You Guest It: Demystifying ADUs

Affordable housing.

There’s a lot of misinformation about Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), which will create more year-round housing by making it easier for homeowners to build and rent out in-law apartments. Let’s clear up a few things:

Myth: This is a drastic change to zoning and our neighborhoods, adding density, and overcrowding homes.

Reality: ADUs are already allowed under existing zoning and have been for hundreds of years. Drive through any older neighborhood and you’ll see carriage houses, above-garage apartments, and additions that blend into the architecture of the main home. ADUs do not add density because no more bedrooms or additions would be allowed than what homeowners can already build under current zoning. There would be no more people than currently allowed, and less people than in summer rentals.

Myth: ADUs will add to our wastewater and infrastructure needs.

Reality: ADUs are nitrogen neutral. Homeowners aren’t allowed to add any more bedrooms than they can already build right now. The only difference between an ADU bedroom and any other bedroom is that it’s being used by a year-rounder, as opposed to seasonal visitors who might pack it with multiple people per bedroom in the summer, when wastewater is worse. Why would we pick on year-rounders and put more hurdles in place for them to be here than seasonal people?

Myth: Neighbors are losing local control; ADUs should all be permitted by special permit.

Reality: Special permit process means increased costs in attorney fees, engineering and architecture modifications, all before a shovel has gone in the ground. These are local year-round homeowners, not big developers with big pocketbooks.

Neighbors are gaining protections while homeowners are gaining a simplified process. It requires the same process and notification to neighbors as required for any other addition or new structure. A homeowner can’t build anything under this bylaw that they can’t already build; the only difference is they can rent out a portion year-round as opposed to renting out the whole house on a short-term basis.

Myth: The bylaw can’t be enforced and it would lead to more summer rentals and Air BnB rentals.

Reality: The bylaw expressly prohibits short-term rentals and has a minimum 12-month tenancy requirement. With the passage of the new short-term rental taxation law, the town will have the ability to monitor short-term rentals and can easily cross-check any ADU addresses with short-term rentals.

Myth: Not putting rent control in place means the units won’t be affordable.

Reality: Affordable housing advocates support this bylaw change because they recognize ADUs aren’t a good tool for affordable housing but they are a good tool for adding market rate rentals, of which we have a drastic shortage. We’ve proven in Chatham that rent control for ADUs doesn’t work: not one single unit has been created under the existing affordable ADU bylaw. The homeowner must be able to charge an amount that allows them to pay off the cost of the addition or renovation. Studies show most homeowners rent an ADU at slightly below market rates because they prefer keeping a good tenant.

Myth: Without a deed restriction new owners of home with an ADU won’t know the law.

Reality: When you buy a home, the attorney has to do a title search and know the zoning bylaws. We can’t put every zoning bylaw into the deeds of people’s homes. The law follows the home, not the homeowner. If it didn’t, the new owner of a property could subdivide their lawn or put an industrial business on the property. Again, the town will be able to monitor use of the ADU.

Shirley Smith is a member of the Chatham Housing Authority and chairman of the affordable housing committee.