Now that in-law apartments are no longer outlawed, New Hampshire towns are working on the details of what is turning out to be a small, if intriguing, part of the region’s housing mix.
“We’ve had maybe four of them, if that,” said Stephanie Giovannucci, interim Town Administrator in Northfield, one of many towns that tweaked its zoning regulations at this year’s town meeting regarding what are officially called accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.
“We have people that like want to move into the ADU and rent out their house, or people whose parents are getting older and they want to move them in, or the kids aren’t really ready to go out on their own,” she said. “It’s been mostly family.”
ADUs have always been legal in some form in New Hampshire but many communities blocked them or imposed onerous restrictions such as requiring separate septic systems. In 2016 the Legislature passed a law requiring all New Hampshire towns to allow ADUs via relatively straightforward methods such as a conditional-use permit, and communities are still figuring out how to make it work.
At least six Concord-area towns had zoning changes related to ADUs up for vote this month, and all of them passed.
Ben Frost, director of public affairs at New Hampshire Housing, said the change was a good idea because it’s not obvious that Pittsfield had the legal authority to impose the no-rental rule in the first place.
“I know of no statutory authority that allows a municipality to adopt such a restriction,” he said.
Several towns, including Gilmanton, Henniker and Canterbury, eased requirements by allowing ADUs to be detached from the main house.
“It’s something that I’ve had a few people inquire about: Building an apartment above a detached garage, maybe for a child or a family member,” said Bre Daigneault, planning administrator for Gilmanton.
This change would generally keep ADUs a part of permanent buildings on foundations and thus would not allow tiny homes, the term for very small dwellings that are built on trailers and designed to be moveable.
Frost said the recent changes reflect changing attitudes toward ADUs. New Hampshire Housing helps promote affordable housing options in the state and generally favors ADUs.
“Generally speaking the reception in the past year has been pretty positive. I have not heard a lot of pushback from municipalities,” he said. “But some are being more generous than others … Some are coming up with some fairly creative barriers.
“I know one community adopted a maximum at 750 square feet, which is technically consistent, but with a minimum size of 700,” he said. “That’s very restrictive. I think it’s an attempt to subvert the legislation.”
Several communities increased maximum size for ADUs this month, including Canterbury, which also allowed two-bedroom ADUs.
One restriction that exists in many towns and was added this month in Epsom is to require the owner to live in the ADU or the attached structure – in other words, a landlord can’t use the law to turn a rented house into a rented duplex.
As ADUs become more common other questions are likely to come up such as the applicability of impact fees, which are charged to new development to help pay for increased costs on services like the fire department and highway department.
Frost said that issue appears to depend on the exact wording of a town’s impact fee ordinance; if it counts dwelling units then ADUs are probably exempt but if it counts bedrooms they might be liable, he said.
New Hampshire is not alone in wrestling with details about ADUs, which have come back into favor in much of the country. As a sign of interest in the option, the website AccessoryDwellingUnit.org rounded up names and synonyms for ADUs around the country. It found more than three dozen of them. They include variants like backyard cottage, “granny flat” and JADU, which stands for a small, internal “junior accessory dwelling unit,” as well as regional names such as Ohana Unit, a term from Hawaii, and Dawdy House, used by some Amish communities.