To increase affordable housing in Worcester, the City Council on December 12 amended the zoning ordinance to allow construction of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) by right. A proposed ordinance was unanimously approved by the Planning Board in November. After considerable debate, the City Council approved a modified version by a vote of 9-2.

Nicknamed “in-law apartments,” ADUs are not necessarily limited to occupancy by relatives of the property owner. An ADU is defined as a separate, self-contained apartment that may be within or attached to the principal dwelling unit (such as a basement apartment) or a separate structure on the same property (such as a converted, stand-alone garage).

Who Can Live in an ADU?

One of the most contested issues in the Worcester debate about the zoning change was who would be permitted to live in an ADU. Some Councilors argued for limiting occupancy to family members, such as in-laws, in order to prevent single-family neighborhoods from losing their character. That raised sticky questions about who constitutes a “family member” and how occupancy by family members, if required, would be enforced. The City Council rejected that restriction. The new zoning amendment does not require that the ADU tenant be related to the property owner.

Other concerns included the possibility of more congested on-street parking; the potential that ADUs will be used for short-term rentals (like an Air BnB) rather than as affordable housing; and whether the primary residence must be owner-occupied, in order to discourage investors from snapping up scarce single-family homes. The amended zoning ordinance does not include parking restrictions, but it does requires that the property owner occupy the primary residence, and it limits the size of an ADU to a maximum of 900 square feet.

Councilors also debated whether ADUs should be allowed “by right” (meaning no special permit or variance required) or, instead, be subject to review and approval by the City Planning Board. Proponents of the by-right approach successfully argued that this would minimize the time and cost of adding ADUs, thus boosting housing stock at a time when the market is very tight. (Note that an ADU still requires a plan that conforms to the standards specified in the zoning amendment and a building permit.)

Wording of the amended zoning ordinance dovetails with Governor Maura Healy’s proposed Affordable Homes Act, which includes ADUs and is intended to increase housing across the Commonwealth.

Image: Sean Foster