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Cape's Accessory Housing Program

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'In-law flats' right at home in Barnstable

The program to legalize accessory apartments and boost affordable housing is a model for other towns.


STAFF WRITER - January 4, 2004

HYANNIS - A Cotuit hairdresser, forced out of her home by rising rents, gets a two-bedroom cottage for $1,089 a month with utilities.

A Hyannis nurse's aide, fed up with cleaning homes on the side to make ends meet, expects $850 a month from renting her basement.

And an Osterville widow, for years used to renting out part of her home, learns the apartment is illegal but keeps it by renting to a low-income tenant.

These are three of the 62 success stories from Barnstable's program to legalize accessory apartments - often called "in-law" or "granny flats" - a program that sparked similar initiatives across the Cape and islands.

Today, three years after the Barnstable program was launched, none of those towns has approached its level of success.

"I hate using the word failure," said Paul Ruchinskas, affordable housing specialist at the Cape Cod Commission. "But the results have been disappointing to date."

Cape Cod is one of a growing number of communities across the country turning to in-law apartments - usually in basements, garages, attics and bungalows - to create more affordable housing.

In Massachusetts, Boston is considering a program patterned after Barnstable's. In California, a law took effect this July easing restrictions on in-law apartments. In New York, Lewisboro this spring let homeowners build stand-alone units on lots of a half-acre or more.

Between 65,000 and 300,000 new granny flats are built nationwide each year, according to an AARP-backed study.

Many are illegal. In Cape Cod, most residential property is zoned to allow one family only, Ruchinskas said, though renting individual rooms is often legal and special permits allowing people to rent to relatives have existed for years.

The novelty of these programs is they legalize such apartments - self-contained spaces with their own kitchens, bathrooms and exits - for non-family members.

In exchange, the owner agrees to a rent ceiling and can only take in low- to moderate-income tenants. And in most cases the town gets to count the unit toward its state-mandated goal of 10 percent affordable housing.

"It's a win-win-win situation," said Paulette Theresa-McAuliffe, director of the Barnstable Accessory Affordable Housing Program, also known as the amnesty program.

Obstacles to success

But the wins have been almost nonexistent in Wellfleet, Brewster, Eastham, Dennis and Tisbury. All five amended their zoning laws to encourage accessory apartments, with Provincetown also eyeing a change.

Wellfleet has approved one application. Tisbury is still finalizing the paperwork, but only two people have expressed interest since the measure passed town meeting in April.

Brewster's program, capped at 30 apartments per year, has created two. Dennis, though it has created three accessory apartments in commercial spaces, has created none in traditional residences. Eastham has also created none.

Meanwhile, the need for such housing only grows. In the last 10 years 18,000 new ownership units went up on the Cape, Ruchinskas said The number of rental units declined by 400.

"We're in a housing crisis," said Nancy Davidson of the Housing Assistance Corp. "We get calls every day from individuals who are looking for affordable rentals."

Why have most of the Cape's accessory apartment programs done so little toward meeting that need?

Officials blame a combination of inadequate town resources, lack of enforcement of existing zoning restrictions and stigmas associated with affordable housing.

They cite large economic incentives to cheat the system. And they note the often significant expense of bringing apartments up to code, which is necessary to participate.

Dan Fortier, town planner in Dennis, said people fail to realize what the terms low- and moderate-income mean in Cape Cod.

"When you say low or moderate income, they get the shivers," he said. "They don't understand that people who qualify are beginning schoolteachers, police officers, firemen, secretaries, nurses."

Heather Boemer is a case in point.

Boemer, 25, teaches at a Dennis preschool. She is the single mother of a 16-month-old daughter, Marissa. After taxes she takes home about $1,200 a month.

Boemer said she hunted for four months to find an apartment she could afford, living with her daughter in her aunt's crowded Yarmouth home during the hunt.

"The prices were outrageous for the kind of places we were looking at," she said, with two-bedroom apartments "the size of a little shack" fetching $1,200 a month.

Today, she and Marissa live in a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a Hyannis house. The home's owners joined Barnstable's in-law program after renting the unit illegally for 10 years.

They charge Boemer $1,050 a month with utilities, which is $200 more than what they got renting it illegally.

Owners in Barnstable's program choose their own tenants. But Office of Community and Economic Development Director Kevin Shea said there's a misconception that's not the case.

He recalled giving a talk on the accessory apartment program when someone asked, "We don't have to take in Brazilians, do we?"

Theresa-McAuliffe, who is African-American, recalled a similar experience where someone looked her in the eye and said they didn't want to rent to "a certain element."

Enforcement a problem

Beyond such fears, another obstacle to the programs' success is enforcement of existing laws.

The following story from Barnstable illustrates the kind of enforcement officials say is needed to make the programs work.

