‘In-law apartments’ for strangers are becoming easier to build in N.H.

Monitor staff
Friday, March 25, 2016
Builder Paul Morin knows why New Hampshire recently passed a law dealing with the obscure-sounding topic of “accessory dwelling units.”

There’s a market for them in the state with an aging population and record-low rental vacancy rates.

“We’ve been getting more and more inquires for accessory dwelling units, for in-laws or au-pair suites, for young people who are moving back home after college so they can get their arms around college debt . . . or empty-nesters,” said Morin, of Tarkka Homes in Weare.

The complication, Morin said, is that communities handle the issue differently because of zoning ordinances. Many put up obstacles out of concern that once a home has an “in-law apartment” – a small addition with a separate kitchen, bedroom and bath – it will eventually turn into a rented duplex.

“I was finding roughly 50 percent of the time, the ordinances were not allowing what my client, very reasonably, wanted to do,” Morin said.

Last week, Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a bill in the works for nearly two years that cuts back on restrictions that towns and cities can put on such units.

After June 1, New Hampshire communities will not be able to require that such units be occupied only by a family member, or have a separate water or sewer connection, or contain just one bedroom, or maintain an always-unlocked doorway connection to the rest of the house. The change applies both to new construction and renovations to an existing home.

The law does allow communities to require that the building owner live on site, meaning no absentee landlords.

Units that were built before they were allowed can achieve legal status by applying for building permits. Assuming they meet standards, they can get permission although there may be an extra cost. Concord, for example, increases the building permit fee by 25 percent if the work was done before a permit was issued.

Uncertain effect

The change will affect Concord, where three residential zoning districts that make up the majority of the city’s land area have restrictions that will no longer be allowed. And it will affect many area towns, which will have to re-examine their zoning ordinances. That is why Bow, for example, passed a zoning article at town meeting this month which will “permit an accessory dwelling unit . . . in all zone districts.”

How much of an effect it will have is unclear, however.

There’s certainly a desire for rental units. A recent report found Concord’s vacancy rate at under 2 percent, the lowest of any New Hampshire city.

Still, Craig Walker, the city’s zoning administrator, said “it’s hard to say” if there will be more requests for such units here.

“People who have wanted to create true apartments for family members in districts where they’re not permitted have traditionally gone to the zoning board to request variances,” Walker said. “The board has generally been reasonably understanding on those requests.”

Restrictions on size, bedroom number and access are largely designed to prevent the creation of apartments that would be attractive to outside renters.

But being attractive to renters is exactly what the new law is hoping to encourage.

“It’s one way of increasing the rental supply for young professionals, and also for older folks who want to downsize,” said Ben Frost, director of legal and public affairs for the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. “It also opens up the opportunity for people who have large single-family homes but not large single families occupying them to use the structures more efficiently.”

In Portsmouth, city councilor Rebecca Perkins, who campaigned partly on this issue, says many land-use practices have become outdated.

“In the 1980s, we were growing by double digits every year, and a lot of our land-use regs, (such as) zoning, subdivision rules, site plan rules, were designed to control growth and mimic what were at the time popular land use patterns. . . . But growth has slowed considerably to the point where we’re not attracting a lot of new people, especially new young people,” she said. “Now we’re not trying to control growth, we’re trying to encourage it.”

Workforce housing

In an op-ed in the March 9 edition of New Hampshire Business Review, real estate counselor Bill Norton argued that such units can help the state keep young adults from leaving, and thus help the state’s workforce.

“A key issue is that younger homebuyers are delaying marriage. Some prefer mobility and flexibility to home ownership and appear to favor simple, smaller homes, including apartments and condos versus suburban homes. There is a shortage of such options on the Seacoast and in the Manchester and Nashua areas. The costs of new construction are prohibitive. Thus, apartment rents have doubled since 1990 ($600 versus $1,200),” he wrote.

Norton continued, “Traditionally, up to 92 percent of New Hampshire home sales have been single-family, which is the highest in New England. Many towns are zoned for only, or virtually only, single-family homes. This needs to change to meet today’s demographics, especially in the southern part of the state.”

However, it’s likely that the changes will produce some debate as single-family homes face the possibility of a rental unit appearing next door. The law allows towns to require such units to get a special exception from the zoning board or a conditional-use permit from the planning board, raising their visibility.

In Portsmouth, Perkins argued that concerns about duplexes in residential areas are also outdated.

“It’s the idea that if it’s a duplex, it’s associated with somebody who might be a less desirable neighbor,” she said. “That’s an old fear.”

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