Boston readies zoning change to make it easier for homeowners to turn their attics or basements into apartments

Many Boston homeowners with large enough basements and attics would no longer have to go before the zoning board to turn them into apartments under a proposal that could go before the city Zoning Commission next month for approval and inclusion in the city zoning code.

The "additional dwelling unit" (ADU) proposal, for which the city has run a pilot program in Jamaica Plain, Mattapan and East Boston for the past 18 months, is aimed at adding some more housing units - and at letting families and senior homeowners stay in neighborhoods they might otherwise no longer be able to afford due to rising property values and taxes. Mayor Walsh has included $650,000 in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 for no-interest loans of up to $30,000 for residents who meet income eligibility to help pay for the required work.

In order to avoid a six-to-eight month, $10,000 or so process to win zoning board approval - and to eliminate the need to meet zoning codes related to density and parking - these new units would have to be built within the existing footprint of a house, include a separate kitchen and bathroom, require homeowners to actually live in their homes and meet all city and state fire, building and sanitary codes, for example, the need for at least two exits.

Buildings with more than three units would not be eligible, nor would homeowners downtown and in the Back Bay, the South End, the waterfront and the Longwood Medical Area.

It's a more restrictive program than in other cities across the nation - and in neighboring Newton - where residents can actually add onto their existing houses. In Boston, residents who want to do that would continue to have to seek permission from the zoning board, after first trying to win approval from their neighbors.

Officials from the Department of Neighborhood Development, ISD and the BPDA tried to explain the proposal tonight before roughly 50 people tonight at the Hyde Park library.

ISD Commissioner Buddy Christopher pointed to South Boston, where many elderly residents have moved as luxury units march down Broadway; a program where they could share the increasingly pricey property taxes with a relative or tenant might have let more of them stay.

Although some of the people at the meeting agreed with Christopher and Marcy Ostberg, DND's director of operations, that the idea is a good one that would not fundamentally change their neighborhood, other Hyde Park residents expressed, sometimes loudly and angrily, to the point of raising new questions even before the city officials had finished answering their first questions, their belief that the proposal would lead to their neighborhood being overrun and ruined.

One resident said people in Hyde Park moved there specifically to get away from density and that "if I wanted to have 5,000 neighbors living within a block, I would have moved to Somerville."

Others noted that new people will bring cars to Hyde Park, because you just need a car if you live in Hyde Park, and asked where all those newcomers are going to park their cars. One resident worried about noise in general and from construction in particular; another resident raised the specter of her neighbor letting Jack the Ripper move in because she would have no say over who he rents to.

Ostberg, Christopher and the BPDA's Bryan Glasscock, however, said that even with removing the lengthy and expensive process to win zoning-board approval, the proposal just would not lead to lots of new units. Ostberg said that after 18 months, only 72 homeowners applied in the pilot in JP, Mattapan and East Boston, only of those 12 met all the code requirements - or found the financing or contractors - to get a permit and only 2 have actually finished the work and gotten certificates of occupancy. They said that even with the loans, the work to outfit a new apartment can be expensive.

Glasscock questioned why neighbors would be required to have any input about prospective tenants, especially since so many of them would be the homeowner's relatives. Adding one of the units "is no different than a kid coming back home (from college)," and nobody would think to confront a neighbor over that.

He continued that the requirement that the new units have the owner living in the same house is actually more of a safeguard than the zoning-variance route, which does not require the presence of a homeowner. "If I'm the owner, I'm not going to invite Jack the Ripper to move in with me," he said.

One resident sparred with Christopher over which one knows more about the city zoning code and thundered that the proposal "is costing me equity" because it would effectively turn all single-family homes into two-family homes, which he said just aren't worth as much. Christopher said the new units are not the same as those that a homeowner could try to win with a variance - for one thing, if the homeowner sells to a developer who has no intentions of living in the house, the property would lose its additional-dwelling-unit permit and the kitchen and bathroom would have to be ripped out.

