Association Legislative News

New Legislation Regarding Accessory Dwelling Units for Seniors Takes Effect January 1st.

Starting on January 1, 2017,  Rhode Island law will make it easier for senior citizens to live with their families while preserving their independence.   Owners of owner-occupied, single-family homes will have the right to build an accessory dwelling unit, also called an “in law apartment”, for a family member who is 62 years or older without having to obtain a special use permit from the town or city in which the property is located.

Since 2008, home owners have long been able to build an accessory dwelling unit to accommodate a family member of any age who has a disability.  Starting in 2017, the law will expand this law to include family members who are 62 or older regardless of whether they are disabled.

The law provides the following benefits:

  • Allows seniors to age in place, close to caregivers, and in multi-generational homes
  • Creates a positive impact on the affordable housing shortage in Rhode Island
  • Complements other approaches for achieving community housing goals
  • Addresses other social issues relating to housing options for Rhode Island’s growing elderly population
  • Helps increase the supply of affordable housing without government subsidies
  • Makes it possible for adult children to provide care and support to an elderly parent.

The Rhode Island Association of REALTORS® will be hosting community forums to discuss this new law in the first quarter of the New Year.  If your municipality has specific mandates or information to share regarding this new legislation, we would welcome the opportunity to hear from you so that we may share your news, rules or regulations in our upcoming forums. Please forward any information or questions about the presentations, to David Salvatore, RIAR Government Affairs Director by December 31, 2016.  He can be reached at 401.432.6959 or

Read the law:

If you have legal questions about the law, please contact Monica Staaf, RIAR General Counsel, at 401-432-6945 or email

Frequently Asked Questions

What will this new law do?

The law,  “An Act Relating to Towns and Cities – Zoning Ordinances”, allows the owner of an owner-occupied single family home to build an accessory dwelling unit to accommodate a family member who is 62 or older without obtaining a special permit from the town or city in which the property is located.   The owner will still need to meet setback and other local requirements.

What is an accessory dwelling unit?

An accessory dwelling unit (“ADU”) is a residence that is attached to or built within a single-family home.   ADU’s have separate kitchens and bathrooms as well as egresses.

Why was this legislation filed?

The Rhode Island Association of REALTORS® proposed this legislation to address the projected shortage of housing for senior citizens.  RIAR believed that accessory dwelling units could be a good and affordable alternative to assisted living residences or nursing homes but local zoning ordinances imposed too many barriers for families to build this type of housing.   RIAR’s goal was to streamline the requirements and make them more consistent.

Who supported this law?

Senator Roger Picard and Representative Thomas Winfield were the lead sponsors of the legislation.  Representative Marshall, Williams, Constantino, and Craven were co-sponsors. A number of other legislators supported this legislation, and the governor signed it. The Rhode Island Association of REALTORS® and the Rhode Island State Office of AARP were the key organizations that supported the legislation.

Where can I read the law?

You can find Public Law 503 and 520 of 2016, “An Act Relating to Towns and Cities – Zoning Ordinances”, by searching the Public Laws section of the Rhode Island General Assembly web site or by following these links:

Does the law allow the owner of a two-family to add an ADU?

No.   The law is limited to owners of owner-occupied single-family homes.

Does the law allow non-family members to live in the ADU?

No. The law is limited to family members of the home owner.

Why is the law limited to family members?

The law was written this way to address initial concerns from elected officials that the home owner might turn the property into a rental unit or vacation rental.

Who qualifies as a family member?

The state zoning law defines a family member as “A person or persons related by blood, marriage, or other legal means.”

When does the law go into effect?

The law will go into effect on January 1, 2017.

What requirements must I meet to build an ADU?

According to the law, “the appearance of the structure shall remain that of a single-family residence and there shall be an internal means of egress between the principal unit and the accessory family dwelling unit.

If possible, no additional exterior entrances should be added. Where additional entrance is required, placement should generally be in the rear or side of the structure. When the structure is  serviced by an individual, sewagedisposal system, the applicant shall have the existing or any new system approved by the department of environmental management.”

What kind of documents must the owner of the property file once the ADU is approved?

The law requires the property owner to record a declaration of the accessory family dwelling unit and any restrictions with the municipal land evidence records and to file a copy with both the municipal zoning enforcement officer and building official.  In addition, some municipalities may require other documents, such as the annual filing of an affidavit. Check with your local zoning department to make sure that you have the correct paperwork.

If I sell or transfer my home, will the ADU permit automatically transfer to the new owner?

The approval for an accessory dwelling unit terminates once the title to the property is transferred.  The former owner must notify the zoning official in writing that the transfer has taken place.  A new owner who wants to use the ADU must submit a new application with the town or city.

What happens to the ADU if my senior relative moves out?

Once a senior relative no longer resides in the property on a permanent basis, the owner must notify the local zoning official in writing, and the approval for the ADU will terminate.  This would not apply if the senior leaves for a period of time for a hospital stay, a rehab facility, Florida for part of the year, etc.

How can I find out whether an existing ADU is legal?

Contact the local zoning or building department and/or check the land evidence records in the town or city in which the property is located.    Assessment records can tell you if an ADU exists but only the zoning or building department can tell you whether the ADU was permitted.

Can an ADU count towards a community’s affordable housing quota that is required by state?

No.   Unless the ADU is both government subsidized and the long-term affordability of the unit is restricted by deed, it will not meet the legal definition of affordable housing.

How will an appraiser treat a property with an ADU in an appraiser report?

According to a local appraiser, an appraiser must check with the town or city to determine whether the ADU is legal and whether it can be transferred to a new owner.   If the ADU has separate entrances, utilities, heat, etc., a lender may consider the ADU to be an illegal dwelling and require that the appliances or other items be removed prior to appraisal and/or transfer.  Certain types of loan programs, such as Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) may require that the property be owner-occupied and evaluate the property for safety, soundness, and security issues.


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