Housing chief Augustus welcomes Worcester's accessory dwelling unit policy, talks housing

Housing Secretary Ed Augustus Jr. in a file photo.
Housing Secretary Ed Augustus Jr. in a file photo.

CONCORD — During a Thursday meeting to discuss housing in Massachusetts, Secretary of Housing and Livable Communities Edward M. Augustus Jr., the former city manager of Worcester, said he is happy that Worcester is considering making accessory dwelling units legal in the city.

"We always welcome communities doing something now, because communities do have the ability ... to make changes to allow more ADUs within those communities," Augustus said. "If communities want to get a head start and do that, we certainly welcome that, appreciate that."

Augustus met with a group of journalists from several Massachusetts newspapers that are part of the USA Today network in Concord to discuss the Healey-Driscoll administration's proposed Affordable Homes Act and take questions related to housing and homelessness.

Augustus was appointed state housing secretary about a year after he finished his tenure as city manager of Worcester and served as chancellor of Dean College in Franklin prior to his appointment. Gov. Maura T. Healey created the position earlier this year, the first Cabinet-level position to address housing since the Dukakis administration.

The Affordable Homes Act was announced Oct. 18 as a package of spending, policy and programmatic actions.

The package consists of $4 billion in capital spending authorizations, 28 policy changes or initiatives, three executive orders and two tax credits with the intention of reducing barriers to producing and preserving housing.

The administration claims the combined policies would create more than 40,000 units of housing in the state that would not have been otherwise created.

The administration has been promoting the Affordable Homes Act across the state since its unveiling in October, including a stop at Worcester's Courthouse Lofts in November. Augustus said in November that the package would fund programs that helped in the creation of the mixed-income apartment complex as well as new programs like a momentum fund where state resources would be leveraged to support large-scale, mixed-income development in situations where high interest rates and building material costs could delay projects.

Housing crisis spurs population loss

Augustus said the state's housing crisis, the high percentage of income that residents need to spend on housing and many people's inability to buy houses in the state is manifesting in the population loss the state has seen. The approximately 110,000 residents who have left the state in the past couple of years are primarily between 26 and 35 and whose education the state has heavily invested in, the secretary added.

"People feel like, 'I guess I can't buy a house in Massachusetts, I guess I can't afford to live here,' and they're looking for places where they can do that," Augustus said.

The package also has a proposal that would allow the construction of less than 900-square-foot accessory dwelling units by right in single-family zoning districts in all communities across the state. The policy would prohibit both owner-occupancy requirements and parking mandates within a half-mile of transit.

Augustus said the state administration estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 units of housing could be constructed in the first five years and they would be constructed by property owners with no cost to the state. He said

The Worcester administration is proposing ADUs, also known as in-law apartments, by right in all residential zoning districts, but some members of the City Council have raised questions about the policy's impact on the impact of single-family neighborhoods and parking in the city.

Augustus said he believes the housing crisis is a bigger concern than the possible impact ADUs could have on single-family zoning. He added that the state can figure out a way to implement the policy that preserves the character of neighborhoods and allows people options to stay in those communities.

"If the whole state of California and five New England states have been able to do this without hearing about the end day in terms of single-family housing, I'm pretty sure we could do it in Massachusetts too," Augustus said.

The proposed state policy would allow cities and towns to place a restriction that bans ADUs from being used for Airbnbs, Augustus said.

The legislation also makes it so inclusionary zoning, a zoning ordinance that requires new multifamily developments of a certain size make a percentage of their units affordable, is a zoning change that only requires a simple majority vote for municipalities to pass rather than a two-thirds majority.

Worcester passed an inclusionary zoning policy in April that Augustus proposed during his final months as city manager.

Inclusionary zoning a 'good tool'

Augustus said inclusionary zoning is a "good tool." If the inclusionary zoning proposal is approved by the state Legislature, Augustus said it will include regulations making it so that municipalities do not use the policy as a means to stop affordable housing by setting affordability requirements to figures such as 50% of new units that do not make affordable housing feasible for developers.

He added that a state inclusionary zoning policy would need some flexibility so municipalities can set affordability levels that match their needs.

Multifamily housing construction has been met with resistance in suburban towns. To address that reticence, Augustus pointed to the 2021 Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Communities Act, which mandates cities and towns with access to public transit change zoning to allow for more multifamily housing, particularly near transit stations.

In addition, Augustus said there have been talks about creating an effort to combat common conceptions about the impact of multifamily developments on communities and Healey has issued an executive order to create a commission to identify ways to streamline housing production.

On homelessness, Augustus said the state is seeing an increase in homelessness and municipalities working to find ways to add shelter space. He said elderly residents are being priced out are a fast-growing segment of the homeless population.

The secretary said shelters should be "brief and temporary" with the goal of getting homeless residents into permanent housing and people too often remain stuck in shelters with no permanent housing to go to.

Along with low housing availability, Augustus said the influx of migrants to the state has impacted shelter capacity. He said Healey has been aggressive in pushing the federal government to speed up work authorizations so migrants can begin working and making an income so they can move on from the shelters.

"They're the kind of resourceful, resilient workers that any employer would be anxious for and we've got huge needs in employment in a whole bunch of different sectors," Augustus said.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Edward Augustus Jr. praises Worcester accessory dwelling policy