Almost everyone agrees that Connecticut has a shortage of affordable housing. We could lessen the problem virtually overnight. How?
These go by a number of names - granny flats, in-law apartments, secondary units or guest apartments - and usually involve creating an apartment on the third floor or back wing of your house or the second floor of your garage and then renting it, perhaps to a family member.
Sensibly regulated, these self-contained housing units make great sense. They add healthy density to a neighborhood or city. Homeowners can get an extra source of income, take care of a family member and gain increased security. For a graduate student or a young person just entering the workforce, an accessory unit can be a very useful housing option. It can be the kind of housing young workers need to take a job in cities such as Hartford.
So what's the problem?
They violate zoning laws. In most of Hartford's residential zones, and those of many other municipalities, accessory apartments violate rules against the number of residential units per lot.
My friend Toni Gold, an urbanist, consultant and frequent contributor to Place, has long been an advocate for accessory apartments. This year she finally confronted the fact that the century-old, two-story carriage barn behind her West End home was in need of renovation - "falling down," as she put it. The repairs would only make financial sense if she could build an apartment into the building to defray the cost.
This would violate current zoning law. Toni perhaps could have gotten a variance. But she instead decided to take a whack at the broader problem.
Last week, she met with John Palmieri and Roger O'Brien, the city's development services director and planner, respectively, and proposed a city ordinance that would allow accessory apartments.
Palmieri and O'Brien were receptive to the idea and asked for neighborhood input. The West End being one of the state's best organized neighborhoods, the zoning committee of the West End Civic Association will review the idea and make a recommendation to the association's board, which will forward its recommendation to the city.
Toni's been surprised at the support for the idea, but maybe she shouldn't be. There are already a bunch of accessory apartments in the West End. I'm sure they're all legal and no one seems to have a problem with them.
The key is how they fit into the existing properties.
Officials in Northampton, Mass., just up the road, began experimenting with accessory apartments in the early 1990s by allowing them in one part of town. By 1999, accessory apartments were allowed in all residential areas, said town planning director Wayne Feiden.
Granny flats in a single-family, owner-occupied home are allowed as a matter of right. Detached guest apartments require a special permit, because "they work in some places and not in others."
The accessory unit is limited to 900 square feet. There can be no more than three people living there. Each home can only have one front door, to keep the aesthetic of the neighborhood intact.
"It's really been no problem at all; everybody views it as a positive thing," said Mayor Mary Clare Higgins. "We're an expensive housing market. This has been a real benefit to tenants and to owners."
It's true that in some of the wealthy southwestern Connecticut towns, in-law apartments haven't stayed as affordable as they once were. Yet for a community such as Hartford, I have to think they make sense.
That Hartford and other cities don't allow accessory apartments is a remnant of early zoning, which attempted to separate uses, to get the houses away from the noxious factories or tanneries. But we've now come to realize that this often went too far, that mixed use - an apartment over a store, for example - is a good thing. By the same token, letting people have a third floor or garage apartment if they want one is also a good thing.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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