Why sell that ‘happy old house’?

Virginia and Bill Robinson created a caregiver suite in their Newton home.
Virginia and Bill Robinson created a caregiver suite in their Newton home.(Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe)

Virginia Robinson, 84, and her husband, William, 94, have lived in their 10-room Victorian house in Newton Centre for the past 46 years.

“It’s such a happy house,” Robinson said. “We love our happy old house.”

About six years ago, the couple determined the happy old house was too big and too much to maintain for the two of them, yet they didn’t want to move.

They looked into creating an accessory apartment — a small unit that typically has its own kitchen and bathroom, either inside or on the same property — but their lot wasn’t big enough to meet the city’s requirements for such a dwelling. Instead, they decided to set off two rooms and a bathroom to make a caregiver suite for tenants.


“This is not a replacement for an accessory apartment; it’s what we had to do instead,” Robinson said. “We’ve had tenants living with us for the past few years, and I cannot tell you how wonderful it’s been. But it would’ve been more wonderful if we could have an accessory apartment, because we could’ve had more choice in who lives with us.”

Robinson was one of many Newton residents to speak in favor of lifting restrictions on accessory apartments at a public hearing last month.

The City Council is considering an amendment that would make all owners of single- and two-family homes eligible to establish accessory apartments without a special permit. Sometimes known as “granny flats” or “in-law suites,” they are gaining traction in other cites and towns as a way to make housing more flexible and affordable in a prohibitively expensive real estate market.

In May, Cambridge allowed owners of one- and two-family homes to convert their basements into accessory apartments. The units still require special permits, but not zoning variances, which are harder to obtain.


Some Newton residents expressed concern that, if the city did adopt the amendment, there would be an influx of accessory apartments that would lead to overcrowding. But there has not been an influx of units in Lexington, where restrictions on accessory apartments were lifted this spring, said Aaron Henry, the town’s planning director.

“A few properties that were previously unable to create one, due to one or more of the criteria we removed, have come forward, but there has not been a surge in permitting,” he said. “I think accessory units are not as attractive as folks think they’ll be. Many places will talk a lot about opening the floodgates, but the reality is that accessory units are rare, even in hot markets.”

Representatives from the Cambridge Zoning Department did not respond to requests for comment about the number of units that have been legalized since the city adopted the change.

Accessory apartments can greatly diversify housing options for a population that’s in need of more affordable housing, said Eric Hove, acting director of strategic initiatives for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

The group put out a report two years ago that said about 435,000 units of housing would be needed in Greater Boston by 2040, mostly for young people and older people moving out of single-family homes.

“We strongly support accessory dwelling units as a housing production mechanism,” Hove said. “The vast majority of communities have some ordinance on the book, but they’re structured in a variety of ways so that many people can’t have them because of all the hoops that need to be jumped through.”


Newton has allowed some accessory apartments for nearly 30 years, but the existing ordinance sets minimum lot and building sizes that restrict where they can be constructed.

Since 1994, the Department of Planning and Development has approved 72 accessory apartments, making up less than 1 percent of all housing in Newton. The city estimates that between 600 and 1,000 illegal accessory apartments exist in Newton, and proponents hope the proposed amendment would help create a pathway for people to legalize their units.

The state has yet to successfully take on the issue. Last year, a proposal to allow the apartments in all areas zoned for single-family homes failed in the Legislature. There is currently a bill that would lift some restrictions on incorporating accessory apartments, but its sponsor, Representative Kevin Honan, a Democrat from Brighton, said it is unlikely to be acted on before the end of the year.

That means residents like Virginia Robinson have to wait for their own municipalities to take action on accessory apartments.

The couple’s suite consists of a bathroom, bedroom, and spare room with a separate entrance. Robinson said it is a legal unit for tenants, but not an accessory apartment, because it lacks the kitchen often included in such units. Even so, the benefits of their caregiving suite are invaluable.

“I can’t stress how important it is when we get older to have that kind of help,” she said. “It has made a major difference to have people we can rely on to help us financially by paying rent and helping us out around the house. Plus, it’s the most wonderful companionship.”


The caregiver suite at Virginia and Bill Robinson’s home has its own bathroom and a separate entrance.
The caregiver suite at Virginia and Bill Robinson’s home has its own bathroom and a separate entrance.(Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe)

Allison Pohle can be reached at