The Lowell City Council’s 18 month battle over Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) came to an end on Tuesday night when the Council rejected the proposed ordinance by a seven to four vote. This was a surprising reversal since from the beginning there had been a solid seven vote majority in favor of ADUs. That division had Councilors John Drinkwater, Wayne Jenness, John Leahy, Vesna Nuon, Dan Rourke, Paul Yem, and Mayor Sokhary Chau supporting ADUs and Councilors Erik Gitschier, Rita Mercier, Corey Robinson, and Kim Scott opposing them. Yet on Tuesday, Mayor Chau and Councilors Nuon and Leahy all voted NO.
From the start, there were residents from every neighborhood who were vocal in their opposition to ADUs, but the tipping point seemed to be the recent emergence of a well-organized group of opponents from the Belvidere neighborhood who distributed a flyer that called the ADU ordinance “the death of single family zoning” and hosted a meeting on October 14, 2023, at the Reilly School that was attended by several hundred opponents of the proposal.
Tuesday night, the drama surrounding ADUs was short-lived. Once the public hearing was closed, Mayor Sokhary Chau relinquished the chair and spoke from the floor of the Council. He concisely explained that since the forthcoming state housing bond bill, which Governor Maura Healey was to release the next day, reportedly contained a section on ADUs, it “seems foolhardy and imprudent” for Lowell to proceed with ADUs at this time, said the Mayor, adding that he would vote NO on the ordinance.
ADU opponents Corey Robinson and Rita Mercier spoke next, both reiterating their opposition to the proposal before them, with Mercier adding that the city was already plagued by a sewer system that caused frequent street flooding and overworked city inspectors who could not enforce existing ordinances let alone new ones like the ADU proposal.
ADU supporter Paul Yem spoke next, saying that the shortage of housing in the city and region is driving rents higher, and pointing out that this Council has already endorsed several other zoning changes to promote more housing. He said that residents of his district have big families and want to keep those families together, and that ADUs would be a way of doing that, but his constituents are hesitant to speak out on this or any other issue because of their experience with a brutally repressive government regime in Cambodia. He said he would vote YES.
ADU opponent Kim Scott reiterated the “this ADU ordinance turns every single family home into a multifamily home” argument, adding that the city is already failing to perform the rental unit inspections required by existing ordinances in a timely manner and adding ADUs would make that worse. She would vote NO.
ADU supporter John Drinkwater cited the forthcoming State Housing Bond Bill and its ADU component as “validation that we’re on the right track” by considering ADUs. He said former Governor Charlie Baker supported similar proposals, making this a bipartisan solution. He said it is difficult to implement these changes at the local level; that former Councils have tried and failed. He called the “death of single family zoning” language of the above mentioned flyer “incendiary” and intended to scare people for reasons that are not true. He closed by saying many other communities have adopted ADU ordinances and none have repealed them. He would continue to vote YES.
ADU opponent Erik Gitschier spoke next, repeating the reasons he opposed this ADU ordinance.
ADU supporter Vesna Nuon acknowledged the housing crisis and said ADUs were one small part of the solution to that. He said he had offered a number of amendments to address concerns, including limiting the number of ADUs to five per City Council district, to having a one year review of the ordinance, and requiring a certain amount of off street parking for each ADU. But he then said “we didn’t do a good job communicating this to all residents” and so some people were just hearing about it now. He said he agreed with the Mayor, that we need to step back and regroup on this so he would vote NO on the ordinance.
ADU supporter John Leahy spoke, saying that he has been for the ADU proposal but that in the past few weeks, more people have gotten involved in this issue and have expressed their opposition to it. He said the residents of the neighborhood he represents, Belvidere, have made their opposition to ADUs abundantly clear and he felt a responsibility to respect the wishes of his constituents so he would vote NO.
ADU supporter Dan Rourke said he understood both sides of the issue but he would remain a YES vote.
The Clerk then called the roll.
Voting NO on ADUs were Mayor Chau and Councilors Gitschier, Leahy, Mercier, Nuon, Robinson, and Scott.
Voting YES on ADUs were Councilors Drinkwater, Jenness, Rourke, and Yem.
As predicted by Mayor Chau, when Governor Maura Healey announced her $4 billion five-year housing band bill in Chelsea on Wednesday morning. ADUs were part of it. The relevant language is found in Sections 12 and 13 of The Affordable Homes Act.
Section 12 defines an Accessory Dwelling Unit as a self-contained housing unit on the same lot as a principal dwelling that:
- Has a separate entrance;
- Is no larger than half the gross floor area of the principal dwelling or 900 square feet, whichever is smaller;
- Is subject to additional restrictions as may be imposed by the municipality . . . provided that no municipality shall unreasonably restrict the creation or rental of an accessory dwelling unit that is not a short-term rental.
