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ADU legislation sailing through lower chamber – Herb Weiss

By Herb Weiss, contributing writer on aging issues

With the strong support of House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, one of nine cosponsors of H. 7062,  last week the House Committee on Municipal Government and Housing approved a legislative proposal that would be a boost to housing production by helping Rhode Islanders to develop accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their property. The legislative proposal was approved on a partisan vote of 10-2 with Rep. Brian Newberry (R-Dist. 48, North Smithfield, Burrillville) and Rep. Patricia Morgan (R-Dist. 26, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick) voting nay. The legislative proposal is expected to be considered by the full House of Representatives the week of February 12.

ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units), sometimes referred to as in-law apartments or granny flats (not a term we like), backyard cottages, or secondary units, are accessories to existing housing, created as a conversion of part of a house (such as from a walkout basement or garage), an attachment to a house, or a smaller, detached dwelling. They have become increasingly popular around the country in recent years as states and municipalities balance the need to create more housing while preserving the character of residential neighborhoods. 

Seniors, especially, have taken to ADUs as a way to downsize while continuing to live independently in their community. The bill was written in collaboration with AARP Rhode Island, for whom increasing production of ADUs has been their primary policy goal for several years.

While being a relative is the most common relationship, it should not be a necessary one, with short term rentals are not allowed so ADUs do not function as BNBs. Also, while most commonly intended for seniors facing limited incomes and downsizing needs, ADUs are also popular with professionals or adult children.

Encouraging the development of Affordable Housing

H. 7062, introduced by Rep. June S. Speakman (District 68, Bristol/Warren), chairwoman of the House Commission on Housing Affordability, would boost the state’s housing production by making it easier for homeowners to develop ADUs on their property.  It would give the property owner the right to develop an ADU within the existing footprint of their structures or on any lot larger than 20,000 square feet, provided that the design complies with local building code, size limits and infrastructure requirements.

The purpose of Speakman’s legislation proposal is to encourage the development of rental units that are likely to be more affordable than many other apartments, and also to provide opportunities for homeowners with extra space to generate income that helps them maintain ownership of that property.

Speakman said the legislation is a small but important part of the much broader effort that the Ocean State must adopt to encourage the development of affordable housing. Since its inception in 2021, she has chaired the Affordable Housing Commission, helping to achieve the passage of 17 bills to help address elements of the housing crisis over the previous two legislative sessions.

To ensure that this legislation achieves its goal of housing Rhode Islanders, it prohibits ADUs constructed under this provision from being used as short-term rentals, and streamlines the permitting process.

“We are experiencing an ‘age wave’ in Rhode Island: one in four people in our state will be age 65 or older within the next several years,” said Shekarchi, the bill’s top co-sponsor in a statement announcing committee passage of H 7062. “ADUs are a great way to give seniors more options so they can age in place. They empower seniors to remain in their own homes, maintaining their independence and privacy, with family members or others in close proximity for additional support if needed. And, with Rhode Island facing a severe housing shortage, ADUs are a great way to add more housing units to our supply without changing the character of a neighborhood. ADUs are a win all around,” he says.

“One of the drivers of our housing crisis is the low construction rate in Rhode Island. Our state has the lowest per-capita construction rate in the whole country,” charges Speakman, the primary sponsor of H 7062, who calls on local and state officials to be creative and be willing to allow construction of housing, particularly affordable, moderate, and small units like ADUs.

Increasing Housing Options in the Ocean State

“ADUs are an excellent option because they are generally affordable to build and to rent. Because they are small and often can be created without even altering the footprint of the existing building, they don’t change the character of their neighborhood. They are mutually beneficial to the renter and the homeowner, who can use the rental income to make their own homeownership more affordable, says Speakman,” stressing that ADUs can allow seniors to age in place, close to their families.

“We should be encouraging development of ADUs, because they offer another housing option for Rhode Islanders and a relatively simple way to make more units available in the near term and help ease the housing crunch in Rhode Island,” observes Speakman.

