Many Boston homeowners with large enough basements and attics would no longer have to go before the zoning board to turn them into apartments under a proposal that could go before the city Zoning Commission next month for approval and inclusion in the city zoning code.
The "additional dwelling unit" (ADU) proposal, for which the city has run a pilot program in Jamaica Plain, Mattapan and East Boston for the past 18 months, is aimed at adding some more housing units - and at letting families and senior homeowners stay in neighborhoods they might otherwise no longer be able to afford due to rising property values and taxes. Mayor Walsh has included $650,000 in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 for no-interest loans of up to $30,000 for residents who meet income eligibility to help pay for the required work.
In order to avoid a six-to-eight month, $10,000 or so process to win zoning board approval - and to eliminate the need to meet zoning codes related to density and parking - these new units would have to be built within the existing footprint of a house, include a separate kitchen and bathroom, require homeowners to actually live in their homes and meet all city and state fire, building and sanitary codes, for example, the need for at least two exits.
Buildings with more than three units would not be eligible, nor would homeowners downtown and in the Back Bay, the South End, the waterfront and the Longwood Medical Area.
It's a more restrictive program than in other cities across the nation - and in neighboring Newton - where residents can actually add onto their existing houses. In Boston, residents who want to do that would continue to have to seek permission from the zoning board, after first trying to win approval from their neighbors.
Officials from the Department of Neighborhood Development, ISD and the BPDA tried to explain the proposal tonight before roughly 50 people tonight at the Hyde Park library.
ISD Commissioner Buddy Christopher pointed to South Boston, where many elderly residents have moved as luxury units march down Broadway; a program where they could share the increasingly pricey property taxes with a relative or tenant might have let more of them stay.
Although some of the people at the meeting agreed with Christopher and Marcy Ostberg, DND's director of operations, that the idea is a good one that would not fundamentally change their neighborhood, other Hyde Park residents expressed, sometimes loudly and angrily, to the point of raising new questions even before the city officials had finished answering their first questions, their belief that the proposal would lead to their neighborhood being overrun and ruined.
One resident said people in Hyde Park moved there specifically to get away from density and that "if I wanted to have 5,000 neighbors living within a block, I would have moved to Somerville."
Others noted that new people will bring cars to Hyde Park, because you just need a car if you live in Hyde Park, and asked where all those newcomers are going to park their cars. One resident worried about noise in general and from construction in particular; another resident raised the specter of her neighbor letting Jack the Ripper move in because she would have no say over who he rents to.
Ostberg, Christopher and the BPDA's Bryan Glasscock, however, said that even with removing the lengthy and expensive process to win zoning-board approval, the proposal just would not lead to lots of new units. Ostberg said that after 18 months, only 72 homeowners applied in the pilot in JP, Mattapan and East Boston, only of those 12 met all the code requirements - or found the financing or contractors - to get a permit and only 2 have actually finished the work and gotten certificates of occupancy. They said that even with the loans, the work to outfit a new apartment can be expensive.
Glasscock questioned why neighbors would be required to have any input about prospective tenants, especially since so many of them would be the homeowner's relatives. Adding one of the units "is no different than a kid coming back home (from college)," and nobody would think to confront a neighbor over that.
He continued that the requirement that the new units have the owner living in the same house is actually more of a safeguard than the zoning-variance route, which does not require the presence of a homeowner. "If I'm the owner, I'm not going to invite Jack the Ripper to move in with me," he said.
One resident sparred with Christopher over which one knows more about the city zoning code and thundered that the proposal "is costing me equity" because it would effectively turn all single-family homes into two-family homes, which he said just aren't worth as much. Christopher said the new units are not the same as those that a homeowner could try to win with a variance - for one thing, if the homeowner sells to a developer who has no intentions of living in the house, the property would lose its additional-dwelling-unit permit and the kitchen and bathroom would have to be ripped out.
In response to questions about how the city would enforce the new code provision, Christopher said the city would use software to monitor rentals to ensure homeowners are not simply adding units without permission - and that residents would continue to be free to drop a dime on their neighbors if they see something odd going on.
Ostberg said city officials began looking at expanding the pilot to most of the rest of Boston after receiving requests from homeowners in other neighborhoods - including Hyde Park. She said neighboring Roslindale has been the leading source of requests.
She added that one thing that surprised her during the pilot was that few owners of large Victorians in Jamaica Plain sought to carve out space from their existing living areas for new units.