SALEM — A set of changes to the city’s “accessory dwelling unit” rules took one further step toward becoming final at a City Council meeting Thursday night, one by the slimmest margin possible.
The City Council, meeting as a “Committee of the Whole,” voted 5 members to 4 to end an owner-occupancy requirement on rules governing the creation of the units. The vote is a recommendation for the City Council itself to adopt at its next regular meeting on Thursday, Jan. 26. Four other rule changes were recommended by the body more favorably.
The city’s in-law apartment rules have a storied history. After years of conflict and failure to move the issue forward with a 67% voting requirement, changes to state rules saw the measure pass with a simple majority of six members instead of eight in 2021.
ADU opponents most heavily focused debate leading up to the 2021 vote on the owner-occupancy requirement. They argued that requiring a homeowner to live on the property would ensure those renting units are respectful toward neighborhoods.
But that requirement, and another prohibiting ADUs to be created in detached structures, were blamed by city officials for only six permits being issued for ADUs since the rules took effect. For that, city planners sought their deletion, leading to the votes taken last night.
“We’re changing two years of work we put into it,” said Councilor-at-Large Conrad Prosniewski. “Absentee owners have been a big problem in this city, and when an owner lives on the property, they’re responsible for who lives on the property with them.”
But Ward 3 City Councilor Patricia “Patti” Morsillo argued that the requirement has a discriminatory impact on city housing.
“We really need to think about (comments) labeling renters as a problem or labeling absentee landlords as creating issues in neighborhoods,” she said. “We need to back that up with more than anecdotal evidence, because it’s really harmful. Not everyone wants to own a home.”
That said, Morsillo noted that some developers are trying to build ADUs in newly built homes (which aren’t owner-occupied yet), so that younger families can buy them and have instant access to a revenue stream to make the mortgage more manageable.
Public comment was in favor of keeping the requirement, with two speaking about keeping the rule but one suggesting to revisit it a handful of years later, after the other changes clearing councilors have had a few years to settle.
The recommendations go to the City Council meeting next week. With the body down to 10 members due to Ward 1 City Councilor Robert “Bob” McCarthy serving as acting mayor, a five-to-five vote would mean a measure’s defeat. It remains unclear how Ward 4 City Councilor Leveille “Lev” McClain sits on the issue. He was absent from the meeting and now represents either passage or defeat for the measure on Jan. 26.
Visit bit.ly/3QRwJGJ for more from this meeting.