While the state legislature waits for word on how much money it must return to taxpayers, it can cross one item off its list of unfinished businesses from formal sessions: legalizing ADUs. 

Accessory dwelling units, more commonly known by their acronym “ADUs,” are small rental units carved out of a larger house, converted from an outbuilding like a garage or built as a standalone, slab-on-grade structure. 

A measure included in the Senate version of this year’s infamous economic development bonding bill would have made any single-family-zoned lot 5,000 square feet or larger fair game for an ADU between 450 and 900 square feet, and barred towns from requiring more than one parking space for it. 

It’s the kind of common-sense, low-effort reform that should have already sailed through the legislature but which inexplicably hasn’t, despite years of warnings from activists, academics and business leaders alike that our state’s inability to build housing in line with demand is slowly choking our economy and society.  

On their own, ADUs won’t make up Massachusetts’ housing shortfalls. But they can begin to get communities comfortable with density and clean out the brain-rot in some quarters that makes some think single-family zoning is the highest and best form of the suburban built environment. 

Critics – some, no doubt, with bad intentions – will say ADUs are not worth the political hassle of tinkering with the single-family neighborhoods beloved of a minority of single-family homeowner “neighborhood defenders” who have the time and money to show up to weekday evening zoning hearings. Every Massachusetts town that has legalized them, they note, has not seen an explosion of ADU conversions and construction.  

These critiques overlook two things: Most existing ADU ordinances in Massachusetts come with restrictions, like requiring the unit to be occupied by the homeowner’s relative, that are designed to limit their appeal to empty nester homeowners looking for retirement income or a smaller home. And New Hampshire, which theoretically legalized them statewide a few years ago, did little to curb these kinds of rules intended to throttle ADUs’ spread. 

And with local governments demonstrably beholden to a vocal minority of homeowners who would rather set their neighborhoods in amber, to our collective detriment, this is exactly the kind of place where the state government should stand up for the common good. 

Given their extremely minimal impact on town services, infrastructure or the built environment, ADUs are the lowest of the low-hanging fruit that can be picked to address Massachusetts’ housing shortage. 

If this crop of state legislators can’t move ADU legalization forward, can we really trust them to take the more substantive actions still needed to move the needle on our housing supply crisis after the passage of the MBTA Communities zoning reform?  

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ADUs Should Not Be Controversial

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min