Inside Stories

Op-Ed: ADU’s No Threat to Single-Family Zoning and Will Benefit Our Community

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.

10 responses to “Op-Ed: ADU’s No Threat to Single-Family Zoning and Will Benefit Our Community”

  1. Corey Robinson says:

    I don’t oppose ADU’s but…….. allowing them on already undersized lots and in areas already with extreme density issues will have an impact.

    I don’t oppose ADU’s but…….. no site plan review requirement.

    I don’t oppose ADU’s but…….. People that struggle with the existing process can now become landlords without any education on responsibilities and rights.

    I don’t oppose ADU’s but…….. Neighboring towns don’t have close to the same density problems as we do.

    I’m glad this circus act is coming to a final vote on the 17th.

  2. Brian P Barry says:

    The author fails to mention:
    1) The ADUs he proposes are rentable on the open market. They are not restricted to family use. They are not in-law apartments.
    2) The surrounding communities allow ADUs that are restricted to family use not rentable and therefore are not two-families.
    3)The vast majority of people who have opposed the proposed ordinance favor ADUs which are restricted to family use allowing housing options for seniors who want to downsize.
    4) The writer ignores the distinction between ADUs which are restricted to family occupancy and ADUs which create two-family houses resulting in an even denser Lowell which is presently very dense.
    5) The writer fails to mention that any attached ADU on a lot larger than 7000 feet can be built with no review by the Planning or Zoning Board. You will have no input to what your neighbor is building.
    6) There has been no delay tactic by the opposition. In fact the process undertaken by the subcommittee was unknown to most residents of the City. Until residents spoke in opposition at the July public hearing the subcommittee had made only one change to the proposed ordinance over a 15 month time period in spite of suggestions in favor of family restricted ADUs reviewable by Boards.
    7) The Planning Board made up of men and women with years and in some cases decades of experience advised the City Council not to adopt this ordinance because there is no family restriction nor provision for notice to neighbors and Board review with certain exceptions.

  3. John Drinkwater says:

    This you?

    C. Robinson/C. Drinkwater – Req. City Council Begin Conversations Around Zoning And ADU’s With Focus On Potential Increase In Housing Stock.

  4. Josh says:

    Rentable on the open market? Think about how that would kill the vibes at my Belvidere tea parties and golf outings if we had renters (wink wink) move here from the rest of the city. The only way people should be able to move into Belvidere is if they can afford a $600,000 house or are lucky enough to be related to someone who can afford a $600,000 house (wink wink).

  5. Ryan Gilday says:

    As to “Family Restriction” –

    First – there’s no “hidden ball trick” on a family requirement. Councilor Drinkwater (and other supporters of this ordinance) never argued that ADUs should be family-use only, and I believe that Councilor Drinkwater explicitly stated multiple times that he would not support an ordinance with such a restriction.

    Second – It’s been stated in the Comments above that the Planning Board “advised the City Council not to adopt this ordinance BECAUSE there is no family restriction…” (emphasis added). The Planning Board issued seven recommendations – not one of them mentions “a family restriction.”

    You can read them all here:

    I’d also add that efforts were made and changes adopted to address many of the Planning Board’s concerns.

  6. Paul Riley says:

    Councilor Drinkwater, I truly appreciate your thoughtfulness and eloquence in this piece.

    Let’s just put aside the ordinance itself, and focus on the language used in the flyer described in this piece. “The Death of Single-Family Zoning.” The thing about zoning is: it is not a living thing. Human beings live and die. Zoning is nothing more than a legal concept.

    We are living in terrifying times, and I do not diminish any person’s fears and worries about the future. We have seen tremendous loss of life – especially in the past few years with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is truly amazing that we all continue to get up and keep moving in the aftermath of such a devastating experience.

    We want so desperately to live long, healthy, happy lives. We want our children and the next generation to also live long, healthy and happy lives. But we must recognize how easily our fear and uncertainty can manifest in harmful, antagonistic, hyperbolic rhetoric.

    It is hard to get people invested in fighting a thing you don’t like with calm, rational talking points. It is incredibly easy to turn people against that relatively mundane thing by throwing around words like “death.” But why do you need to fight this so much?

    Going back to the ordinance itself: I think many homeowners are scared of losing control. It’s right there in Brian’s comment: “You will have no input to what your neighbor is building.” Why should I have input in what my neighbor builds? Why should I limit someone else’s life if the things I’m limiting do not threaten my own?

    If you are scared, if you see the ADU ordinance as a threat to your existence…please reflect on that. I’d humbly wager that there are deeper issues to process than someone building an ADU in their backyard. And those issues are things we can work on as individuals, with our families, and as a community.

  7. Brian Meade Jr says:

    Regarding C Robinson’s comments:

    “allowing them on already undersized lots and in areas already with extreme density issues will have an impact.” — Lot size and area density are subjective yet he ignores that pro-ADU councilors compromised with an amendment to restrict ADUs to single-family lots 7k square feet or greater. Setback requirements would still have to be followed. Single family lots in these neighborhoods could easily accommodate 5 ADUs per year.

    “no site plan review requirement.” — The site plan review process is meant for non-residential structures greater than 10k sq feet, residential structures with 4+ dwelling units, or single-family subdivisions with 4+ homes. ADU structures can only be up to 900 sq feet. Site-plan review would be unnecessary and burdensome for the both the applicant and the planning board.

    “People that struggle with the existing process can now become landlords without any education on responsibilities and rights.” – This is one of the most bonkers anti-ADU statements I’ve seen. Is C Robinson is saying his constituents are not-to-be-trusted idiots? Out-of-town investors don’t have to take a course or test to become a Lowell landlord. Nobody is forcing anyone to build and operate an ADU. Let the good people of Centralville decide their housing situating for themselves. No one wants to live in a nanny state.

    “Neighboring towns don’t have close to the same density problems as we do.” –You effectively banned ADUs in our dense neighborhoods by requiring them to be on single family lots greater than 7 sq ft. The neighborhoods with single family lots greater than 7k ft, such as in Christian Hill, Upper Belvidere, Upper Highlands, etc., have much similar density with surrounding towns than they do with Back Central or Lower Centralville.

    As to “family-restriction” – This is unreasonable for several reasons. It discriminates against property owners that would like to live in or rent an ADU but don’t have family. It also discriminates against non-related renters.

    Furthermore if someone builds an ADU for an aging parent who then dies the ADU mortgage doesn’t die with it. Being able to rent the ADU to anyone is only fair. Given the owner-occupied stipulation the vast majority of ADUs will be rented to family-members and good friends. You currently can’t force your neighbor to live only with relatives so trying to with ADUs would be a huge overreach – no one wants to live in a nanny state.

  8. Joseph Boyle says:

    The claim that the suburban communities around us limit their ADUs to family is simply false. No, they do not.

    In practice, the law requiring ADUs to meet current zoning is going to make them almost impossible in the city’s traditional neighborhoods. It’s the large-lot suburban districts where they’ll be built.

    Belvidere has some amazing old ADUs, converted carriage houses for the mansions. Nobody has ever had a problem with them.

  9. Carolyn Hutchinson says:

    Vote for this and your political career will be over! We will vote out any people who are in favor of this! You want housing convert an abandoned building and clean up this town!

  10. lise says:

    Hello – just wondering, regarding the limit of 5 per year per district, how will that be determined? First come/first serve? I am still undecided. Thank you.

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