General Assembly considers “Granny Flats” proposal

Published in RINewsToday on April 24, 2023

By Herb Weiss

After AARP Rhode Island’s successful efforts to pass legislation last year, giving more flexibility to the types of structures and arrangements that would quality as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), during this year’s legislative session the state’s largest aging group is working closely with state lawmakers, aging and house groups to advance H 6082. Introduced by Rep. June Speakman (D-District 68, Bristol/Warren), the bill makes further improvements to enable more Rhode Islanders an opportunity to develop ADUs on their property. 

ADUs, sometimes called “in-law apartments” and “granny flats,” are accessories to existing housing, either as a conversion of part of a house (such as with a walkout basement), an attachment to a house or a smaller, detached dwelling. They have become increasingly popular around the nation in recent years as states and municipalities grapple with expanding the existing housing stock while preserving the feel of residential neighborhoods. Seniors, especially, have taken to ADUs as a way to downsize their living space while staying independent in the community.

H 6082 was written in collaboration with AARP Rhode Island, for whom increasing production of ADUs has been a primary policy goal for several years.

Encouraging the Construction of ADUs

H. 6082 would provide homeowners the right to develop an ADU on any lot larger than 20,000 square feet, provided that the design satisfies building code and infrastructure requirements. H 6082 would also provide homeowners on lots smaller than 20,000 square feet to construct an ADU within the existing footprint of the primary structure or existing secondary attached or detached structure that does not expand the footprint of the structure, provided that the design satisfies building code, size limits and infrastructure requirements.

The purpose of H. 6082 is to encourage the development of rental units that are likely to be affordable, and also provide opportunities for homeowners with extra space to generate income that helps them maintain ownership of that property.

To ensure that the bill achieves its goal of housing Rhode Islanders, the legislation prohibits ADUs constructed under this provision from being used as short-term rentals and streamlines the permitting process.  Speakman considers H 6082 to be a small but important part of the much broader effort that Rhode Island must adopt to encourage the development of affordable housing.

“Our housing crisis is very complex, and we must be creative and identify all the tools we can to create housing that makes the most of our resources. This particular bill removes some of the obstacles to building ADUs while respecting municipal land use policies,” says Speakman in a statement announcing her sponsorship of the ADU legislation.

“For many people, especially single people, and older adults, ADUs provide just enough space and could be a more affordable option than a larger, traditional apartment. For some, they might make it possible to stay in their neighborhood after downsizing from their own home, or they might be an opportunity to live in a neighborhood where apartments are scarce or are otherwise out of their price range,” notes Speakman, calling for more rental units.

“Accessory dwelling units are a great option to enable seniors to live at home independently and with dignity near their loved ones. They are also a very simple way to increase housing stock. Like several of the other pieces of legislation in the housing package I’ve put forward this year, this bill was developed based on feedback: in this case, from AARP, who made the ADU legislation one of their top priorities for this session,” stated House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-District 23, Warwick). “I am proud to support and co-sponsor this legislation because I know what a difference it will make for many seniors in Rhode Island to safely age in place,” he said.

Hearing puts spotlight on housing bills

On March 16th, the Municipal Government and Housing Committee held a hearing on H 6082, part of a 14-bill housing package had earlier in the month by Shekarchi to encourage housing production. The legislation in the package stems from the work of the House Commission to Study the Low and Moderate Income Housing Act, which Speakman has led since its inception in 2021, and another commission studying all aspects of land use and development.

In her testimony, AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor stated that passing H 6082 would be a “great step forward” to improve the existing ADU legislation and to provide municipalities with guidance on how to apply the law in their locality.

ADUs can potentially improve the lives of seniors, caregivers, and people of all ages, too, says Taylor. According to AARP Rhode Island’s November 2021 Vital Voices survey over 54% of Rhode Islanders over age 45 would consider creating an ADU if the space was available.  In addition, a strong majority (84%) of Rhode Islanders aged 45 and over strongly or somewhat support town ordinances that makes it easier for property owners to create an ADU.

“Allowing ADUs by right where the proposed ADU is located within the existing footprint of the primary structure or existing secondary attached or detached structure and does not expand the footprint of the structure will provide the housing options and security that Rhode Island residents are looking for,” notes Taylor.

