In the fall of 2017, an extensive study undertaken by Senior Services/Lifelong Montclair identified housing as a critical and growing need for Montclair’s older residents. The “Age-Friendly Community Action Plan” submitted to the Township Council advocated for initiatives to help seniors continue to live in a place where many had raised families and developed deep roots, sometimes over generations.

Within the 171 pages there was a nugget – an idea seen as a creative option for seniors seeking a way to remain in Montclair and perhaps supplement a fixed income. Accessory dwelling units, a concept that was already taking hold in other states, could provide home owners an affordable housing solution and a path toward downsizing.

On Tuesday night, Feb. 21, five and a half years later and after a series of revisions, proposals and counterproposals, the Township Council voted 6-0 to make ADUs a part of Montclair’s housing landscape. (Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo left the meeting early.)

Only one comment was made in the public hearing on the measure. June Raegner, a Montclair resident, told the council: “I would like to commend you for doing something truly progressive. I would like this progressive spirit to pervade more of the things you do.”

In the council’s discussion, Third Ward Councilor Lori Price Abrams said, “We went a bunch of rounds and I think we’ve developed something that will again make for housing that opens up possibilities for people who can add on smaller structures that will be more affordable by the very size of them.”

As it has evolved over the years, the vision for ADUs has expanded beyond seniors; they are now seen as beneficial to a wide spectrum. The ordinance permits homeowners to create an additional living space on their property, either attached or as a separate, smaller structure. A young adult, perhaps returning home from college and seeking to save money, can use an ADU to establish a degree of independence.

As envisioned, advocates say, the units are also an alternative for township employees who want to live near their jobs but may have been priced out of the housing market. Health aides, too, can have their own residence while providing care.

Beyond its practical advantages, some, like Price Abrams, also view the initiative in symbolic terms, serving core values of “cultural and economic diversity” and honoring Montclair’s generational story. Over the last two years, Price Abrams has spearheaded the effort to make ADUs legal.

“We welcome newcomers attracted to Montclair’s community vibe and offerings,” she wrote in an opinion piece for Montclair Local, “yet housing costs have trended upward, driving the cost of housing beyond that which many residents can afford. That stress on affordability has motivated me to find ways to increase the housing options in Montclair to strengthen our rich diversity.”

Ann Lippel, president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, was part of a task force that worked with the council on crafting the ordinance. She was also chair of the council’s senior advisory committee – a panel that no longer exists – which played a significant role in devising and conducting the 2017 study.

She called ADUs “a good solution to address friendlier housing options. It won’t impact the streetscape, and there’s no infrastructure costs for the town.”

“ADUs preserve a way of life,” Lippel said recently. “People can stay in their own homes, maintain their house of worship and keep their community – how it should be.”

In an email to constituents on Monday, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis, a strong supporter of the idea, said the ADUs would spawn a broad range of benefits.

“This will introduce an affordable housing option to keep families together, for adults to age in place, college students to come live between school and starting a career and for families who need to support each other in a difficult time or have outside care,” Yacobellis wrote.

In itemizing key components and parameters of the ordinance in its final form, Yacobellis said the measure dictates that only owners of one- and two-family homes can build an ADU and that the owner must live in the primary structure or in the unit itself.

The ordinance says that a unit cannot be smaller than 300 square feet or larger than 800 square feet, though the space can be expanded with amenities like hand railings and larger bathrooms to make it more accessible to people with disabilities. 

Among other stipulations, there can only be one ADU per lot, rentals less than six months are not permitted, and the units must “harmonize with the existing architectural and landscape character” of their surroundings.

The units have become prevalent in several states, including California, Minnesota and Washington. In New Jersey, both Princeton and Maplewood have enacted measures allowing ADUs. As of about a year ago, Princeton had 18, while Maplewood had two.