basement apartment

Basement conversions to living space become part of a legal process throughout Cambridge as of May 1. (Photo: Marie In Shaw)

Overriding concerns from city staff about flooding and building codes, city councillors voted Monday to officially allow basement apartments. Seven members voted in favor, with Dennis Carlone opposed and Jan Devereux, who was a signer of the original citizen petition asking to add basement conversions to the law, voting “present.”

The addition to the city law, called the Barrett petition after proponent and Central Square landlord Patrick Barrett, arrived in August and made its way through Planning Board and Ordinance Committee hearings on the path to approval – technically passage to a second reading to take effect May 1 – in its original form. “People are leaving the city,” Tim Toomey said, crystallizing the impatience of several on the council in the face of lower- and middle-class housing pressures. “I cannot justify another year delay.”

A Basement Housing Overlay District was passed in 2011 expanding basement dwelling to some buildings along Massachusetts Avenue between Porter and Harvard squares, and it was broadened slightly last summer, but the Barrett petition would allow the conversion of basements and cellars throughout the city into “accessory unit” apartments, with supporters saying the construction will allow families to grow, host elderly parents or underemployed adult children or to earn rental income that can help them stay in their homes.

The petition could add 1,000 units of housing to the city, Barrett said. It allows basement additions to single- and two-family homes, eliminates a requirement for accompanying off-street parking spaces and says the square footage of the new units won’t count against homeowners as gross floor area.

Previous basement construction rules were “a gift to the rich. My petition is a gift to everyone else,” Barrett said. “Under this section, a family in East Cambridge is entitled to just as much flexibility as someone on Brattle Street. You pass this part of my petition and the people’s lives change for the better.”

“Neighborhoods will still look the same as they do now. The changes will come with what families are allowed to do inside,” Barrett said.

Landlord Patrick Barrett speaks Monday during a City Council public comment period.

Landlord Patrick Barrett speaks Monday during a City Council public comment period. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

Already being done

Indeed, one of the arguments in favor of adding the zoning was that the city already had many basement apartments – installed illegally and without city inspections that would make them conform to the minimum seven-foot ceiling height and rules about window size, let alone keep them safe from flooding and sewage backups resulting from improper plumbing put under stress.

“I can bring you through countless homes in my neighborhood where this work has been done,” councillor David Maher said. “Whether it’s been done legally or it’s not been done legally, it’s been done.”

The petition would add basement apartments in compliance with city law, supporters said.

Even as city staff expressed concern about rapid introduction of new basement apartments without the climate change modeling that would come from the ongoing three-year citywide development master plan, councillors expressed impatience and skepticism.

Implications

Vice mayor Marc McGovern questioned sharply the cautious city planning and public works experts, pointing out that homeowners would apply common sense on flood precautions because they’re proceeding at their own risk. “Are we protecting them from themselves?” McGovern asked. Councillor Leland Cheung added that looking across the river at Boston, especially the upscale South End neighborhood, revealed innumerable “lovely” basement apartments. “The model’s already been proven,” Cheung said.

On the other hand, Carlone cited a family experience in warning that owners may not understand the expenses they could face after flooding – in his anecdote, $180,000 in repairs for which the government contributed only $80,000. Devereux acknowledged that, upon hearing again the concerns of city planners, passage of the zoning “may be premature by a small amount.”

Even Barrett, speaking during the council’s Dec. 7 public comment period, praised the input of city planners and the Planning Board, which warned the council in a Nov. 18 memo that the proposal was “thoughtful” and had merit but contained “specific provisions [that] would have significant and far-ranging implications that might result in unintended consequences.”

May 1 deadline

For part of Monday’s meeting it looked like the council was heading toward approving the Barrett petition with the understanding that planners would refine the rules before it took effect. Maher introduced the idea referring to a year’s leeway, but councillors’ subsequent references took it down to 10 months, then six, four and finally to three – none of which made it clear how those refinements would be affirmed.

“We’re talking about approving zoning without the final details,” Carlone said. “I don’t get it … I can’t vote positively on a proposal without knowing what the proposal is. How do you vote on something if you don’t know the details? I mean, that’s what zoning is.”

Councillor Craig Kelley was similarly put off by the approach. Passing zoning that was to be changed after passage “inherently doesn’t make sense,” he said.

But McGovern made clear that he was proposing passage of Barrett’s original petition, without even the amendments offered by Barrett in response to Planning Board concerns. Instead of having a May 1 deadline that would include the settling of additional rules, the May 1 deadline would give the city “time to figure out how they’re going to implement this ordinance,” McGovern said.

After the vote of approval, a whoop could be heard from outside the council’s Sullivan Chamber – presumably from Barrett, who has said he’s been working on the petition for about two years.