Despite Looser Zoning, Haverhill Saw Few New Accessory Dwelling Units This Year

Community Development Division Director Andrew K. Herlihy, center, was presented with the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce’s Public Service Award during the Chamber’s 108th annual Awards Celebration Thursday night. He is flanked by Chamber President Alexandria Eberhardt and Chamber Board Chair Allison Dolan-Wilson. (WHAV News photograph.)

Despite smoothing the permitting process, Haverhill has not seen many new accessory dwelling units—small, independent houses on a larger property—in the year since the ordinance was changed.

Community Development Division Director Andrew K. Herlihy told city councilors Tuesday night, “We certainly haven’t been overrun with these.” And for good reason, he added. After allowing these structures “by-right,” meaning without requiring advance council approval, the city established strict permitting guidelines developed through public input sessions.

Mayor Melinda E. Barrett told councilors any new units built must meet quality standards. “You’re not putting nana in the shed.”

Officials explained construction in Haverhill can be quite expensive for units heralded by some state legislators as key to solving the affordable housing crisis. On top of standard code compliance, the city requires the dwellings to provide non-street parking, an architectural style consistent with the main house, and—in some cases—fencing. The units, which used to be called “in-law apartments,” cannot be sold separately from the main property and must offer leases longer than one year.

“They’re not undertaken by people of modest means, generally, because of the expense” Herlihy said.

Over the past year, the mayor reported 62 parties expressing interest in building accessory dwelling units—or ADUs. Around 25 of the residences have reached the final stage in the permitting process, and, of those, nine currently exist. Five were recently built and four used to be illegal.

Rep. Andy Vargas speaks from the podium at the Massachusetts House of Representatives. (Courtesy photograph.)

A $6.5 billion housing bill approved Wednesday by the Massachusetts House would also permit the dwellings “by-right” on single-family properties statewide. The bill also dedicates money to the production of affordable housing. Before the new legislation can go into effect, the senate and governor must also sign off.

In remarks on the House floor, state Rep. Andy Vargas said, “We are thrilled that residents statewide have the ability to build a small unit on their lots for their loved ones or simply to generate income to help make ends meet. The data on ADUs across the country is clear—they only help add supply, balance demand and slow rent increases.”

Vargas added that an economist at George Mason University found restrictions like “mandatory parking spaces … led to disappointingly few ADUs getting built.”

In addition to championing affordable housing on Beacon Hill, Vargas secured $50,000 last August to spur growth in Haverhill, as WHAV reported. Josselyn De León-Estrada, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, told WHAV the money will become available soon. She said data on who is applying for permits informs how the city will distribute it.

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