SALEM — When the mayor gives her State of the City address Monday, she'll discuss a zoning change that could provide a surge of rental housing across the city.
City planners recently drafted a new set of proposed rules governing "accessory dwelling units", otherwise known as in-law apartments, in all residentially zoned parts of the city. These rules would remove many restrictions on the apartments, essentially allowing them to be rented out like any other apartment.
The rules were submitted to the City Council on June 13, and they'll be discussed by Mayor Kim Driscoll during her speech Monday Workbar, 120 Washington St., at 7 p.m. Driscoll is also planning to address transportation issues, education and ways to combat the ongoing impacts caused by climate change.
In-law apartments are already allowed in single-family zones around Salem, but they come with some stiff restrictions. First, they can only be lived in by a family member of the property owner or a caregiver and they must be removed when the "tenant" leaves or the home is sold. They're also currently prohibited in all other residential zones.
Under the newly proposed rules, in-law apartments could be created without zoning board approval (by right, in other words) in any residential zone, if they met certain parameters. That includes a maximum of 800 square feet in size, doesn't cause a net loss of trees on the property and provides adequate parking on-site.
Even further, anyone could live in them, according to Driscoll.
"We've been working to create policies that will facilitate more housing options in Salem, particularly for residents struggling to meet rents that are rising way faster than incomes," she said. "As part of this, we've been looking to convert the old church properties as well as looking at inclusionary dwelling units."
If a proposed in-law unit has less than two parking spaces, would cause a net-loss in trees on the site or the size of the unit exceeds 800 square feet, a special permit would be needed from the zoning board.
Driscoll pointed out that the impetus for changing the rules on in-law apartments came from the city's housing-themed forums from earlier this year.
"This was one of the top-ranked items," she said. "This proposed ordinance reflects those forums and discussions."
Work on the ordinance was begun by the board for the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, according to city planner Amanda Chiancola.
"We know we need housing, so accessory dwelling units have a lot of potential to create moderately priced rental units, which we desperately need in Salem," Chiancola said. "In its current form, we aren't going to get the units because of the limitations on family members and caretakers."
The ordinance has two ways of helping folks in Salem, according to Chiancola.
"You may create a unit for, let's say, your grandparent, and then your grandparent passes away or no longer needs the unit. You put an investment in your home and have to remove the unit under the current ordinance," Chiancola said. "Under the proposed ordinance, you can rent it out and create a stream of income."
At the same time, the units give people an in for living in Salem when the housing market is becoming pricier and pricier, moving further out of reach for many people.
"It's for folks who need just a small unit. There are some folks who don't need a big house or a 1,500-square-foot apartment," Chiancola said. "They just need a small, 800-square-foot home. It helps them, and it also helps the person who owns the home by having that boost in income."
The proposed ordinance does prohibit using these in-law apartments as short-term rentals for lodging sites like Airbnb. The owner of the property must live on-site as well.
Breaking with tradition
As for Driscoll's State of the City address Monday night at Workbar, it will again buck years of tradition in which the speech would be delivered in the City Council chambers at City Hall. The speech is also traditionally held early in January. Last year, Driscoll gave her remarks in the main atrium at Peabody Essex Museum on New Year's Day.
Workbar is a new collaborative work space recently opened in the old City Hall Annex space at 120 Washington St. The Workbar location's opening was coincidentally timed with the closing of a similar spot at Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, where the company previously leased space from Staples.
"When you think about Workbar, it's a symbol of the new economic activity we're seeing," Driscoll said. "It isn't a traditional office environment, but it's creating a lot of jobs, and I think there's a lot of economic activities derived from Workbar and shared working spaces."