Tonight the City Council will take up a proposed re-write of the Accessory Apartments rules.  Hearing is at 7:45 at City Hall.   Here’s the draft of the proposed ordinance and here’s a list of Frequently Asked Questions.

In recent years, development projects have been among the contentious issues in the city.  I’m hoping that liberalizing the rules for Accessory Apartments may be an issue that the otherwise warring pro/anti development folks can find some common ground on.

Accessory Apartments are separate apartments attached to owner-occupied single family homes.  That “owner occupied” is a an especially important element.   Often these sort of apartments get created for family members – elderly mother or father or young adult daughter or son.  In other cases a homeowner may create one to rent, to help subsidize their own living expenses.  In all cases, the homeowner is living in very close proximity which should allay neighbors fears that an accessory apartment won’t be rented to problem tenants that raise hell in the community.

Under our current rules Accessory Apartments are only allowed based on plot size.  If you have a big house/plot you can create an apartment for your nanny but if you have a small house/plot you can’t create an apartment for your granny.  In small plot neighborhoods like mine (Upper Falls) and others (Nonantum) this effectively rules out most legal accessory apartments.  The keyword there is “legal”.  There are already plenty of accessory apartments in those neighborhoods but they mostly fly under the radar and have no oversight.   That’s a significant problem since there are various safety issues that should be addressed when adding a separate apartment – most importantly, an additional exit.

In a lot of the development fights in recent years, many of those who have been outspokenly against specific new developments have been keen to point out that they are sensitive to the issues of spiraling housing costs but they don’t want to lose the character of the Newton they love with big new apartment building.  Accessory apartments are a great answer to that – no big new buildings, the layout and scale of our neighborhoods stays the same, while we can increase the supply of inexpensive housing – particularly for families who already live here and are dealing with their own family issues.

More importantly, accessory apartments provide a way for elderly residents to age in place, provide ways for our neighbors to look after their own aging relatives, and allow struggling homeowners a way to supplement their income.

My own house is a case in point.  It’s a small (1200 square foot) house on a small Upper Falls sized plot.  Two owners before us there was a young family that moved in.  After a few years, the 40 year old husband died.  His wife stayed close to her mother-in-law.  When the mother-in-law was elderly, she set up a granny flat for her in our house and she lived there for many years after.  We can still see various traces of that in the physical house today – the circuit breaker for our laundry room is labeled “ma’s kitchen”.  Enabling this kind of housing is a great thing.  Forcing homeowners to either forgo taking in their mother-in-law or skirt all rules to do so is not.

If you care about the issue, head on down to City Hall tonight for the public hearing.