Warwick resident Keri-Lynn Edge and her husband contemplated building an addition on her property for her widowed mother who required constant care and assistance with activities of daily living. “Buying a home or condo, even if closer to us, would leave us in a similar predicament. It would take me away from my home to care for her and handle her affairs. So, an ADU seemed like the perfect solution,” she told the Committee. 

“Unfortunately, I am currently at a standstill with how to progress, and I am hopeful that this talk of ADUs comes to fruition,” says Edge, noting that the City of Warwick only allows one dwelling on a property and even though it is aware of H 6082 it won’t authorize building of ADUs until legislation is enacted.

In comments, retired Registered Nurse Timothy Tobin spoke of his long-standing plan to build an ADU on his daughter’s property in Bristol to live closer to her and his five grandchildren. Ultimately, he found out that in Rhode Island’s economic climate, specifically in his town, this project was too costly. “Between restrictive town and state building codes and very high prices for the actual building to comply with the codes, our dream is all but dashed,” he said.

RI Housing, the Housing NetworkRI Realtors, and the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Planning Association (offering comments to make the bill clear) submitted testimony supporting the expansion of ADUs. Governor Dan McKee, sending his blessing and support for the passage of H 6082, noted it will “clarify and noting that it will streamline permitting processes, standardize notice and advertising requirements, and incentivize creative ways to build more housing in Rhode Island.   

And RI AARP members sent dozens of emails from all corners of the state urging the Municipal Government and Housing Committee to pass the ADU legislative proposal, too.

Although there was no opposition at the committee hearing for the legislative proposal, the House GOP caucus supports the concept, but expressed concerns about its impact on Rhode Island communities.  “While ADUs have been a fabric of housing throughout Rhode Island including the rural districts that I represent, they bring with them some concerns that should not be overlooked,” says House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale (R-District 40, Foster, Glocester).” The current proposal can be modified into an effective tool to help combat the housing shortage, but it requires input from all of our municipalities – particularly those like the ones in my remote district,” he notes.

Chippendale says that this legislative proposal currently before the Assembly isn’t inherently bad, but it needs to consider the challenges it creates for all  39 municipalities. “For example – if there is not sufficient off-street parking, which this bill severely limits, towns like Foster, Glocester, Western Coventry and others can have problems. Issues such as snow plowing an already narrow roadway, the passage of large vehicles such as fire trucks, garbage trucks and others that can be impacted by cars parking on the roads.  Further, they can represent a drain on limited resources such as drinking water when more people are being allowed to draw from an existing aquifer that may already be operating under duress. The same applies to neighborhoods that have water districts with limited water supply,” he adds. 

Ultimately, no action was taken at the hearing, noted House Communications Director Larry Berman, noting that it’s the usual practice to receive input at the first hearing. “We expect a second hearing to be held in the coming weeks in which it will likely be voted on and moved to the full House for consideration,” he said.

According to Berman, the Senate has not yet duplicated this bill, but he anticipates that the upper chamber will before the end of the session in June. “It won’t be included in the budget because it doesn’t have a fiscal impact on the state,” he stated, noting .

Speakman has backing from House leadership.  In addition to Speaker Shekarchi, it is co-sponsored by Majority Whip Katherine Kazarian of East Providence, who is the number three ranking member in House leadership, and also by Chairman Stephen Casey of Woonsocket, who chairs the House Municipal Government and Housing Committee where the bill is the being considered.  Of course, Speakman chairs the House Commission on Low and Moderate Income Housing as well.

Other H 6082 cosponsors are: Rep. Megan Cotter (D-District 39, Exeter, Richmond); Rep. Jason Knight (D-District 67, Barrington; Rep. Susan R. Donovan (D-District 69, Bristol and Portsmouth; Rep. Teresa A. Tanzi (D-District 34, Narragansett, South Kingston); Rep. Cherie Cruz (D-District 58, Pawtucket); Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-District 72, Middletown, Portsmouth).

While the House mulls over Speakman’s legislative proposal, Smithfield just passed an ADU ordinance allowing property owners of single-family and multi-family homes to construct ADUs up to 900 square feet.  Other communities might consider following this community’s lead. 

With strong support of House Democratic caucus and no fiscal impact on the state coffers, there’s a very good chance that H 6082 might just make it to the legislative finish line.  Now it is time for the Senate to quickly act and pass a companion measure.  Expanding ADUs in every Rhode Island community is sound housing policy that will provide access to much needed housing. It’s the right thing to do.  


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