At Needham’s May 1, 2023 Town Meeting, members will consider an amendment to the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) bylaw which has been in place since 2019. To date, Needham’s brief history of ADUs has yielded 12 units over the course of more than 3 years, which is on par with all of our neighboring towns and cities. The total number of ADUs produced has remained consistently modest.
Warrant Article 18 seeks to relax Needham’s current ADU restrictions, which limit occupancy to a caregiver or family member and do not allow for the opportunity to rent. The amendment would create more flexibility for a small number of Needham residents to be able to stay in their homes, solve a particular family health or housing concern, and/or provide added financial support through rental income.
Below is a series of FAQs and responses submitted by Oscar Mertz and distributed by Equal Justice in Needham that may help answer your questions and explain the opportunities that a more relaxed ADU bylaw would provide for Needham residents. See also the ADU Benefits for Needham flyer.
ADUs are a small but important step in reducing carbon emissions, allowing efficient use of resources and existing infrastructure while providing flexible and affordable housing options. Please ask your Town Meeting representatives to support the ADU amendment. You can send a group message to your precinct’s Town Meeting representatives here. (If you’re not sure of your precinct, you can consult Needham’s precinct maps.) Also, here is the Town Meeting Member Listing (PDF)
1. What is an Accessory Dwelling Unit?
An ADU is a small apartment or housing unit on the same lot as a single-family home and is frequently referred to as an “in-law apartment.” The ADU is a second, self-contained dwelling unit and a complete, separate housekeeping unit containing provisions for living, sleeping, cooking and eating. (Maximum: 900sf/1 bedroom)
An ADU can be attached or detached from the principal dwelling and the ADU shall be subordinate in size to the principal dwelling unit on a lot and shall be constructed to maintain the appearance and essential character of a single-family dwelling or a single-family dwelling with an accessory building. They are owned, bought, and sold together with the principal dwelling on the lot, and at least one of the units on the property (either the ADU or the “principal dwelling”) must be owner-occupied.
2. Who is allowed to live in the ADU and / or the “principal dwelling”?
Occupancy of the unit that is not owner-occupied shall be limited to a member or members of the owner’s family or a caregiver and such caregiver’s family or a lessee and such lessee’s family; provided that occupancy of the principal dwelling unit and the ADU combined shall be limited to five persons who are not family of the owner and occupancy of the ADU shall be limited to three persons.
3. What are the benefits of ADUs for Needham?
A Livable Community for All Ages:
- To facilitate low-impact, sustainable housing production, diversity of housing choice and affordability in our neighborhoods that don’t require expansion of the Town’s infrastructure.
- To increase the number and type of housing options to accommodate evolving lifestyles and multi-generational living.
Diversity and Inclusion:
- To allow older adults to remain in Needham by providing a potential income stream, enabling sharing of a home with the next generation, and making home maintenance and mobility easier.
- To allow greater opportunities for smaller families, young professionals, and Needham’s workforce to become part of the community.
- To better accommodate adult children and people with disabilities.
- To more efficiently use energy, water, materials, and the Town’s infrastructure by increasing the Town’s housing supply through focused, small-scale development.
- To advance the town’s climate action goals by facilitating lower carbon footprints for residents.
Existing Housing Preservation:
- To allow homeowners to stay and maintain older homes and accessory structures which helps preserve the existing character of the neighborhood and can be an alternative or delay to the teardown and replacement option.
4. Do other communities in Greater Boston have ADUs?
Yes. Nearby communities where ADUs are currently allowed include Arlington,
Dedham, Dover, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton, Waltham, Wayland, Wellesley and Weston. Many allow attached ADUs by right and almost all require a special permit for detached ADUs.
5. Do ADUs align with the Town’s plans/goals?
The Town’s recently adopted 2021 Housing Plan has indicated the need to increase the types of housing options and increase housing overall in Needham. The plan recommended the adoption of an ADU bylaw as a means of diversifying the types of housing in town.
6. Will ADUs impact the look and feel of Needham’s neighborhoods?
ADUs are to be subordinate in appearance to the principal dwelling to minimize any impact on existing neighborhoods. ADUs must match the style and architecture of the principal dwelling. Many ADUs are internal to existing houses and thus don’t change the external appearance of the property. Detached ADUs are most often converted garages or accessory structures that occur regularly across Needham.
7. Won’t this make short-term rentals possible, such as Airbnbs in Needham?
The driving purpose of allowing ADUs is to create new, stable housing — not to encourage Airbnbs. The proposed bylaw requires a minimum leasing period of six months to help control the frequency of changeover but still allow flexibility for those seeking shorter housing stays, such as visiting professionals, or for temporary or transitional housing.
