Daily Hampshire Gazette – Housing activists push for a law that would legally allow accessory dwelling units

BOSTON — Housing activists and elected officials rallied Wednesday in support of a statewide rule allowing accessory dwelling units by law, and the state's top housing official gave his “opinion” on the timing of a key housing bill being introduced in the House of Representatives.

The ADU proposal is part of the $4.1 billion housing bond bill that Governor Maura Healey filed in mid-October. Administration officials estimate it could spur construction of more than 8,000 housing units within five years.

Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, called ADUs a priority for the nonprofit, which has advised the Healey administration on its comprehensive housing plan.

“We need all the tools we can get to build more housing across Massachusetts. ADUs are a no-brainer,” Kanson-Benanav told the News Service before a rally on the steps of the State House. “They're a way for homeowners to generate income and help elderly relatives, maybe family members with disabilities or kids returning from college. They're a low-impact way to create more housing in more communities.”

Secretary of Housing and Livable Communities Ed Augustus praised the work of AHMA, which advocates for zoning reform, transit-oriented housing, funding for public and subsidized housing, and tenant protections to prevent displacement.

Augustus told reporters he had heard the House would release its version of a housing bill in the “next week or two.”

“That's what we hear. I don't know exactly, but that's what you hear,” said Augustus.

A spokesman for House Speaker Ron Mariano declined to provide a timetable for the House's consideration of the bill, which is before the House Budget Committee.

Housing affordability and supply has been a major issue ahead of the 2023-24 legislative session, but a major bill has not yet been introduced in the House or Senate. To have a chance of becoming law, versions of the bill must pass both branches and a compromise must be reached by July 31.

Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, who like Augustus attended the roughly hour-long event, urged housing advocates – representing communities from various parts of the state, including Greater Boston, Western Massachusetts and the North Shore – to speak to lawmakers about the importance of ADUs.

“If we don't get additional housing units done, we're going to have to hang up our housing map,” Driscoll said. “We need to allow additional housing units in more communities to attract the kind of housing we need. That will cost the state nothing and will create an influx of housing. We need to think about how we can make sure that this bill is not watered down and that it has the strengths that we need to meet this moment.”

Establishing a statewide minimum standard for ADUs would help overcome the current patchwork of zoning regulations, Kanson-Benanav said. Healey's plan paves the way for ADUs that are legally less than 900 square feet.

“The industry of builders, designers and contractors who help homeowners build ADUs on their properties didn't emerge in Massachusetts because they don't have to be familiar with a uniform, statewide minimum standard, but rather potentially 150 or maybe 351 different ordinances,” Kanson-Benanav said.

Cathy Mercado, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership, lamented that an ADU ordinance was rejected by the Lowell City Council last year.

“We need to focus not so much on the suburbs — where some places have an ADU ordinance — but on the gateway cities. We really need to work on the gateway cities like Lowell,” Mercado said, referring to mid-sized cities considered ripe for economic growth. “ADU is a small fruit, you might think, but that's not true. We really need to do more advocacy.”

After graduating from college, Franklin City Councilman Cobi Frongillo said he could afford to move back to his hometown because his parents built a gated community. Frongillo said the community offered him privacy and dignity, allowing him to enjoy his own living space with a separate entrance.

“We need more housing. And we need more types of housing,” Frongillo said. “It's different types of housing — accessory housing units, public housing, subsidized housing, middle-class housing, duplexes and triplexes, rent vouchers and rent subsidies that will make this system work.”

There are about two months left for formal legislation in this legislative session. Driscoll told reporters her top legislative priorities are housing, economic development and the 2025 budget – three bills that most Beacon Hill insiders believe will pass by the end of July.

When asked how she could prevent a “watering down” of the government's housing bill, Driscoll pointed to events like Wednesday's rally that “bring people together.”

“The government is driving this, but there are also voices of people in communities that are suffering from housing shortages and unaffordability, who are trying to buy a home when they're on a good income or trying to stay afloat,” Driscoll said. “So it's affecting everyone – including the business community. They've been a key partner in this effort because they can't attract talent, and that probably wasn't the case three or five years ago, but it is now.”

In March, Mariano expressed willingness to consider a local option transfer tax on certain real estate transactions to increase the supply of affordable housing. Healey's proposal would impose a fee of 0.5% to 2% on the portion of a real estate sale that is above $1 million or the median sales price for single-family homes in a county, whichever is greater. Earlier this month, Mariano said the policy was “not as popular” as he thought and could prevent his industry from moving forward with housing legislation.

Driscoll stressed to reporters that the transfer fee is an important tool for cities and municipalities.

“This is a resource for them. It's a local option,” the lieutenant governor said. “We believe in it. That's why we put it in the bill and we hope it comes out in the end.”

Senator Jo Comerford and Representative Mike Connolly have introduced a bill for an alternative transfer fee structure that they say is aimed at encouraging the creation of affordable housing in communities where million-dollar real estate transactions are rare.

Augustus was asked on Wednesday whether he was open to suggestions for lowering the hurdle.

“We've proposed our version of the policy changes and funding that we believe will work, and we've laid out what the numbers would look like in terms of new housing units created or preserved,” Augustus said. “But we're always open to conversations about ways to improve or other ideas that could be thrown into the mix to further the goal of creating more housing and providing relief. So I think we're very open to conversations with lawmakers as they grapple with the bill in the coming weeks.”

Anna Harden

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