SALEM — Maybe the third time really is the charm... even if the bar has been lowered considerably.
City leaders kicked off their third attempt at passing an accessory apartment ordinance Tuesday night. The proposal, known more formally as “accessory dwelling units,” would allow Salem homeowners to build in-law apartments and rent them to anyone. The current ordinance requires that they be lived in only by relatives and caregivers, and that they be destroyed once the need for the unit dissipates.
It’s the third time the conversation has come before Salem’s City Council and Planning Board. It was rejected in 2019 by a 7 to 4 vote in favor, with a supermajority rule requiring eight members for passage. It was then reintroduced last year with changes from the earlier year’s deliberations, but it was tabled when it was clear the body wouldn’t get to eight votes in favor. Since then, Gov. Charlie Baker’s housing choice legislation cleared Beacon Hill and lowered the passage requirement to a simple 51% majority, putting the bar for passage at six councilors.
As the meeting closed, Ward 5 City Councilor Josh Turiel thanked everyone who spoke — even those he’s in conflict with.
“We’ve heard a lot of well-reasoned discussion tonight,” Turiel said. “In previous renditions of this, we’ve heard much more heated talk.”
The proposal being discussed has an affordability component baked in requiring that accessory apartments have rent capped at 70 percent of fair market rent. That would put current prices at $1,219 for a studio apartment, $1,347 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,635 for two bedrooms. Units would still be capped at between 350 and 900 square feet, and each lot can’t have more than one accessory apartment.
But public comment was quick to point out remaining issues that officials didn’t yet have answers to.
“There is no language or constraints as to who the affordable units are being rented to,” said Wisteria Street resident Steve Kapantais, indirectly referencing renters who can afford to pay much higher rent. “What good is it to create affordable ADUs if they won’t be delivered to the people who need affordability?”
Responding to that, Aborn Street resident Ben Johnson said he isn’t “terribly concerned about people who are well-to-do snapping these up. I’d be more concerned about people doing something like this to create Airbnb opportunities.”
Stephen Nickerson, a Cedar Crest Avenue resident, said he opposes the ordinance because of the stress that new units would put on city infrastructure.
“Why would we need more ADUs to just exacerbate the problem of our traffic and our infrastructure?” Nickerson said. “We have ... almost once a week a water main break, and that’s because we’re jacking up the pressure.”
James Davis, a Buffum Street resident and self-identified millennial, said he’s “lucky enough to also be a homeowner in Salem, and I look forward to to spending the decades to come in this community. I think the concerns about infrastructure are way overblown.”
The hearing closed after a little less than three hours, at which point the issue was sent to the city’s Planning Board for further review and recommendations. Those changes will go back to the City Council, which will then be required to vote within 90 days of the hearing closing Tuesday night — twice if it is to pass — else another public hearing will be needed.
Visit bit.ly/3uaZL7Y to read live coverage of this meeting.