8. How will ADUs make Needham’s housing more affordable?
ADUs will contribute a much-needed smaller housing option for Needham. The proposed bylaw specifically mandates that ADUs be limited in size (a maximum of 900 square feet and one bedroom), which will create market rate units in Needham at a lower price point than is commonly
found today. For the homeowner, creating an ADU will allow for a potential revenue stream making an existing home more affordable.
9. What are the environmental benefits of ADUs?
ADUs are explicitly intended to have a small building footprint and environmental impact, as reflected in the maximum permitted size of 900 square feet. ADUs may also allow homeowners, and renters, to move closer to both their places of work and to public transportation than they otherwise would have, thus reducing transportation-related emissions.
More broadly, ADUs represent a renovation and/or building option in established neighborhoods that use existing infrastructure which helps to reduce the larger costs and impacts of new development. New development can add infrastructure cost, impact existing tree canopy and habitat, and contribute more dramatic change to neighborhood’s character. Furthermore, a homeowner’s flexibility to stay in their home may delay their need to sell which could avoid a possible teardown and replacement of the home.
10. Will Needham’s building and zoning requirements apply to ADUs?
Yes. Any accessory building used as an ADU must comply with all current requirements of the zoning bylaw applicable to accessory structures in the district in which the property is located or be a lawfully preexisting nonconforming structure as of the effective date of this bylaw; provided that lawfully preexisting nonconforming structures may not be structurally altered in a manner that increases any existing nonconformity. In the residential districts, such stand-alone accessory detached ADU units are required to be setback a minimum of five (5) feet from the side and rear lot lines of the lot unless the structure exceeds fifteen (15) feet in height in which case the setback must comply with the underlying district’s increased rear or side setback requirements. A minimum distance of ten (10) feet is required between the ADU detached dwelling and any other structure or building on the lot.
Additions for attached ADUs must comply with the underlying zoning and are by right. Detached ADUs require a special permit process through the ZBA to include neighbor involvement.
11. How big can ADUs be in Needham?
In January 2021, Governor Baker signed An Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth which allows communities to adopt certain housing provisions by a simple majority, rather than the standard 2/3 majority, including allowing communities to allow ADUs of up to 900 square feet, which is why Needham has chosen to increase our current size of 850 square feet to 900 square feet as a maximum size.
12. Where in Needham will ADUs be allowed?
ADUs may be built in SRA and SRB (Single Family) Districts and in other districts, such as General Residence, where Single Residence Uses are allowed. Only one ADU will be allowed for each single-family home. ADUs are not allowed in Two-Family Dwellings, Town Houses, or other buildings with multiple dwellings.
13. Can the homeowner live in the ADU while renting out the “principal dwelling”?
Yes. The proposed bylaw intentionally allows the owner to live in either the ADU or the principal dwelling in anticipation that some seniors will want to downsize inside their own homes and rent out the principal dwelling to another person.
14. Can both the principal dwelling and ADU be rented out at the same time?
No. The proposed bylaw will prevent this by requiring one of the housing units on the property to be owner-occupied.
15. Where will ADU residents park?
Needham’s overnight parking ban ensures that ADU residents will not be allowed to park on the street overnight. Under the proposed bylaw, owners are required to provide off-street parking for all tenants/occupants, including the owner, with at least one parking space per dwelling unit.
16. How does this bylaw affect current “unofficial” ADUs in town?
If a homeowner has an existing “unofficial” ADU that does not have a permit, it is in violation of Town bylaws, and will remain in violation until brought into compliance with the ADU bylaw and applicable building codes.
17. How would the ADU bylaw be enforced after an ADU is constructed?
In January of each year after the anniversary of the issuance of the occupancy permit, the Owner files with the Building Commissioner a certification that the home continues to be the owner’s primary residence along with a copy of the current lease. Furthermore, at any time upon written request from the Building Commissioner, the Owner must provide evidence that the ADU and the principal dwelling unit are being occupied in accordance with the By-Law. In the event the Owner fails to comply with the above requirements, the Building Commissioner, within thirty (30) days of a written request, may revoke the occupancy permit for the ADU. If the ADU is within an accessory building, the Building Commissioner may also revoke the Special Permit for the ADU.
18. Can ADUs be built in new structures?
Yes. There is nothing in the bylaw that prevents a resident from building a new home with an ADU, whether attached or detached, at the same time. However, all provisions of the ADU Application and verification process and other provisions of the Zoning Bylaw still apply to such a scenario.