An Osterville widow, who did not want her name published, had just spent $3,000 refurbishing her in-law apartment.

Workers painted. They redid the bathroom. They soundproofed the walls.

The job finished, she advertised in the newspaper looking for a tenant to rent it for at least $900 a month.

Instead, she got a letter from the town. It offered three options: prove the apartment was legal, pull out the kitchen or sign up for the accessory apartment program.

She signed up, and now rents it for $775 with utilities.

"It just makes me mad that they forced me into it," she said. "I never knew it was illegal."

But even if she did know, in a town like Wellfleet unless a neighbor complained, chances are she'd have gotten away with it.

Rex Peterson, assistant town administrator in Wellfleet, said the building inspector there responds when neighbors complain about illegal units. Other duties generally keep him too busy to seek them out himself, Peterson said.

"We're not going around and looking for people who already have units that might be illegal," he said.

That lets people take advantage of what the market will let them earn. For a house, he said, that can be about $1,700 a week in the summer.

An owner renting a two-bedroom accessory apartment through Wellfleet's program must offer a year-round lease and charge no more than $951 a month, Peterson said.

"If someone can rent something for a lot of money in the summer and nobody's bothering them," he said, "there's not a lot of incentive for them to come in and file and make it legal."

No dedicated staff

A third problem that's prevented towns from matching Barnstable's success is a lack of resources.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development designates Barnstable an "entitlement community," a designation that nets the community $75,000 each year to administer its accessory apartment program.

That money pays for advertising the program. It gives homeowners grants to refurbish their flats.

And most importantly, it pays the salary of Theresa-McAuliffe, whose primary responsibility is administering the accessory apartment program.

So when Claire DeBarros signed up in April, someone was there to walk her through the four-month certification process.

DeBarros, 56, is a nurse's aide who lives alone, has no children and earns less than $25,000 a year. She joined the program, fed up with working 60-hour weeks to pay her expenses, fed up with sore feet and fed up with lack of free time.

To ease the burden, she decided to tap a virgin income source: the basement of her Hyannis home.

Theresa-McAuliffe helped DeBarros with the application. Theresa-McAuliffe made the building and health inspection appointments. She prepped DeBarros for the zoning board hearing.

The basement features a panoramic view of the pond in the backyard and a private bedroom. But it lacked two prerequisites: a kitchen and bathroom.

DeBarros received a $2,000 grant from the program to help cover part of the projected $7,000 cost of that and other construction work. She expects to be renting the apartment sometime this month for $850 a month.

"It will give me some piece of mind because you don't have to worry about struggling for the mortgage every night," she said.

Other towns with accessory apartment programs have none of the resources that assisted DeBarros.

Administration responsibilities fall to existing town officials who already have plenty on their plates. Outreach is limited, grants unavailable, officials say.

What's the future of these programs?

Some see tweaking them as a partial boost.

In Wellfleet, the program only covers the creation of new units. Peterson said the town plans to file special legislation this year allowing people who are already renting affordably to enter the program as well.

In Brewster, the program only allows attached units. Town officials are considering detached apartments to expand the program.

In Dennis, the town is allowing affordable accessory units in commercial spaces. That's created three apartments.

But at the end of the day, Ruchinskas said, the programs would only make up a small part of local strategies to create more affordable housing.

The real strides, he said, would come when towns installed more sewers, laying the foundation for apartment buildings and other denser development.

"Every single unit helps," he said. "But it's just a question of the time and energy you want to invest in doing this if you're going to create only five or 10 units."


Barnstable's affordable housing in-law apartment program has become a model for other towns. Below are Barnstable's rules. Other Cape towns have tailored the idea to their own needs.


  • Bring the accessory apartment into compliance with building, sanitary and fire codes.

  • Agree to a deed restriction (see rent guidelines below).

  • Agree to a minimum of a one-year lease.


  • Someone who owns and lives in a single-family home that has an accessory dwelling that was not allowed as of Jan. 1, 2000.

  • Someone who owns and lives in a single-family home who wants to create an accessory dwelling.

  • Someone who owns a legal multi-family dwelling that has one or more units not permitted as of Jan. 1, 2000.


Only families whose annual income is 80 percent or less of the median income of the Barnstable-Yarmouth Metropolitan Statistical Area are eligible, as defined by the Department of Housing and Development (HUD); that's $33,750 a year for one person; $38,600 for two people;$43,400 for three people; $48,250 for four people.


  • Rent and utilities must not exceed $843 per month for a studio.

  • $904 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.

  • $1,085 per month for a two-bedroom.

SOURCE: Town of Barnstable Accessory Affordable Housing Program

From The Cape Cod Times

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I've heard about things like this before. It's a good program, especially in areas where housing comes at a premium.

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