Our View: A Housing Opportunity

Anyone can rent a room in their home, but while its not unusual for seniors to do so as a way to supplement their income, provide in-home personal care or just companionship, it's not the ideal solution for most young people who want a place of their own. It's debatable whether separate apartments in single-family homes would be more ideal, but the idea of allowing additional units within existing houses as a way to take a bite out of the housing crunch is one that deserves serious consideration.

The Chatham Planning Board is currently considering adapting a Cape Cod Commission model bylaw allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU), essentially separate apartments, in any single-family home. As written, the model bylaw is relatively broad; there are no restrictions as to duration of leases or – more importantly – rental amounts. Previous attempts to increase affordable apartments by allowing them in single-family homes in Chatham and other Cape towns have resulted in few, if any, new units being created. Homeowners who may be willing to carve out an apartment – in their basement or by remodeling a few spare rooms – don't want to be told who they have to rent to or how long they can rent for. Restrictions don't work, and this proposal recognizes that, while including provisions aimed at protecting “community character,” such as adhering to underlying zoning and health regulations so as not to increase density or create more than one rental unit on a property in addition to the main dwelling.

Because it's designed to be a market-base solution, the ADU bylaw is not perfect. While the idea is that creating more units will lower the overall cost of rentals, Planning Board member Robert Dubis has a point when he notes that Chatham homeowners may see this as a way to simply charge the going rental rate in town – $1,000 to $2,000 per month – since there are those willing and able to pay it, and therefore not help the struggling workers and small families the bylaw is aimed at assisting. It may take a while for the inventory to build up before it has an impact on rental rates. But with few opportunities to otherwise create apartments in town (they're chiefly limited to units ancillary to commercial space) and very little chance that the cost of single-family homes will become more realistic, the ADU bylaw may be the best chance to increase the stock of mid-range housing. We look forward to the planning board bringing their bylaw amendment to the floor of town meeting, where the debate promises to be lively.