19. How many ADUs will be built in Needham per year?
It is hard to predict with certainty. However, since implementation began of Needham’s first ADU bylaw, adopted in 2019, the Zoning Board of Appeals has granted a total of 12 special permits for ADUs (an average of 4 per year). For comparison, Newton, a city three times Needham’s size, builds 7 per year on average.
Passage of ADU Bylaws in other Massachusetts cities and towns has not led to a surge of development. While ADUs can provide an important option to help diversify Needham’s housing stock, there are factors that limit broad adoption by homeowners, including lot coverage restrictions, dimensional requirements, and upfront costs to build or renovate an ADU. There are many Needham homeowners who do not have a life circumstance (familial, economic, or otherwise) that would make building an ADU attractive. This bylaw is proposed to be available as an opportunity for those who do.
20. Do we know the impact this will have on school enrollment?
While we do not have enrollment projections specific to this ADU bylaw, the January 2023 Needham Public Schools Population and Enrollment Forecasts, 2023-24 through 2037-38, provides relevant migration trends and the related impacts on school enrollment. The forecast reports that over the next 15 years, the 70+ age group will be the second largest population moving out of Needham (after 18-24 year olds). The turnover of those single-family homes owned by empty nest households (age 70+) to families with school-aged children is incorporated into the overall forecast and is identified as a primary factor causing the district’s enrollment to rise and then stabilize over the next 15 years.
Expansion of ADUs in Needham may delay some turnover of empty-nest homes if owners are able to secure a rental income stream while remaining in the principal residence. Other turnover may continue as anticipated, with a new family moving into the principal residence, but with the homeowner able to stay rather than leaving Needham. Of the 12 ADUs that have been permitted in Needham since 2019:
- 8 (66%) had the homeowners living in the “principal residence” with the ADU being built for the homeowner’s parent(s)
- 3 (25%) had the homeowners living in the “principal residence” with the ADU being built for an adult family member (two adult children and one sibling, who is a veteran with a disability).
- 1 (8%) had the senior homeowner moving into the ADU; their family moved into the primary residence.
NPS regularly updates its enrollment forecasts, incorporating major changes in local development and migration trends, so the Town can monitor and plan for fluctuations over time
21. If adopted at Town Meeting, when will this amended bylaw take effect?
The bylaw will take effect immediately. There is a formal process of filing approved bylaws with the Attorney General’s office within 30 days of town meeting followed by a 90-day review and comment period by the AG’s office. Experience demonstrates there are rarely disapprovals of ZBL amendments but there is a process to review possible case law challenges in consultation with town counsel.
22. How would I get permission to build an ADU?
For an attached ADU, the owner of record shall be responsible for submitting an ADU application to the Building Commissioner. Floor plans of the ADU and principal dwelling unit, along with a certified site plan, shall also be submitted with the application to the Building Commissioner.
During the application review to determine the required ADU standards are met, the Commissioner has the discretion to engage the Design Review Board (DRB) to assist in the evaluation of whether the proposed ADU “maintains the appearance and essential character of a single-family dwelling or a single-family dwelling with an accessory building”. A DRB advisory report addressing the issue of compliance with these standards would be provided so the Commissioner can approve or deny the application.
For a detached ADU, an ADU within an accessory building on the same lot as a single-family detached dwelling, a Special Permit process will be required through the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). The owner of record shall be responsible for submitting an ADU application to the Building Commissioner and the ZBA that will include floor plans of the ADU and the accessory building that it is to be within or added to, along with a certified plot plan showing the location and dimensions of the primary building and all accessory buildings on the premises, both existing and proposed.
To complete the ADU application process, the DRB or ZBA, if needed, will provide their advisory report or recorded and approved Special Permit to the Building Commissioner, who will issue a building permit if the project complies with the State Building Code and other Zoning Bylaw
requirements. An occupancy permit will be provided by the Building Commissioner with proof that the following additional requirements are met:
- Occupancy of the unit that is not Owner-occupied shall be limited to a member or members of the Owner’s Family or a Caregiver and such Caregiver’s Family or a Lessee and such Lessee’s Family; provided that occupancy of the principal dwelling unit and the ADU combined shall be limited to five persons who are not Family of the Owner and occupancy of the ADU shall be limited to three persons.
- The Owner shall have filed a copy of such lease with the Building Commissioner as a pre-condition of the issuance of an occupancy permit for the ADU, whether to be occupied by the Owner or the Lessee.
- The Owner files with the Building Commissioner every January, following the issuance of the occupancy permit, a certification that the unit occupied by the Owner continues to be the Owner’s primary residence, together with evidence that the other unit is occupied by a Family member, Caretaker or Lessee of the Owner.