of the area’s Fair Market Value (pending approval by the state legislature).
Despite these compromises, and despite the fact that most opponents of the ordinance stated they didn’t oppose ADUs outright, supporters of ADUs are now accused of killing single-family zoning and drastically transforming neighborhoods. As has been deftly pointed out by others on this site, for some, the “I don’t oppose ADUs, but…” argument was always just a delay tactic, and now that a vote is imminent after more than a year of discussion, the veneer has simply come off.
To residents who are understandably concerned about the dire warnings delivered straight to your front door, let me say this: as a homeowner in a single-family neighborhood that I love, plan to stay in, and would not want to change, I have thought long and hard about ADUs and believe they will benefit our community – for those who wish to join us as neighbors, and for those who wish to stay in the neighborhoods they love. I hope my colleagues will join me in voting Yes.