Taking Aim At The Housing Crunch

By: Tim Wood

With rentals expensive and difficult to find, the planning board is considering a zoning bylaw amendment to allow apartments in single-family homes. TIM WOOD PHOTO


Bylaw Would Allow Market-rate Apartments In Homes

CHATHAM – Like a number of other Cape towns, Chatham has a zoning bylaw that allows the creation of apartments within single-family homes, but only if they are affordable. The bylaw has generated zero units, most likely because of that restriction. Other towns have had the same result.

“In every case where that's done, there are no new units created,” said Stephanie Coxe, a consultant with the Smarter Cape Cod Initiative. The group, a coalition of organizations supporting the growth of the Cape's economy, is promoting a market-based solution that would allow anyone to create a separate apartment within an existing single-family home.

By increasing the number of available apartments, the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bylaw would, theoretically, lead to lower rental prices and help young people and families remain on Cape Cod. With a Cape Cod Commission model bylaw as its template, the planning board is developing a Chatham ADU zoning amendment that they plan to place before voters at the May annual town meeting.

Housing is the major impediment to young people staying on or moving to the Cape, Coxe said. It was cited as the top concern in a survey by the Cape Cod Young Professionals; the two- and three-bedroom homes on the market are too expensive, and there is a limited number of apartments, which are also often unaffordable.

The ACU bylaw allows the creation of a second separate dwelling unit within an existing single-family home and would be designed for working people who make too much to qualify for “capital A” affordable housing but not enough to afford to buy or rent on the open market today, Coxe told the planning board Nov. 28.

“They might be making a decent amount, but they're just kind of in that doughnut hole place,” she said. ADUs address a number of issues, such as helping aging seniors better utilize large homes, provide supplemental income to homeowners, repurpose existing housing and not use up open space or other undeveloped land for new housing. Accessory dwelling units are “a low-hanging fruit we can go after” to put a dent in the housing problem, she said.

The model bylaw includes provisions designed to keep ADUs from being rented on a seasonal basis or as Airbnbs, Coxe added, so that they are available to year-round residents. Other provisions address density and community character concerns.

With the average single-family home valued at more than $800,000 and year-round apartments renting for $1,000 to $2,000 a month, Chatham's housing problem is perhaps more acute than in other Cape towns. Planning Board member Robert Dubis said employees at his company, Robert Dubis and Sons, make good money, and almost anywhere else in the country “would be golden. Here, life is tough.” Coxe said she grew up on the Cape but currently lives off Cape because she can't afford housing here.

“Most people I know who grew up here are struggling just as much,” she said. “I certainly would not be working on this on a professional basis if I didn't believe it was going to make an impact on people that I know, on people that I grew up with.”

Dubis questioned whether allowing ADUs would lower the cost of housing in Chatham. His workers can afford rents of $800 to $1,200, but there are people here who can afford more.

“You live in Chatham, you're going to ask $1,800 and they're going to get it filled just like that,” he said. An incentive, such as a property tax break, may be necessary in exchange for lower rents, he suggested, but Director of Community Development Kathleen Donovan said any sort of price barrier will discourage owners from creating ADUs. The more units are created, she said, the more prices as likely to go down.

“The idea is that the more people who can take advantage of this, and the more units that get created, the more there is on the market, and therefore the lower prices get,” Coxe said. “It's not going to be overnight, not going to go down to what it was 10 years ago, but at the very least it's going to start to slow down the increase we've seen in the past couple of years.”

Likewise, the model bylaw doesn't recommend restrictions on lease duration; some owners may want shorter leases or tenancy at will to control who they rent to.

“There's so many different ways that people...here on the Cape are going to be potentially utilizing this, that if you put in a restriction on either what you can charge or what the income is around it, you're excluding all those people,” said Coxe.

Initially, it would be best not to place restrictions on ADUs, she said, but incentives to make units more affordable could be added later.

“Start as broad as you can, get as many people involved as you can, and then if you can build on top of that and get those people who will do it on an affordable basis” through some sort of tax offset or other mechanism, she said.

Planning Board Chairman Peter Cocolis ran the topic by the board of selectmen earlier in the day, and a chief concern was density. But Coxe noted that the bylaw does not allow more bedrooms than would otherwise be allowed under existing zoning or health regulations, an important consideration given the Cape's nutrient loading issues. An additional unit would be created by converting existing rooms in a home into separate living quarters with a separate entrance. She said the Cape Cod Commission found that in the 1970s and 1980s, Cape homes were occupied by three to four people per house; today that number is down to one to two.

“So we're not adding more people than were originally intended, we're just using that existing infrastructure,” she said. Local zoning would underlie the ADU bylaw, so protections against excess density or other abuses would be in place. “Anything normally triggered under town bylaws would be triggered by this,” she said. Towns are also expected to tweak the model bylaw – which has been approved in several towns, including Truro, Provincetown and Falmouth – to suit their own local needs.

The model bylaw contains provisions requiring that ADUs are secondary dwelling units and would not be larger than the primary living space. It also includes language designed to protect community character. The idea, Coxe said, is that ADUs be seamlessly integrated into existing houses, “so it basically looks like it's not even there.”

Planning board members will review the draft bylaw at their Dec. 12 meeting. Implementing the ADU bylaw is “something we should be able to do quickly” to alleviate the housing situation, Cocolis said, but he warned planning board members against getting too nitpicky. “We don't want the perfect to get in the way of the good,” he said. Creating as broad a bylaw as possible will make it more acceptable to town meeting, he added.

“We don't promise this to be a panacea for our housing situation,” Coxe said. “We look at it as one of the tools in our toolkit and something that is addressing a constituency that in many cases thus far has been left behind.”


Download | CCC ADU Bylaw.pdf (182kb)

Model ADU Bylaw