In response to questions about how the city would enforce the new code provision, Christopher said the city would use software to monitor rentals to ensure homeowners are not simply adding units without permission - and that residents would continue to be free to drop a dime on their neighbors if they see something odd going on.

Ostberg said city officials began looking at expanding the pilot to most of the rest of Boston after receiving requests from homeowners in other neighborhoods - including Hyde Park. She said neighboring Roslindale has been the leading source of requests.

She added that one thing that surprised her during the pilot was that few owners of large Victorians in Jamaica Plain sought to carve out space from their existing living areas for new units.



Free tagging: 



if the homeowner sells to a

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if the homeowner sells to a developer who has no intentions of living in the house, the property would lose its additional-dwelling-unit permit and the kitchen and bathroom would have to be ripped out.

If anyone believes that I've got a bridge to Long Island for sale!


Yeah, right

"the property would lose its additional-dwelling-unit permit and the kitchen and bathroom would have to be ripped out"

As if that will ever really be enforced. Just like all the people who illegally paved over their front yards to create illegal driveways were fined and then had to dig up those driveways. In my 30+ years here I've never seen that happen. Once it's it in, it's in. End of story.


I assume they mean "The Stove

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I assume they mean "The Stove will be moved to the garage and moved back after the fire inspection:


I can see it now

The same angry old man who was mad about his equity will be first in line to scream about the city denying him the right to purchase a two unit investment property next door.

30 years?

ok, let's do this.

Let's assume this guy is in Readville because they seem to have lots of opinions on housing being added down there. Hard to find something with a 30 year history. Here's one with some older data:,fsbo,new,...

If it was purchased in 1994 for $120000 and held until today, that's 25 years. Current estimate and last listed price was $489,042.

That's 400% return on investment. How much more should be reasonably expected? My theoretical angry man from Readville can walk away with $369k on top of the original 120k they've paid off. There are of course plenty of multi-families down in Readville too.

Signed, a guy who lives in next to a multi-family building and whose home value has risen steadily since purchase.

There was no development in Readville

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Because the former Mayor lived there and did not want it. He wanted to ruin other sections of the City with overdevelopment allowing big, dense, overdevelopment with no parking, even though he had his own driveway. Boston was going to be the Bronx or Columbia Point Pt2 except for Readville and West Roxbury.

How quickly they forget ...

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It was Menino who backed a plan for a huge development at the old Stop & Shop site - hundreds and hundreds of housing units - like 1,500 of them.

Granted, the thing fell apart when Dedham got greedy and decided it wanted more for its piece of the site than it was probably worth (it's not like you can even get to its section without going through Readville), but it never would've gotten as far as it did without Menino.

This is kinda funny

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One of the reasons we are so short on housing now is that we are making up for what Menino didn't do. Marty has his warts like any human being, but his greatest accomplishment is probably steady housing development west of Mass Ave and especially south of Brookline. And this is not a bad thing.

Not exactly

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For starters - going from $120k to 489k is about 300% return (the first 100% is just getting your money back, not a return on investment) - but I get what you mean.

Everyone sees the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and thinks real estate is such a great investment (it can be, especially if you rent it out and cover the bills along the way - different from your home, but lots of work and lots of risks). But a home is usually at best a very mediocre investment.

Consider - you pay about 1% of the value each year in taxes. That's probably $50k over a 25 year period on this home. Then you have to add in maintenance - usually about 1% a year on a depreciation basis (you might not spend that 1% every year - but you will eventually - new roof, painting, hot water heater, new kitchen/bath etc. Say another $50k.

Then you have to assume you pay off that mortgage but still probably had about $100k in loans that took decades to pay off - so that may be another $$100k or more in interest (interest rates were about 7% in 1994).

Then there's stuff like tools, lawn mowers, snow blowers and maybe paying someone to cut the grass, paint the home, remove snow etc. depending on your health, job and more. Break out another few thousand.

