The Barrett Petition, another tool in the housing creativity toolbox

A zoning petition filed by Patrick Barrett holds a lot of promise for helping homeowners maximize value and “stay put,” while creating new living area for temporary or long-term residents. By addressing unused area in existing houses, this is a win-win for neighborhood preservation and density.

Accessory units mostly fall into the category of “tiny living” and all urban trends point this way: people, particularly those under 35, prefer to live in walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented, vibrant, eclectic, and livable places, and are willing to sacrifice “size” to do so. Using the word “sacrifice” might even be a mischaracterization: in many cases, it’s actually a preference. Birthrates, of course, are down, lower than any point in human history, by a significant margin. This means fewer bedrooms and less living area are in demand on a per-unit basis. Additionally, consciousness of one’s environmental footprint informs all sorts of financial and lifestyle choices, not the least of which is the classic, “biggest financial decision you’ll ever make”—buying a home. Those that require temporary housing prefer city/town centers, and are willing to couchsurf and airbnb (and again, even prefer it)—for the most part, forms of “tiny” lodging. The point is that life has once again moved outdoors, into the city, into the village, into the neighborhood, and well-apportioned, efficient, sustainable small/tiny living (and traveling) is the new norm.

Which brings us around again to accessory units and basements. These are the creative, eclectic types of spaces that appeal to people today; some of these units/living areas might even fall into the category of “affordable” relative to the many too-big housing units dictated by our zoning.

One important aim of the Barrett Petition is to bring out of the regulatory shadows practices which homeowners are doing anyway: finishing basements and creating accessory units without permits. The underground practice, in my opinion, is more dangerous any day than taking these practices out of the shadows—even with (legitimate) concerns about health and safety, particularly when it comes to basement living. That is: while there may be legitimate problems with the language of the Barrett Petition, it’s vastly better than the status quo. Housing can’t wait, living area can’t wait, and safety can’t wait.

As many of you know, I’m an historic preservation advocate, and intimately understand the necessity and purpose of historic building envelopes. Anything that creates more use and vibrancy for our existing housing stock, while minimally affecting that envelope, should be welcome. Even if we get into the realm of modest additions and refinishing, this can be done with minimal infringement, as has been done over and over and over.

Cambridge must be a welcoming place, and efforts like the Barrett Petition are not only common sense, but necessary as our city (like urban areas in general) are repeopled.

Relatedly, and continuing to make the case for denser living and building/preserving less parking, Cambridge has done a study on residential parking permits issued to residents in new developments (those 8+ units in the past 10 years). What they’ve discovered isn’t completely surprising: most of us expected that less than half of these residents would hold a permit. However, the real number is even more astonishing: the rate of residential parking permits per unit is a mere 0.26. The point is (bringing it back to the Barrett Petition and tiny living), we can begin—with data—to allay the common concern that all new development and new housing area/units in neighborhoods can’t be done, because of fear that the demand on parking will be too great. Car parking is a concern in virtually every development conversation, no matter how small, or how T-oriented. We need to get past that, and the data (and the very hard work of our planners) help us get there.

The Barrett Petition, another tool in the housing creativity toolbox