Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer

The Board of Alders on Monday unanimously approved a new piece of zoning legislation to remove barriers for New Haven homeowners trying to convert their attics, garages or basements into affordable apartment space. 

The ordinance will make two concrete changes to prior zoning restrictions in the city. First, the minimum buildable lot size in the city will be reduced to 4,000 square feet, which will allow for smaller parcels of land to be developed into cheaper housing options. Second, homeowners will be permitted to legally create one additional living unit within their structure without having to navigate a previously complex appeals process. As written, the ordinance should promote the creation of affordable housing options that profit smaller homeowners instead of the city’s larger landlords.

“This zoning text amendment is vital to the Board of Alders’ legislative agenda,” said Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker before the vote. “If we adopt these changes, we can remove barriers to small-scale housing development and strike a blow against exclusionary unfair zoning policies that have constricted the development of affordable housing for too long.”

Decker spoke in reference to a legislative agenda that the Board passed last March. The agenda featured five core priorities, including affordable housing.

He shared that the legislation to amend sections 21 and 22 of Article IV of the city’s zoning ordinance was favorably recommended by the Legislation Committee of the Board of Alders during an Aug. meeting.

The amendment aims to promote the creation of Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, which are defined in the text of the ordinance as “a residential living unit that is on the same parcel as a single family dwelling or a multifamily structure.” The space must provide “complete independent living facilities for one or more persons,” meaning they can be rented out as an entirely separate apartment space. 

ADUs can be created both within the homeowner’s primary residential structure — in areas such as an attic and a basement or through a newly added living space with a separate entrance — and outside of it as a “detached” ADU, in a separate standalone structure such as a carriage house or shed. 

According to Decker, in order for these spaces to be legally certified as housing units, homeowners previously had to go through a complicated appeals process involving the Board of Zoning Appeals and the City Plan Commission. Decker himself has served on the Board of Zoning Appeals in the past, and told his colleagues that this system favors “wealthy individuals or developers who can afford a real estate attorney,” while leaving behind working people without legal knowledge or the means to afford legal aid. 

“We will never solve this affordable housing crisis if the only new units that are being built are in luxury high rise developments downtown or luxury condos in East Rock,” Decker said. “These changes we’re talking about today will allow, for example, an owner-occupant in the Hill, who is on a fixed income and struggling to cover their taxes, to convert their attic into a small apartment to collect some rental income.”

Each year in New Haven, only about 50 ADUs are approved with building permits each year through this zoning approval process, according to a fact sheet presented by the Board at Monday’s meeting. 

The newly-approved ordinance reduces the minimum buildable lot size, which Decker said will allow small lots of unused property across New Haven to be utilized to develop these accessory units. 

The second prong of the bill, the Board of Zoning Appeals and City Plan Commission’s vetting process, will then streamline the approval of ADUs for any “owner-occupants” who wish to build them. After undergoing a brief design review and providing proof of residency, homeowners will be free to build and rent out their unit.

The “owner-occupancy” terminology of the ordinance was introduced through a newly-added amendment on Monday night, which passed after a brief debate. The amendment was proposed by Decker, and received the vote of all present except for Ward 1 Alder Eli Sabin ’22. 

This major caveat dictates that all homeowners applying for ADUs must prove that they reside in the primary structure that they are adding to. According to Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand, who spoke in favor of the amendment, this is intended to ensure that the legislation prioritizes “ordinary working people” instead of mega landlords or LLCs. 

But Sabin argued that maintaining the more complicated approval process for those who do not occupy the structure in question will lower the number of ADUs created overall, particularly in areas where homeownership levels are low. 

“The numbers that we received about this show that without the restrictions that we’re implementing for a new construction, there will be 12,200 lots that would be eligible for use,” Sabin said. “And with these restrictions there are 8,800 lots that will be eligible for use, I think given the horrible housing crisis we face, it would be in the city’s benefit and in the benefit of our residents to allow us to build more affordable units.” 

In response to Sabin, Ward 27 Alder Richard Furlow noted that the zoning amendment does not bar these additional 3,400 lots from being used as ADUs, given that the landlords who manage these properties will still be able to navigate the existing system. The only difference from the status quo, he said, is that there will be “a clear pathway for those who live in their homes” to build these living spaces.

Ward 19 Alder Kimberly Edwards spoke about the importance of regulating unfair practices among larger-scale landlords in New Haven through legislation like Monday’s zoning law. 

“While we like to believe the mega landlords, the slumlords and these LLCs won’t slip something in, I fear they will,” Edwards said. “Because of how we are currently running things … things slip through the cracks, and we need to be able to regulate that. I think this ordinance will help us in that regulation so we can see what we’re doing right and what we may need to change up in the future.”

New Haven is estimated to have a homeownership rate of approximately 28 percent.

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.