So let's say the house has cost the person $225k in all these expenses. Now you have $345 in the property.

Even if you sell it for that asking price - you probably have another $25k in selling costs (realtors, cleaning, moving fees, transfer tax etc.). Now you have $370k into the house and you get $489k out. Your net return, assuming you don't owe any capital gains taxes (you likely wouldn't if you were married - you likely would if you are single) is now about 32% - or a shade over 1% a year.

If you own the place as an investment (and leveraged it with a mortgage) and your tenants carried the cash flow maybe with some left over - whole different story. If it's your home - you can do a whole lot better as investments go, this guy included. Not that I agree with him - but if he's right (I have no opinion) - now even his 1% annual return might be closer to zero.

Rent v. own = money out of pocket either way...

Your numbers are pretty comprehensive but I'd say the mortgage costs shouldn't be considered because if this theoretical angry old man didn't own his house, he'd be paying rent for the same amount of time so that's money out of his pocket regardless of if its going to a bank or landlord? No free housing out there...

Fair criticism

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And you could apply it across the board to many of the other expenses as well (property taxes for example which you pay indirectly as a renter). Owning definitely better than renting, but as investments go it's still mediocre to poor compared to alternatives. Best bet is to live WAY below your means and invest the rest - but tough for the average person. There are some great stories of professional athletes that have been smart with their money and done that. Gronkowski is a good example - reportedly lived off his endorsements and banked his salary. Granted, lots easier when you can scrape by on a few million a year and still have millions left over, but I've met people that have done an amazing job on very moderate salaries squirreling away literally millions of dollars, but lots of lifestyle sacrifices along the way.

Follow up

I mean, is your complaint that if you've paid off your home after 30 years, and therefore made $350k+ in gains, you should be fighting tooth and nail to be sure that number doesn't drop down to say $300k due to area developments? You're still clearing several hundred thousand dollars!

Has to do with the zoning that covers them

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Apparently those areas are still under the original zoning codified in the 1800s (well, the original modern zoning, since the first zoning ever in the US was in the Back Bay in the 19th century), and for some reason that means they couldn't apply this proposal to them. Christopher didn't explain further and I didn't go up to him afterwards to ask.


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Not a big deal - not many houses left that haven't already converted space - or are owned by people so wealthy they don't need or want basement units unless it's for their au pere.

Thanks for covering this - sounds like a good change to get some extra units of housing squeezed in between new development.


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That's covered under the proposal - basement units can't be in a flood plain. As you can imagine, this would be an issue in most of East Boston. It sounded like it was just a technical issue involving the way the zoning in those districts was written.

Question, Does this allow

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Question, Does this allow for renovations of existing outbuildings? For example if you have a converted garage to office space, could you turn it into a studio apartment?

Two new apartments in 18

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Two new apartments in 18 months, and the neighbors are still up in arms about being overrun. Meanwhile the housing crisis continues while we bicker about owner occupancy landlord rules.



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One does not have to look too hard to see problems with illegal apartment conversions in attics and basements of buildings that have even caused death. Granted those are not what the focus of this is - since there presumably will be code inspections? But we still shouldn't plunge blindly forwards for the sake of a few dozen extra apartments. That won't fix the housing crisis. What is needed is actually dense buildings to replace free standing houses. Also the right kind of buildings - no cheap wood framing but actual steel and concrete.

Good point, BlackKat.

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Moreover, basement apartments are totally insecure. It's far easier for somebody to break into a basement apartment, and, especially for a girl or a woman, insecure in that a person who wishes to break into a basement apartment late at night or during the wee hours of the morning (i. e. between 1 and 4 a. m.), will be able to do so easily.

Also, the chances are at least as good as not that if someone breaks into a house or apartment late at night or during the wee hours of the morning, that they're not just out to steal whatever suits their fancy, but has even more sinister motives, if one gets the drift.

Oh the Horrors!

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They don't do things in Boston like they do in Wayland!

