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Accessory apts. could help meet affordable housing mandates

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HARVARD — Planner Barbara Brady has been working for some time to craft a bylaw amendment for accessory apartments. A modern update of the “in-law apartment,” an accessory apartment refers to a rental unit with certain allowances and restrictions.

According to the existing bylaw, whether the accessory apartment is a converted attic, basement, barn or garage in a private home, either pre-existing or newly created, the rental-unit designation and attendant deed restrictions only apply to the current owner. If the house is sold, they don’t transfer with the sale.

A key component of the bylaw is that rent must be affordable under state guidelines, and the tenant must meet income guidelines under similar state criteria.

The intent of the proposal aligns with the Housing Partnership’s 10-year plan and addresses the town’s affordable-housing needs and mandates of state law, said Brady. Hopefully, it will pass muster with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), she said, which sets five criteria for approval.

Brady outlined the proposed bylaw amendment at the Feb. 27 Board of Selectmen meeting. It’s been aired at public hearings, and voters will have their say on it at Town Meeting.

If it passes, DHCD must approve it before a home-rule petition can be sent to the Legislature, she said.

Asked how many existing units might be corralled into this bylaw, Brady said anecdotal evidence suggests there are quite a few.

A key goal of the new bylaw is to encourage owners to register apartments that aren’t officially recognized as rental units now, she said, explaining why tax incentives are part of the proposal.

If the bylaw amendment clears legal hurdles, those apartments can be listed as affordable-housing units, she said, and each one would count toward meeting the state-mandated 10 percent.

The town has been recently dealing with the specter of unbridled development sparked by Chapter 40B, a state law that allows developers who include a percentage of affordable units in their projects to bypass local zoning in communities that haven’t met the 10-percent affordable-housing mandate.

Opponents warn that the cycle may spiral out of control and change the character of the town. There are a handful of 40B projects either in the permit pipeline or on the horizon. That trend is expected to continue, and each development increases the foundation number on which the town’s affordable percentage is based.

The Housing Partnership favors the apartment idea as one way to work toward two goals: controlling growth and providing affordable housing. Other towns face the same problem, but Harvard would be a step ahead in solving it if the apartment bylaw passes.

“If we move on this, it would be a landmark in the state,” Brady said.

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