Across Massachusetts, the zoning rules are meant to keep strangers away — and they’ve succeeded all too well. In a bunch of towns in Eastern Massachusetts, they’re even freezing Grandma out.
In a study released this week by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and the Pioneer Institute, researcher Amy Dain looked at how 100 cities and towns surrounding Boston regulate so-called granny flats or in-law apartments — the accessory dwelling units often carved out of single-family homes or situated behind them.
In an era when the average household is shrinking, owners of single-family homes could use the flexibility to repurpose some of their space. Meanwhile, granny units are a nod to the kind of multigenerational living that used to be common in the United States. “They’re virtually invisible and highly dispersed,” Dain said. Plus, they don’t require new streets and utility hookups.
And yet zoning rules made no provision for granny units in about a third of the towns she examined. In many other communities, these apartments were officially legal but subject to restrictions that made them nearly impossible to build. In the average town where the units are legal, authorities are only permitting 2.5 of them per year.
Governor Charlie Baker has proposed legislation that would make it easier for cities and towns to ease up on zoning, and he would offer incentives to those that do. Yet the housing shortage is dire; metro Boston communities allow about 5,500 fewer units a year than are necessary to keep up with growing demand. Waiting for towns to voluntarily come to their senses won’t be enough.
Modestly curbing towns’ near-sacrosanct power to say no — for instance, by allowing more homeowners to build granny units under state law — would help close the gap. As it stands, the reflexive opposition to new housing in many communities is corrosive to normal human relations. It prompts municipal officials to treat new schoolchildren as a scourge rather than the future of society, and invites neighbors to make a big deal out of overblown threats. The sky won’t fall if Grandma — or even a total stranger — moves into an accessory unit out back.
Legalizing more housing makes communities more livable for people of all ages. For many suburban empty-nesters, the plan was to sell off the three- or four-bedroom house, buy a modest condo, and live off the difference. The catch, as a Globe Magazine article recently pointed out, is that people are now struggling to find smaller, more affordable dwellings in the towns they’ve lived in for decades. Condos and apartments are scarce, and therefore expensive, because so many communities have spent decades discouraging multifamily housing.
The state Senate has signaled that it’s open to a comprehensive zoning overhaul. Speaker Robert DeLeo’s House of Representatives sees no particular urgency in addressing the problem. With the end of the legislative session fast approaching, the House — far from putting more teeth in Baker’s bill — has just been sitting on it.
Meanwhile, the housing market never rests, and the flow of newcomers continues. Between 2010 and last year, the metro area’s four core counties added nearly a quarter of a million new residents. Out of an inferiority complex, lifelong residents of the region don’t think of Boston as a growing place, so we don’t plan for it.
DeLeo can be a hero if he wants. Having worked closely with municipal officials on other issues, he’s in a great position to take them aside and tell them: Stop the anti-housing scaremongering. You’re being ridiculous, and you’re hurting people. As of now, the lack of action is sad, even embarrassing. If some outside force — an epidemic of fires, or a plague of frogs — were squeezing the poor, stranding the elderly, and denying the young a foothold in Massachusetts, lawmakers wouldn’t just sit back and let the problem run its course.