Creating More Accessory Dwelling Units (Support*)

Background: Last summer before I was elected, I signed a citizen petition to expand the number of “accessory dwelling units (ADU).” The so-called “Barrett Petition” was the subject of considerable debate when it came before the Ordinance Committee and Planning Board last fall, and several modifications have been suggested. Its intent, which I have supported all along, is to give homeowners more flexibility to reconfigure the legal living space, including at the basement level, within the existing structures, so as to add housing units without adding to the built environment.

Part A of the proposed ordinance would allow the owner of a single or two-family home, for instance, to create a small rental unit or in-law apartment to accommodate changing household size or financial needs. (It would not allow converting a garage or carriage house into an accessory dwelling unit; the ADU would have to be within walls of the existing home.) Currently only the owners of houses on above-average size large lots zoned Res A and built prior to 1940 may legally create accessory units (fewer that 300 properties in West Cambridge, Professors Row, and Avon Hill qualify for this privilege under current law). Part A would extend this option with a special permit to single and two-family owners in all zones on lots of 5,000 s.f. or greater, potentially creating as many as 1,463 properties without adding to the built environment.

Part B of the proposed ordinance is intended to align the municipal and state building and sanitary codes for finished basement spaces. Currently owners are allowed to finish basement spaces for use as family rooms or playrooms, but unless there is at least 7′ of headroom the space is not legally “habitable” (meaning it is not supposed to be used for sleeping, but we all know many basements are used in ways that do not meet the state building and sanitary codes and are potentially dangerous to the inhabitants). Those that finish legal basement spaces of 7′ and above are penalized because that space counts toward GFA, thereby limiting the amount of living space allowed upstairs. This incentivizes owners to finish basements without pulling a building permit, potentially posing other safety risks since the work is not inspected. The Barrett Petition would “unlock” finished basement spaces in single and two-family homes by excluding them from GFA.

Council Action: When the petition came before the Council for a vote during my very first meeting on January 11, DPW had only a few days before recommended a number of additional requirements, some prohibitively burdensome in my opinion, to protect residents of basement living spaces from flooding. In prior hearings CDD and the Planning Board had suggested requiring a parking space for the ADU among other changes and dropping the owner occupancy requirement since it is not required in the current ADU code. The petitioner (Patrick Barrett) had responded to these and other suggestions for changes in this document.The petitioner (Patrick Barrett) had responded to these and other suggestions for changes in this document. But DPW’s most recent concerns had never had a public hearing or debate until the January 11 Council meeting.

During the hearing there was a suggestion that we pass the petition as is but postpone its effective date until May 1 to work out some of the details of implementation. While underscoring in my remarks on the floor that I still support the intent and most aspects of the petition, I voted “present” because, especially for my maiden meeting, the process of passing a law with the provision that it might change before it went into effect seemed unwise. I didn’t want to endorse that as a way of voting on future zoning petitions that I might have greater qualms about ordaining without greater clarity. I did vote “yes” to the amendment for the four-month extension out of respect to DPW’s well-founded concerns, which had not been publicly debated before that night. I’ve since heard CDD’s leader Iram Farooq say that staff intends to petition the council for changes. Stay tuned!

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA