Despite ease in guidelines, officials see no surge of new in-law apartments

  • The in-law apartment/house offers its own open-concept kitchen and living room, with hardwood floors, as well as its own heating system. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Saturday, February 17, 2018

A year after most communities in the state made it easier for people to build accessory dwelling units, often called in-law apartments, there’s no sign that it has made much difference to the state’s housing stock.

At least not yet, anyway.

“I have gotten some feedback from municipal planners in places like Merrimack and Portsmouth that they have seen some level of activity but it’s like once a month, not a groundswell. ... It’s incremental change,” said Ben Frost, director of public affairs at New Hampshire Housing, an organization that helps promote affordable housing options in the state.

Prodded by changes in state law and local zoning, New Hampshire Housing recently released guidelines to help towns shape their zoning rules, building codes and planning processes to deal with these units, which are small apartments, usually attached to houses or condos but with separate entrances.

Frost, who’s also chairman of the planning board in Warner, said there is no data about how many of these ACUs, as they are known in the industry, are being built around the state, although New Hampshire Housing is “following anecdotally” what is happening.

Locally, a survey of officials in communities in the Concord region found similar levels of quiet about these in-law apartments.

“We’ve talked about it probably three times in this last year, and not one of them has turned into a building permit,” said Alan Hardy, the co-administrator for the town of Boscawen. “It comes down to: Does it fit what I want to do and do I want to have more people in the house with me.”

In Hopkinton, said Planning Director Karen Robertson, “people have inquired about it” but so far the interest hasn’t translated into applications or construction.

“It’s mostly people who are interested in permitting properties, wondering if we allow them – detached or attached, minimum standards, like that,” she said.

In the city of Concord, accessory units have traditionally been allowed as long as certain conditions were met.

“It’s not really a huge change from what we had before,” said Craig Walker, Concord zoning administrator. “I think we’ve had one application go to the zoning board for an accessory dwelling unit.”

The discussions have been prodded by last year’s town meeting season when the question of ACUs showed up on many town warrants, usually in changes to zoning regulations that made the units easier to build.

Those changes were spurred by a 2016 state law requiring all New Hampshire towns to allow ACUs in some form, such as via special exception or conditional-use permit.

Previously, many towns didn’t allow these units at all, while others put onerous restrictions on them, such as requiring a zoning variance or a separate septic hookup. Many towns also limited their use to relatives of the property owner, a reflection of the name “in-law apartments,” built to house elderly parents of the home’s adult owners.

The 2016 state law forbid communities from imposing all those requirements.

State law was changed in response to arguments that ACUs add a much-needed alternative to the state’s crowded housing and rental situation, creating a lower-cost option particularly suitable for young adults or downsizing retirees. Vacancy rates in New Hampshire apartments are at historic lows and the housing market is extremely hot, with prices rising and homes staying on the market a relatively short time.

Advocates for ACUs argued that it could help homeowners deal with property taxes and other costs by making it easier to establish an income-generating apartment.

In Warner, Frost said he isn’t surprised that New Hampshire isn’t seeing a flood of ACUs. That town was well ahead of the curve and has allowed them since 2012, but only a few exist there.

Still, he said, “I think this will help” ease the housing shortage, “in certain places.”

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