“Every Rhode Islander needs a safe home that they can afford, and the only way we are going to make that happen is to build more homes,”  adds Speakman, noting that the legislative proposal removes some of the obstacles to building ADUs while respecting municipal land use policies. “Our commission learned that there are many people in Rhode Island who already have space that they’d like to use in this way, but our laws make it complicated. We desperately need housing, so it’s in the public’s interest to make it easier,” she says.

Along with AARP Rhode Island, H.7062 has the support of numerous organizations and agencies, including the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, Rhode Island Housing, the American Planning Association Rhode Island Division, Grow Smart RI and Housing Network RI.

In the Upper Chamber

“I am happy to see my colleagues in the House again moving forward to allow more homeowners to utilize accessory dwelling units. ADUs offer the ‘missing middle’ – housing that is smaller, more affordable and smartly repurposes our existing buildings and garages,” says Sen. Victoria Gu (D-Dist. 38, Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown).  The Senator is poised to submit a Senate ADU legislative proposal for drafting this week

“Homeowners can be a part of the solution to the housing crisis by creating or converting a garage, basement or shed into an ADU and offering it as a long-term rental. Then they have the benefit of receiving some additional income or housing a loved one. It’s a win-win,” adds Gu.

Sen. Meghan E. Kallman (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, Providence), who championed ADU legislation in the Senate last year, is strongly committed to working with Gu, to see an enacted ADU law this session. “In a time of extraordinary housing shortage, we need to be creative. ADUs are excellent choices for seniors or young adults, and offer affordable options for people at different phases of their lives. As we saw in the RISD ADU design competition in January, such buildings can also be very beautiful. I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in committee and in the chamber overall to get this bill across the finish line,” she says.

Ever since June 2023, a coalition of stakeholders, including housing advocates and the AARP, have met with Senators, including both Gu and Kallman, once a month to strengthen and clarify the ADU bill that the House passed last year. Most of the Senate revisions are technical, but there will be three key differences between the House version and the current Senate draft that must be ironed out. They are:  

•             Allowing municipalities to regulate owner occupancy for ADUs. For example, requiring the owner to occupy either the main house or the ADU.

•             Allowing municipalities to set minimum rental periods for ADUs that are longer than 30 days but not more than one year.

•             Prohibiting the sale of an ADU separately, in terms of ownership, from the main house.

A Final Note…

With enactment of ADU legislation to allow Rhode Islanders do develop this housing option on their property, lawmakers might consider taking a look as to how other states are providing grants to boost its production.  

According to the California Housing Finance Agency, new funding laws incentivize and promote the creation of ADUs by providing grants up to $40,000 to reimburse pre-development and non-recurring closing costs with the construction of an ADU. Pre-development costs include site prep, architectural designs, permits and soil tests, impact fees, property surveys, and energy reports. 

The House and Senate must work out their differences to pass ADU legislation this legislative session, sending legislation to send to Gov. Dan McKee to sign into law.  Lawmakers might consider investigating best practices in other states, like California’s grant program, to make it easier to add much needed housing in Rhode Island. 

Editor’s Note: Reached late Sunday for comment on why she does not support this ADU bill, Rep. Patricia Morgan, wrote, “I believe that each municipality’s planning and zoning boards should have control over land use in their community. This legislation is taking away local control.”

To see testimony presented on Jan. 25, 2024, before the House Committee on Municipal Government Hearing on H. 7062, go to https://capitoltvri.cablecast.tv/show/167?site=1,

To watch the House Committee on Municipal Government and Housing’s vote and passage of H. 7062, held on Feb. 1, 2024, go to https://capitoltvri.cablecast.tv/show/196?site=1or

To read prior stories on ADUs:

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To access all of Herb’s articles published by RINewstoday, go to https://rinewstoday.com/herb-weiss/

Herb Weiss

Herb Weiss, LRI -12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who has covered aging, health care and medical issues for over 43 years.  To purchase his books, Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly and a sequel, compiling weekly published articles, go to herbweiss.com.

Herb Weiss 2-volume book set, Taking Charge
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