Maybe we should leave it up

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Maybe we should leave it up to the perspective tenants to decide whether or not they're willing to put up with the (probably negligible) increased risk of break-ins in exchange for (sometimes substantially) lower rent. After all, $200-300 less per month could pay for quite a lot of new stuff...

Also, everything you've described also applies to first floor apartments and single family homes, so...

They will have to meet code:

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They will have to meet code:

  • Each unit must have at least 150 square feet of total space for the one tenant. For each additional tenant, the unit needs another 100 square feet. Total living space includes all rooms except rooms with ceilings lower than five feet.
  • A unit needs at least one electrical fixture and an outlet, or two outlets. They must be ten feet apart in a useful location. All units must have smoke detectors as defined by state fire safety codes.
  • The room must get natural light from a window that's equal to at least 8 percent of the floor space. A unit also needs a window that can be opened to at least 4 percent of the floor space.
  • All buildings and units must have locks on the doors. Windows that open to the outside must have locks, too. Locks need to function in a way that they won't trap people in the building.
  • Doors and windows that open to the outside must have tight-fitting and self-closing screens. You can have screens that slide side to side. You don't need to have screens on windows above the fourth floor.
  • A tenant only has to pay utility bills if it says so in the lease and the utility ONLY serves their unit. If you’re a property owner and pay the utilities, you must keep the heat at a minimum of 68 degrees from 7 a.m. - 11 p.m. during heating season from September 15 - June 15. The heat can’t go below 64 degrees outside of those hours.
  • You don't have to have a heat source in every room as long as the overall temperature meets the heating requirements. You can’t remove or shut off a tenant’s utilities. You can only shut off their utilities if it's temporary because you need to make repairs or alterations.


  • Floors and walls must be smooth and nonabsorbent, and need to be easy to clean. Bathtubs must be watertight. Walls also need to be watertight up to 48 inches from the floor, and up to six feet in the shower. All bathrooms must have:
  • a toilet with a seat
  • a bathtub or shower
  • at least one light fixture
  • a door that can be closed
  • a sink that's not in a room used for sleeping, eating, or cooking. The kitchen sink is not acceptable. You can put the sink next to the bathroom if you can't fit it inside.
  • You must provide either a window that can be opened or a vent system. The window should represent 4 percent of the floor space. Ventilation systems must provide five air changes each hour. The system also needs to be easy to switch on and off.
  • Plumbing fixtures must be properly connected to water and sewer systems. The bathroom needs to have decent water pressure. Hot water must be within the range of 110-130 degrees.
  • Tenants must be able to get to the bathroom from within the building. They also need to be able to get to the bathroom without going through another unit.

If you’re a property owner, you must give your tenants light bulbs for common area lights. You can put common area lights on a tenant’s meter if the building has three units or less. Your tenant needs to agree to this, and the control for the lights must be in their unit.

You have to install handrails on all stairways. All structures more than 30 inches off the ground must have a wall or guardrail that’s at least 36 inches tall. All structural elements need to be in good condition and fit to use. They must also be weather tight. Structural elements include walls, floors, ceilings, and stairs.

Section 11.03 — Means of Egress to be Maintained
Means of egress in every building shall be maintained to afford all occupants convenient facilities for escape. The means of egress shall be maintained in kinds, number, location, and capacity as required by law, ordinance, regulation, or approved reference standard applicable to the particular occupancy and building for the number of persons exposed, height, area, and type of construction of the building and as permissible in consideration of the fire protection provided.

Section 11.04 — Number of Means of Egress
In every building and any section or area thereof of such size, occupancy, and arrangement that
reasonable safety of the occupants may be endangered by the blocking of any single means of
egress due to fire or smoke, at least two means of egress remote from each other shall be
maintained. They shall be so arranged as to minimize any possibility that both may be blocked
by fire or other emergency condition.

