In his final State of the City address, Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini said the most critical challenge the city faces today is to provide enough housing for residents, which he called a “moral issue.” “To combat this, we’ve changed our zoning laws to allow for more housing and accessory dwelling units.”
When I look at what’s been going on in Haverhill in recent years, I see a city that “gets it” and has been adapting accordingly. There’s a truth we should get comfortable with: societies change over time. Populations will grow and resources will dwindle. We can adapt and change our ways of living – or we can let the world burn. At some point, vague, classist, and historically racist concepts like “neighborhood character” need to yield to pragmatic and necessary change.
We are in the midst of a “housing crisis.” Every year we fall far short of the new homes needed to keep up with population growth. Our failure has translated into higher rents and mortgages. I have yet to hear any councilor deny the existence of this crisis. Indeed, week after week, councilors have to deal with the fallout. Recognizing this problem, in July of 2020, Councilor Rourke and Councilor Nuon filed a motion asking the City Manager to Review Current Zoning Code for Areas to Increase Housing Availability. The fruit of that motion was a 40-page report published in March of 2021 tilted Zoning for More Housing in Lowell. The report recommended a number of proposed changes that would increase the city’s housing stock.
One recommendation, currently in the spotlight, is to legalize the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). An ADU is the official term for apartments built within a primary dwelling or in a separate detached building. Alternative names include in-law apartments, granny flats, and carriage houses:
This week, the Zoning Subcommittee met to discuss a proposed ordinance (revealed back in June of 2022)(it’s not too long – read it) that would allow ADUs in the City, by right, and subject to a number of restrictive conditions. I missed the live meeting due to work, but I watched the replay and caught much of the discussion on WCAP on Wednesday morning.
The Zoning Subcommittee is comprised of Councilor Yem, Councilor Leahy, and Councilor Drinkwater as Chair. Also in attendance (that I saw) were Councilors Nuon, Robinson, Jenness, Mercier, and Gitschier. The meeting featured an overview of the ordinance by DPD, followed by comments by councilors and members of the public.
The subcommittee members were reserved int heir remarks, preferring to clarify a detail here and there and let their colleagues and members of the public have their say. From the Council, I noted the following highlights:
Councilor Robinson: Has concerns about fire safety and does not like the idea of the proposed ordinance allowing for variances. Would like more info on how many properties in the city would be eligible for an ADU.
Councilor Gitschier: Opposes ADUs. Says we don’t need the ordinance as “we already have this” (more on this point below). Notes that the city already has enforcement problems and this will add to them.
Councilor Jenness: Notes that we already allow for ADUs, as noted by Councilor Gitschier, but only in one VERY small zone of the city. No resident in this zone has ever sought a permit for an ADU. Asks DPD how our ordinance compares to other communities and is advised that ours is generally more restrictive. Notes that our ordinance does not permit construction of new detached structures.
Councilor Mercier: Echoes Councilor Gitschier on the matter of enforcement. Cites perceived effect on neighborhood character. Wonders whether an issue on zoning change is properly before the Zoning Subcommittee.
Councilor Nuon: Notes the need for new housing but also recognizes the concerns stated by his fellow councilors. Urges careful deliberation and caution in our approach.
From the public there were three speakers in opposition and three in favor. Personally, I side with those speaking in favor. I don’t love the proposed ordinance as I think it’s watered-down and overly restrictive. However, perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good. The ordinance is a good first step and it’s certainly started a conversation. That conversation will continue in the coming months as the meeting was continued so that more members of the public can have their say.
If you’d rather not wait to hear what everyone has to say on this matter. I’ve taken the liberty of drafting an unhinged discourse with an anti-ADU straw man. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments.
Will ADUs solve the housing crisis and/or homelessness?
Nope. Not even close. ADUs are one tool of many needed to make a significant difference. It’s a low-key, incremental change. It would probably take years or decades to see a meaningful number of ADUs built.
If ADUs won’t solve all of our housing problems, then we shouldn’t allow them, right?
No. That’s stupid.
Housing is a game of musical chairs. Every new unit we create give someone else a “seat.” We should be doing everything we can to add seats:
I’m more concerned about where we put cars than humans – so what about parking?
Ah, it sounds like you never actually read the ordinance but have opinions on it. You could co-host a morning radio show. Lowell’s ADU ordinance has taken into account your parking concerns. If you add an ADU you are required to have an off-street spot. Happy now?
No, I’m still not happy and would like to speak to your manager. What about “rowdy” tenants?
The ordinance also requires owner-occupancy. If you don’t want rowdy tenants, the owner-occupier likely doesn’t either. Further, do you currently have a say in who moves-in next to you? Are you doing interviews and seeking character references? Do you give them a list approved music to play? Of course not.
Ok, I read the ordinance, but how are you going to ENFORCE it?
You could make the same argument about literally every law. Be honest, your objection isn’t based purely on enforcement. If we had a 100 member ADU Enforcement Division you’d still be opposed. By your logic, we shouldn’t have made the city-wide speed limits 25 MPH because we can’t enforce every violation.
Isn’t an ADU just another word for “APARTMENT?!!”
When you spit out “apartment” like it’s a slur, what are you really saying? Apartments are housing. We need housing. All types, for all people, at all income levels. Not everyone can or wants to buy property.
I’m hyperbolic and can only visualize things in unlikely extremes – won’t every house in Lowell have an ADU now? Isn’t this the end of single family homes?
It’s already legal to build swimming pools, tennis courts, and hot tubs for swingers. Does every house in your neighborhood have those? Why not? If ADUs don’t fit your needs or lifestyle, nobody is going to make your build one. Nobody is going to make you buy one either.
Single family homes will be fine. ADUs won’t prohibit you from owning or building a single family home. It gives homeowners the right to develop their property as they see fit.
Shouldn’t my Councilor have knocked on my door to seek my opinion on ADUs before we had a Subcommittee Meeting?
No. That’s crazy.
Won’t ADUs destroy “neighborhood character?”
What does that even mean? What counts as “neighborhood character” and who gets to define it? When was it defined? Are you talking about aesthetics? Income levels? “Other” demographics [wink]? If your concern is income level or demographics, you’re probably already in the wrong city. If it’s aesthetics, you can’t make your neighbors paint their house in your preferred color, water their lawn or plant flowers. You don’t have a vote in how many kids they have, how often they have guests over, or whether they park a shit-box in their driveway. I never hear “neighborhood character” arguments when someone adds a shed or a garage. In most places with ordinances, ADUs look exactly like sheds or garages. Look up the thousands of examples online. They’re designed to “fit in.” Further, the Lowell ordinance does not permit the building of new detached structures.
Housing is a regional issue. Why should we add housing when other communities won’t?
What they do in Weston or Wellesley or Wherever does not absolve Lowell of innovation and social consciousness. Also, fuck those places. We’re better than them. #lowellvseveryone.
Lowell is ripe for greedy investors, doesn’t this play right into their hands?
Re-read the ordinance and that part about owner occupancy. Also, nobody seems to care when outside investors come in to Lowell, flip a property and leave – we’ll even give them a tax break. ADUs are small in scale and allow Lowell families to remain in Lowell and spend their money in Lowell.
Won’t adding ADUs increase the value of houses and make them less affordable?
Renovating kitchens, adding bathrooms, and new siding can all add to the value of a home. Should we make those illegal too? Housing abides by market forces just like anything else. The free market has deemed ADUs as desirable. Moreover, a second market force that housing abides by is supply and demand. Increasing housing stock will lower prices. See musical chairs, above.
Well, I still don’t support ADUs.
Great. What do you propose?