When Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll gave her State of the City a few weeks ago, her major focus was housing — and with good reason.
Housing prices are through the roof in Massachusetts, and Salem is no exception. Over the past 10 years, the median home price in Salem has increased by 30 percent, leaving both young families and senior citizens struggling to keep up with rental costs and keeping many out of the housing market here altogether. One of the key price drivers is that there isn’t enough supply to fill the demand; and if something isn’t done, it’s only going to get worse.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council projects that Salem will need to create 136 new units a year to meet the projected need in 2030. That’s a steep climb from the average 60 units a year the city has added since 2000.
To meet that goal, the mayor is proposing a package of housing policies. One of them, a loosening of restrictions on in-law apartments, will get a public hearing Monday, July 8, at a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Board. It would allow homeowners greater leeway in adding so-called “accessory dwelling units” and renting them to people other than relatives.
It’s an approach that has been gaining traction around the country, as communities where housing is expensive try to help homeowners who need extra income to pay the mortgage, and help renters who can’t find or can’t afford more traditional housing.
Washington, D.C., loosened its rules on in-law apartments in 2016. The year before, the city had issued only five permits for such apartments; in the first 10 months of 2018, it issued 40, and 50 more were under review, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Denver is in the midst of a five-year program to help finance and build more in-law apartments. And in 2017, California legalized such apartments pretty much everywhere throughout the state.
In Salem, Driscoll sees it as a way to increase the supply of moderately priced rental units, without big impacts on traffic or infrastructure. “The boost in income can help a young family buy their first home or make it feasible for a Salem senior on a fixed income to stay in their home and remain here in Salem,” she wrote to the City Council.
The city already has an ordinance permitting in-law apartments, but it’s so restrictive that only five people used it last year. The biggest change in the ordinance would be to allow in-law apartments to be rented to anyone, not just relatives. And it would allow them in all residential districts, not just single-family zones. In-law apartments would be allowed by right providing they meet certain criteria, including two onsite parking spaces, no net loss of trees, and no unit larger than 800 square feet.
The building inspector would enforce the rules, unless an applicant applied for a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to waive any of the requirements.
Allowing more in-law apartments is only a modest part of a larger housing strategy, but it’s an approach that has proved effective in other areas, and one that has the potential to help many residents of Salem, while having little impact on others. We encourage councilors and residents to keep an open mind and be willing to try something new.
Everyone complains about the high cost of housing. All too often, however, no one wants any change in their own neighborhoods. That’s an attitude that’s got to be adjusted in Salem and elsewhere if the area’s housing needs are ever to be met.