Council passes 'in-law' housing amendment
Gloucester landlords who own houses with unlicensed apartments will now be able to bring those residences into compliance with city regulations without penalty – if they're willing to set aside some of the units for affordable housing.
The new guidelines – written as amendments to the city's zoning ordinance – are designed to provide owners of longstanding but permitless multi-family units an "expeditious path" to bringing such properties into compliance, according to wording crafted by Councilor Joseph Orlando Jr. and approved unanimously by the council last week.
But Orlando, who first submitted his plan in April, said the change will help deliver more safe, low-cost housing in a city whose affordable housing presents just 7.2 percent of its housing stock. In all, the city needs an additional 626 housing units – affordable and market rate – by 2020, according to a housing production plan produced by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council last February.
"We're not going to be generating any more market-rate housing through this," Orlando said Monday. "But it should bring us safer housing, and it will add to our affordable housing stock. That's two out of three. That's pretty good in baseball, and it's good for us, too.
"For the city and for property owners," he said, "this should be a win all the way around:"
Under city regulations, all dwellings – including so-called "in-law" apartments, must be inspected and registered with the city.
Now, landlords will have the chance to bring their existing units – many added on or set aside as in-law or other similar apartments, but never registered with the city – up to code without fear of facing sanctions. In exchange, however, a landlord whose house has four or fewer units would have to agree to set aside one unit as income-eligible affordable housing for 30 years. Property owners with five or six units would set aside two affordable units.
City Council President Joe Ciolino said he wonders how many takers the new program will have.
"The idea of a covenant for 30 years as affordable units might be a catch," he said. "in a lot of cases, it might be people passing their properties on to the next generation, but they might think that, when owners come around to issues such as refinancing or perhaps selling, that covenant and commitment would still be there, and that might be an obstacle.
"The big thing, however, is that this is a different approach," Ciolino added. "I think this shows that the entire council and the administration are committed to looking to different means of adding to our affordable housing."
The determination of whether a property qualifies for compliance – in terms of safety and other inspection clearances – will be up to a yet-to-be-named zoning administrator working with the Zoning Board of Appeals. Ciolino said that position will likely not be paid, and Orlando said he also does not see it as adding to the city payroll. The passage of the amendment, however, calls for the council and the ZBA to work out terms regarding how the administrator would work with the new amendment.
"The big thing, in my view, is that everybody has to come at this from a viewpoint of yes – as in 'Yes, how do we make this work?'" Orlando said. "The idea is that we should go into any of these applications with the idea that properties would qualify unless there's a glaring reason why they wouldn't – not the other way around."
The amendment itself was approved as being an interim measure – with a three-year time frame before it would need to be renewed by another council vote. That also gives property owners time to decide whether they want to take advantage of the city's compliance offer.
"They've got three years to figure it out, or decide if they want to make small upgrades," Orlando said. "At the same time know that, if they come forward and a unit doesn't comply, they're not going to get into trouble.
"This is all about housing, and making it easier for people who were born here to be able to afford to stay here,:" he said. "We want to take care of people who have spent their whole lives here. We don't want them to be forced to go somewhere else because we don't have housing."
Staff Writer Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.