Town meeting voters tweak new laws allowing ‘in-law apartments’ across N.H.

Monitor staff
Monday, March 20, 2017

In-law apartments are outlaws no longer, thanks to a change tucked into town meeting ballots around the area that may produce some new housing options throughout New Hampshire.

“This could bring a lot more ‘apartments’ into the market, but each community is going to feel this in a different way,” said Linda Smith, land use administrator in Northwood.

Like most communities in Greater Concord and throughout the state, Northwood has a warrant item on the zoning-ordinance portion of this year’s town meeting ballot that allows Accessory Dwelling Units in town as spelled out in state law. Voting in Northwood was delayed by the snowstorm and will take place Tuesday, but almost all voters have approved the article – although some confusion has turned up at the ballot box.

“Of all the people we’ve talked to – five or six – (the question is) Can you explain to me what that means?” Boscawen Co-administrator Alan Hardy said Tuesday, voting day.

In Loudon, Renee Thompson voted Tuesday against her town’s ADU ordinance, more on general principle than anything else. She said she doesn’t relish the idea of rental units popping up in her town.

But the ordinance that set the specific requirements for these units passed overwhelmingly in town.

In-law apartments

Accessory Dwelling Units are meant to fill a need for elderly housing by offering parents a place to live close to family, while maintaining some independence. Often called in-law apartments, they are small (at least 750 square feet by law) apartments attached to houses or condos but with separate entrances, although in some towns they can be stand-alone units on the same lot.

For years they have been allowed in some New Hampshire towns, discouraged in others and banned in others, a hodgepodge of regulation that limited their usage. That changed last year when the Legislature passed a law requiring all New Hampshire towns to allow some form of ADUs – which, incidentally, are no longer “in-law apartments” because towns cannot limit them to relatives of people living in the main house, as many once did.

The state law, which goes into effect July 1, provided a default set of standards and regulations, but allowed towns to tweak them within limits – for example, towns could forbid detached ADUs, as many did, or could require that they have to obtain a special exception from the zoning board. Those tweaks are the subject of the various town votes, with many towns following recommended guidelines from the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which held numerous sessions last fall regarding the topic.

“Every town is a little bit different. There were some towns that welcomed it with open arms, thought it was a great idea, wished they’d thought about having this provision for many years. Others were a little bit reluctant to open up the window,” said Stephen Buckley, legal services counsel for the NHMA.

Regardless of what towns require for zoning permission, the units will still require building permits and occupancy permits to ensure such things as proper exits and sufficient capacity in the home’s septic system.

More places to rent

The law was prodded by New Hampshire’s extremely tight rental market; apartment vacancy rates in Concord, for example, are below 2 percent, which the industry considers to be the equivalent of maximum capacity. Lawmakers hope that by allowing more ADUs they will create more housing options for single adults, downsizing seniors and other people who don’t need or can’t afford a full-sized apartment or house.

“The ordinance will help increase availability of housing for people who are in various stages of life, or income,” said Karen Robertson, planning director in Hopkinton. Voters in that town easily approved the ADU zoning ordinance, 694-71.

It may also help traditional homeowners by making it easier to establish an income-generating apartment.

“Homeowners that have larger homes, trying to downsize – it could help them with respect to mortgage or taxes,” she said. “We find lots of people are downsizing but still trying to live here in Hopkinton.”

Smith, the land use administrator in Northwood, noted that this situation could be flipped, with downsizing homeowners moving into the small ADU and renting out the full house. She speculated that this could be attractive because of people wanting town residence while their children are teens, so they can attend Coe-Brown Northwood Academy.

Whatever happens, she said, the new system is likely to raise unexpected questions.

“What happens if a developer wants to put in, say, a 15-lot subdivision, and put an accessory dwelling unit on every lot and sell it that way?” Smith said.

Northwood has long allowed what it calls accessory apartments, but Smith said nobody has applied for one in years. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, however.

“There were many situations where there were, shall we say, under-the-radar added apartments that had people living in them. ... When properties change hands that’s often when these things come up,” she said.

“One of the things that I see as a positive of this regards life-safety issues ... I think having a permitting process will make people come forward so that we can make sure it’s safe,” she said.

It’s not clear how much of a difference the new law will make.

Everett Hodge, building inspector and code enforcement officer in Pembroke, says he has “one or two” requests for in-law apartments, each by special exception. Once they get easier to create, does he expect that number to increase much?

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

Robertson in Hopkinton agreed.

“I don’t think we’ll receive any more than we have in the past – probably two to four a year,” she said.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)