Section 11.08 — Blocking and Barring Windows
(a) Exterior windows of any building shall not be bricked in, boarded up, blocked with stock, or
in any way prevented from being used in the event of fire as an exit to the outside street level via
Fire Department ladders or otherwise by the occupants thereof, or from being used by the Fire
Department for rescue work, ventilation, and access to an interior fire, unless approved by the
Head of the Fire Department.
(b) Exterior windows shall not be equipped with bars or grille work which would prevent the use
of such windows as an exit in case of fire or explosion, unless such bars or grille work are
equipped with devices so designed as to permit ready escape therefrom by occupants thereof, and
to permit ready access from the outside by the Fire Department, except in places of detention,
windows in elevator shafts, and windows facing and within 5 feet of open tanks or moving

But that being said basement apartments are not being found before rented despite being illegal
"Anwar Faisal is one of the giants of the student apartment rental business in Boston — maybe the biggest of them all. Few, if any, landlords own and rent more units to students; few, if any, have a longer rap sheet of offenses against state sanitary and building codes; and no one better exemplifies the city’s ineffectiveness at policing chronic offenders like him."

Again an different illegal basement apartment in Sept 2012
"The city condemned a basement apartment that Anwar Faisal had leased directly to a Northeastern University student, Tim Granger, at 115 St. Stephen St., steps from the campus. Granger’s father, a Connecticut general contractor, recognized that the $1,200-a-month, roach-infested unit flouted the state’s sanitary code and was a firetrap. As it turned out, the city said, Faisal didn’t even have a certificate of occupancy for the apartment."

Same apartment 2013
"Another Faisal property condemned in 2013
The city condemned another basement apartment that Anwar Faisal had leased to three Berklee College of Music students next door at 109 St. Stephen St. Inspectors deemed it a fire trap and later discovered something else, they said. The city had authorized Faisal to have only 25 apartments in the building, not 26, making this apartment illegal."

The fatal fire fire on Linden Street with the attic apartment with no egress

Or this fatal fire in Quincy

What about flooding?

They will have to meet code, and then some...

They will also need to meet the requirements of the International Residential Code (IRC), 9th Edition with Massachusetts amendments (780 CMR) and possibly some portions of the IBC/IEBC in edition to any City of Boston requirements-so whatever is the highest level of compliance rules.

The requirement is for no units in a flood plain. This does not of course mean they are not susceptable to flooding as site grading, drainage and other localized issues could be contributing factors. As a cellar dweller that barely survived the recent "Back Bay Flood of 2019 caused by a BWSC water main break (+100 year old pipe) I can attest to these issues-well over 1 mil. in damage to basement units (one neighbor had 4-5' feet of water and is looking at min. 250kin repairs) or building systems in basements and the insurance companies are calling it a "groundwater issue" and not paying. So hello BWSC lawsuits... I got lucky this time-everyone to each side of me got flooded-it stopped feet from my below grade stairwell.

other Hyde Park residents

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other Hyde Park residents expressed, sometimes loudly and angrily, to the point of raising new questions even before the city officials had finished answering their first questions, their belief that the proposal would lead to their neighborhood being overrun and ruined.

We all know that there is a housing crisis in Boston. Rents keep increasing and people are being priced out. Cities have to be dense to succeed.

Why isn't more done to completely sideline these NIMBY assholes?


They scream so loudly now

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Then they will whine and whine and whine when they can't make a new apartment for Junior or Grandma.

Jack The Ripper?

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Two people using the example of “Jack The Ripper.” So lame. I doubt they have any idea of what they are talking about with regard to that example, or other stuff in general. It must be strange for Adam to be in a room with so many people who are so cognitively inferior to him.

I am happy, however, that basement dwellers will be able to come out of the shadows.

Jack the Ripper

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was a straight guy pretending to be gay so that the landlord will let him share the upstairs apartment with two girls.


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Yeah but that was Santa Monica in 1977.. not Boston.

