By getting its housing production plan approved a couple of years ago, Wellesley put itself in a position to better control its housing destiny rather than allow developers to dictate terms. It also formalized the town’s efforts to address an affordable housing shortage that has since met state standards.
Now the town is making moves to even better define its housing make-up, which could include more options for lower income individuals and families, empty nesters, and younger people looking to move here at a time when the median price for a single-family home is getting closer to $2 million than $1 million. Existing homeowners could also gain flexibility to add accessory dwelling units to their houses to support in-laws, grown-up children, and possibly renters.
Town Executive Director Meghan Jop said during a recent League of Women Voters of Wellesley session on housing’s past, present, and future, that the town for the first time qualifies for the state’s Housing Choice Designation.This could improve the town’s chances for grants and capitol funding through programs like MassWorks and Complete Streets.
“[The Housing Choice Designation] is something we will be pursuing in terms of aggregating the materials and submitting that to the state for certification,” Jop says. “That is something we are actively pursuing.”
Hitting and surpassing the state’s subsidized housing inventory threshold of 10%—Wellesley’s at 11.49%—is among the developments (along with policies such as inclusionary zoning) that has raised Wellesley’s rating and put it in a position to apply.
Still, Wellesley has become known more for its McMansions and tear downs than its traditional homes and diverse housing stock. But Planning Director Don McCauley is optimistic that Wellesley can and will address its housing challenges. One way to do that is by cleaning up its zoning bylaw, which he said during the League of Women Voters of Wellesley event has “become quite a difficult document” over time.
He said trying to retain the single-family home character of Wellesley neighborhoods remains an important goal for the town, as cited in the town’s Unified Plan. But to address new housing needs, the town needs to consider supplemental uses for existing properties, which could include allowing for accessory dwelling units, often called in-law apartments though not restricted to that use. The key is that these units have a separate entrance from the main home, are restricted in size, and fall short of what would traditionally be considered a multi-family residence.
“[Accessory dwelling units are] clearly an objective of the housing production plan and Unified Plan… that we find a way to facilitate this,” McCauley said. “That will expand the number of people who can live in the town.”
It’s anticipated that an accessory dwelling unit bylaw could be drafted in time for a special town meeting in the fall, he says.
On the affordable housing front, Wellesley is using numerous tools to support expansion. This includes using Community Preservation Act funds, working through the Wellesley Housing Development Corporation (which is in the midst of being converted into a trust, if Town Meeting goes along with that), and working with developers on friendly 40B projects via that local initiative program.
It’s not always about the town coming up with money to support such projects, but there’s also “partnership through permitting,” Jop says.
The fact that Wellesley is taking steps of its own to address new housing needs is taking place at a time when the state is stepping up its initiatives to ease zoning rules and expand housing production, including via the new housing choice law signed by Gov. Baker this month.