WEST HARTFORD — A variety of people have rented living space from Ben Wenograd’s mother in West Hartford, including graduate students and a sushi chef.
“I believe this was a good thing for West Hartford, as well as for her,” Wenograd said in a town council meeting this month. “And I doubt anyone would suggest that this should have been illegal. She had friends, however, less willing than her to share their personal space, who added small kitchens and walled-off extra bedrooms to accommodate their tenants. These were illegal.”
Wenograd applauded a new ordinance that will take effect Jan. 29 that will ease the city’s rules on accessory dwelling units.
The town council’s six Democrats voted in support of the changes in a January meeting. Those in favor of making accessory dwelling units more accessible say it provides more housing options and allows for groups such as aging residents, young adults or people with disabilities to maintain more independence while staying close.
It’s not an unprecedented step. Based on research related to the topic, including information from an organization called Desegregate CT, town planner Todd Dumais said out of 169 towns or cities in the state, “at least 141 of those were found to have or permit accessory dwelling units.”
And there have been ADUs in West Hartford as well — Dumais said research showed that “under the old ordinance or even predating any zoning” there were at least 32 detached ADUs.
Wenograd said in an interview he was “pretty excited” about the ordinance’s passage, adding those involved had been examining the issue “for about three years or more.”
“I don’t think it’s the end at all to efforts to update our zoning rules, but I think it’s a good start,” he said. “And hopefully it’ll encourage some of these to get built, which’ll help really diversify our housing stock, make [it] a little more affordable for anybody who wants to rent out a room to stay in their own home.”
Before the new changes were passed, the existing rules in the town dictated that a home could have an accessory dwelling unit of up to three rooms, but it needed to be on a lot “at least twice the area as required by the provisions of this chapter,” a repealed part of the ordinance read.
With the recently passed changes, some of the requirements are that the lot size just needs to be “not less than the minimum required lot size in the one-family residence district it is located.” The unit overall needs to be from 400 to 800 feet — “or 30% of the gross floor area of the principal dwelling unit, whichever is less,” the ordinance reads.
It’s also stipulated that an owner lives in one of the units — the main building, or ADU — on the property, among other requirements, according to the ordinance.
Not all were in favor of the changes brought forth in the ordinance, though. Town council minority leader Lee Gold — one of the council’s three Republicans who voted against it — said in an interview last week that he thought the ordinance modifications “could change the direction of the town” in relation to single-family homes.
“My concern, which I thought I voiced at multiple council hearings, dealt with the economics of the establishment of this ordinance,” he said. “I think there has been a lack of determination as to the economic impact the town will have relative to the establishment of this ordinance.”
He potentially sees the changes resulting in a bigger population that could bring about greater strain on West Hartford’s resources, he said. At this point, he said “we should continue to look at” the economics of the changes.
Wenograd said he didn’t “understand the logic of” the units having “some big economic impact negatively.”
“We’re talking about small units, we don’t do economic studies when we allow or when we approve an apartment building being built, affordable housing units,” he said. “We do approve lots of things, but we don’t do big economic impact studies.”
Wenograd pointed to possible positive economic implications, such as greater spending on homes and the addition of new residents in the area.
For town council member Chris Williams, he thought the changes were “a bandaid on the larger issue” — what he referred to as the town’s “unsustainable and exponentially growing budget that is causing housing to become unaffordable.”
Williams also said it was “a little bit unanswered” as to how having an ADU could affect the value of neighboring properties, whether positively or negatively.
Although it’s a small sample size, Dumais said a town assessor had looked into at the ADUs they knew about in West Hartford, and the official had deemed there was “no evidence that sales prices are adversely impacted by a neighboring property with an accessory dwelling unit in West Hartford.”
“I think there’s absolutely no evidence that it harms anybody’s property values,” Wenograd said. “I’ve gone through a lot of the literature, and I think it’s a myth.”
Regarding the need for a more varied selection of housing, Williams said the town is “unique” in that respect — “we have single family homes, we have apartments, we have multi-family housing,” he said.
“And I know because I’ve lived in all three, in town,” he said.
When there’s discussions about the town not having a fully “rich housing stock,” Williams said he doesn’t “know that that’s true.”
“I do think that we have relatively diverse housing stock, although some of that’s deceptive because it’s based on neighborhood, and there’s certainly parts of town that have very, have much left,” Wenograd said of the town’s housing options. “So, to the extent that this opens up more neighborhoods to a more diverse housing stock, I think there’s an advantage there.”
Regardless of perspective, one of the things that remains to be seen is how many more ADUs end up coming to the town.
“And the answer is, I don’t know. Nobody knows,” Wenograd said. “Nobody expects a huge number.”