Section 13 states “No zoning ordinance or by-law shall prohibit, unreasonably restrict, or require a special permit . . . for the use of land or structures for an ADU or rental thereof in a single-family residential zoning district. . .”
This section does allow “reasonable regulations” by municipalities on things like setback, height, and plan review, however, it contains a couple of provisions that are more ADU-friendly than what was voted on in Lowell:
- The use of land or structures for an accessory dwelling unit under this paragraph shall not require owner occupancy of either the accessory dwelling unit or the principal residence;
- Not more than one additional parking space shall be required for an accessory dwelling unit; and provided further that no additional parking space shall be required for an accessory swelling located not more than 0.5 miles from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal, or bus station.
The Affordable Homes Act also includes $1.6 billion for maintaining and improving public housing and $1.8 billion for new housing, among many other grants and fiscal programs. In total, the Act is expected to create more than 40,000 new homes, including 22,000 set aside for low-income households and 12,000 for middle-income households.
Another provision of the bill which has received considerable media attention is a “Local Option Transfer Fee” which would impose a fee of 0.5 to 2 percent on real estate sales over $1 million. The tax would apply to the amount in excess of $1 million, so if a property sold for $1.2 million, the taxable amount would be $200,000. The money raised would be earmarked for affordable housing. It would be up to each municipality to adopt this part of the law.
Most states have long imposed a deeds excise tax on the sale of real estate. In Massachusetts, the tax is paid by the seller when the deed is recorded at the registry of deeds. The tax is assessed at a rate of $4.56 per $1,000 of sales price which is slightly less than half a percent. The tax applies to any amount above $100.
The proposed Local Option Transfer fee would work similarly, except it would apply only to amounts in excess of $1 million and it would be up to each community to (1) adopt the tax, and (2) set the rate of between 0.5 percent and 2 percent.
What would this mean for Lowell? From January 1, 2020, until June 30, 2023, there were 141 sales of properties in Lowell with a price in excess of $1 million. If the city had adopted a 1 percent tax, over the past three and a half years that would have generated $4.3 million for affordable housing, while a rate of 2 percent would have generated $8.5 million over the same period.
Whether the Affordable Homes Act, or parts of it, become law is now up to the state legislature. While residents of a community are just as capable of bringing pressure to bear on state senators and state representatives as they are on city councilors, the process of how legislation is enacted on Beacon Hill is murkier than it is at the local level. A lot depends on whether the leadership of the House and the Senate want something passed. If they do, it probably will pass. But at the state level, the vote that counts doesn’t immediately follow a public hearing in a packed hall filled with agitated voters. Instead, such votes occur at 2 am on the harried last day of the legislative session as part of some massive “omnibus” bill that includes something for everyone. Put enough desirable things in the package and most will support it, even if they have to hold their noses on some individual components of it. So notwithstanding Tuesday’s defeat of the Lowell ADU proposal, the city may still see these kinds of units in the future depending on what the state legislature does.
Someone recently pointed me to a travel blog called “Traveling Rauf” (written by a guy with the last name Rauf) that provided a list of the ten best places with canals in the United States. Here they are:
Best Towns, Villages, and Cities in the US with Canals
- Cape Coral, Florida
- Fort Lauderdale, Florida
- Canajoharie, New York
- Chesapeake City, Maryland
- San Antonio, Texas
- Lowell, Massachusetts
- Annecy, Michigan
- Birmingham, Alabama
- St. Augustine, Florida
- Portland, Oregon
It’s not so much a surprise as it is a relief to find Lowell on the list since it certainly deserves to be there but there’s always a risk that it gets lost in the noise of the internet since we don’t do as much as we should to celebrate the waterways in our midst. Here’s what the site says about Lowell:
Lowell, a charming historic mill town, is a great destination for those interested in learning about the area’s industrial history.
The town boasts a network of canals that powered mills in the 19th century, and visitors can enjoy a guided tour of these canals.
Take a trip to Lowell along the Canalways and Riverwalk for a fresh perspective! If you want to dig deeper, check out one of Lowell’s four themed walking tours.
Each tour explores a unique aspect of Lowell’s past and present, from its immigrant roots to its modern technological advancements.
And don’t forget about the importance of environmental change and preservation in shaping the city’s evolution. Get out there and uncover the fascinating stories that makeup Lowell’s rich history.
But that’s not all. There are also numerous museums, galleries, and restaurants to explore. Don’t miss out on discovering all that Lowell has to offer!
Thanks to everyone who attended yesterday’s Legends of Little Canada Walk which was led by Charlie Gargiulo and Bob Forrant. The basis of the tour was Charlie’s memoir, Legends of Little Canada, a memoir about growing up in that neighborhood in the early 1960s and the trauma he experienced when Urban Renewal forced his family and the families of all his friends to vacate their homes in advance of their demolition. I wrote a review of Legends a few weeks ago and the book is available for purchase online.