Another thing worth noting:

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Another thing worth noting: one of the reasons so few 2->3 family conversions were requested in the original pilot program is that the third unit must include a new sprinkler system (estimated cost: $20k+), and if any of the other units are renovated after that, they must be sprinklered as well.

They discussed that

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Christopher said the really expensive sprinkler system would mostly only be an issue with existing three-unit buildings because they would involve a new connection to the city water system. Single-family homes could probably get by with a tank system, which he said would be a lot cheaper.

Not to mention

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that, in either event, a second egress is an absolute necessity.

It sounds like a good idea,

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but then they basically say to people who oppose it, "Don't worry about it, because hardly anybody goes through with it anyway."

Bad idea

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Sorry, no. Marty Walsh has decided that the zoning code is an impediment, and every agency he controls is devising work-arounds.

And when the house is sold, what happens if the new owner is an investor? Who enforces this "rip out the kitchen and bathroom" rule? There are lots of illegal units in Boston. Even when they are cited, and then owners unsuccessfully seek to have the apartment made legal, nothing happens. When has the apartment ever been removed?

Basement apartments - dark, poor ventilation, often difficult to access, and noisy given they are close to furnaces and laundry rooms - should not be encouraged.

The process for obtaining a variance is not all that difficult, nor expensive. If Walsh feels it is, he can change that.

The process for obtaining a

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The process for obtaining a variance costs about $10k (mostly in legal fees), takes several months, and depends on input from your neighbors, so it is far from a sure thing (which can cause the cost to balloon). And it's hard to fault Marty for wanting to ignore the zoning code considering its racist origins.

People have been creating illegal basement apartments since long before this ordinance came into effect. The hope is that this will actually allow some of the existing illegal apartments to easily become legalized and therefore inspected and possibly even brought up to code and modernized.


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One resident said people in Hyde Park moved there specifically to get away from density and that "if I wanted to have 5,000 neighbors living within a block, I would have moved to Somerville."

That settles it: we'll pay for the extra $650K in city budget by generating electricity from the collective eye-rolling of everyone within earshot of this yokel.

What if the owner moves/sells?

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Does the tenant get to stay?

If a new apartment is made in an attic then wouldn't an exterior stairway(s) have to be added on? Wouldn't that be outside of the existing footprint of the house?

How can Glasscock predict who would be the tenants?

What kind of software is able to monitor whether a homeowner has someone living in their basement?

What if the homeowner decides to live somewhere else and rent the rest of the house? How is that going to be enforced if the owner doesn't tell the City?

letting families and senior homeowners stay in neighborhoods they might otherwise no longer be able to afford due to rising ... taxes

a program where they could share the increasingly pricey property taxes

If Marty truly cared about those who could not afford the property taxes, he would actually do something about the property taxes so residents would able to stay in their homes.
And with all the building he is allowing, you'd think he would require units for the elderly if he really wanted them to be able to stay in their neighborhoods.

To answer your first question

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Depends on two things. The first is unique to this program. If the buyer is a homeowner who will live in the house, the unit can stay. The second, though, is no different than any other landlord/tenant arrangement - it's up to the new landlord (assuming he or she is moving into the house) to decide whether to let the tenant stay.

I've got no horses in this

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I've got no horses in this race, but find that bit interesting... theoretically, you have a tenant in your basement and you sell your house to a developer or non-resident landlord. So by the rules of the program, they have to rip out the extra unit. But the tenant has a signed lease, presumably for a year (although two-year leases aren't unheard of!) And MA tenant-law is super well established in terms of protecting people through the terms of their lease.... so what takes precedence? Does the larger part of the house just stay empty? Does that even avoid the "rip the unit out" trigger? Will landlords be able to move out and use that as a quick-escape clause for (the few, bad) tenants who play the "uninhabitable, housing court, no pay" game?

I mean realistically we all know nothing is ever going to get pulled out unless the whole building's getting flipped to condos and eventually it'll just be like 100 odd rule-breaking apartments scattered across the city, but it's still interesting