A provision in the so-called “YIMBY Bill” before the state legislature that would legalize accessory dwelling units on all residential properties statewide is an excellent idea. But Beacon Hill should think even bigger.

For those who haven’t read all 11 pages of H.1379, the provision in question would make ADUs a by-right use – meaning you wouldn’t need a special permit from your local planning board or a variance from your community’s zoning board of appeals – on all residential and mixed-use lots. Towns and cities could still enact “reasonable” restrictions on ADUs within their borders like setbacks, dimensional regulations and short-term rental controls, with local regulations checked for “reasonableness” by the new Department of Housing and Livable Communities.

If enacted, at a stroke of a pen this could open huge opportunities for homeowners to add a rental unit on their single-family property aimed at family, friends or strangers. Hard experience on Cape Cod and in other communities shows how requirements for special permits and zoning variances effectively kill essentially all ADU construction. They’re too complex, lengthy and costly for individual homeowners or the smallest builders to navigate.

Minimum lot sizes for ADUs would also be banned, as would design criteria not applied to other residential buildings, owner-occupancy requirements and excessive parking requirements.

These are all sensible criteria and curb – with the exception of requirements that an ADU be rented to the owner’s family members only – what have become common ways towns and cities turn ADU legalization measures into dead letters.

But some refinements should be added, starting with a ban on parking minimums for ADUs within walking distance of transit service. Too many exclusive communities like Newton and Concord have girdled the MBTA train stations – served at great expense by the rest of the taxpayers in this commonwealth – that help plump up their property values with single-family zoning. That’s terrible urban planning, bad for the T’s finances and terrible climate policy.

We should also consider going even further, and explicitly legalizing more than one ADU per single-family lot. The sad truth of the matter is that, with the average homeowner’s capacity to develop their own ADU extremely limited, we need to open doors for small-time developers to help us densify our communities. This will help re-democratize the development business, but it’s also a concession to reality that we need to move faster to solve our housing problems than we would if we relied solely on homeowners’ initiative.

Our high housing costs are a humanitarian disaster, as Gov. Maura Healey’s homeless migrant state of emergency declaration, the latest Mass & Cass crisis and the latest rental figures for the state’s housing market reminded us last week. And, as many business and political leaders frequently point out, it’s a huge competitiveness disaster, too. It’s time to push the envelope even further on solutions.

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Go Bigger on Accessory Dwelling Units

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min