MAPC presents

Living Little

Photo Credit: Union Studio Architecture and Nat Rea Photography

Living Little explores different types of small housing that would be well-suited for suburban communities throughout Greater Boston, where larger homes are more common. Smaller housing can provide options for a variety of smaller households—from millennials just starting out to baby boomers looking to downsize—helping towns meet need, retain household diversity, and take a “little” step towards addressing the region’s housing crisis.

Read more about Living Little.

What does

living little

look like?

There are many types of homes that would provide more housing options for smaller households while maintaining compatibility with the small-town character of suburban and rural communities in Greater Boston. Living little explores seven of these types:

Accessory Dwelling Units


Accessory Dwelling Units

A secondary apartment on the same lot as a larger main house

Photo Credit: Christoph Scholz

Cottage Housing


Cottage Housing

A pedestrian-friendly cluster of one- to two-bedroom houses, each one to two stories tall, with shared green spaces and detached parking

Photo credit: Union Studio Architecture and Nat Rea Photography

Tiny Houses


Tiny Houses

A house smaller than 500 square feet, on wheels or a foundation, usually with a high-pitched ceiling and a porch

Photo Credit: Alexis Smith




A narrow, multi-level home that shares a common side wall(s) with another dwelling, each with its own front door and back yard

Photo Credit: Curtis Adams

Single Family Home Conversions


Single Family Home Conversions

A single-family house that has been converted into two or more apartments, typically with few or no changes to the exterior

Photo Credit: Flickr user Roger W

Small-Scale Mixed-use Development


Small-Scale Mixed-use Development

One to three floors of housing above ground floor retail or commercial use, with parking located behind or below the building

Photo credit: Union Studio Architecture and Nat Rea Photography




A cluster of private homes and shared indoor and outdoor common areas, with a focus on living intentionally in community

Photo Credit: Flickr user Anne

Why Living Little?

There’s more to Greater Boston’s housing crisis than simply a lack of affordable housing. In the region’s suburbs, where most homes are single-family detached houses, there is also a lack of different types of housing, which leads to a mismatch between available housing options and the needs of the people who live there.

Barriers to Living Little

If so many people want smaller housing options, why does it seem like huge, expensive houses are the only things being built in many suburban towns? This video breaks down housing costs and the ways that local policy can encourage or discourage certain types of housing.

Living Little in our Communities

In most suburban neighborhoods, it’s no longer legal to build modest homes like duplexes or backyard cottages. But these rules can be changed!

Explore an

An Accessory Dwelling Unit, or ADU, is a smaller apartment on the same lot as a larger main house. ADUs are also known as “granny flats,” “carriage houses,” or “in-law apartments.” ADUs can be within the existing house (for example, in a finished basement), added to an existing structure (for example, in space above the garage or as a small addition to the main house), or free-standing (for example, in a converted a carriage house).


Photo Credit: Sightline Institute


ADUs were prevalent before World War II throughout American towns and cities, often housing in-laws, extended family members, or household staff. Following the end of WWII and the move towards single-family development, low-density suburbs, and increased zoning restrictions, ADUs lost popularity or were zoned out of existence. Beginning in the 1970s, a handful of municipalities began to write ADUs back into their zoning, recognizing ADUs as one solution to high housing costs. Nationally, Oregon and California are at the forefront of creating flexible zoning to encourage ADUs.

Potential Layouts

ADUs can vary widely in size, from as small as 250 square feet to as large as 1,200 square feet. Towns often limit the size of the ADU overall, or in relation to the main house (for example, the ADU cannot be larger than 30-40% of the main house’s area), to help ensure it is relatively lower cost. Building codes require an ADU to have its own bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom, separate from the main house.

So Why Don't I See More ADUs?

  • Many towns do not allow ADUs, or only allow them under very limited conditions, such as requiring that the main house be built before a certain year or requiring that whoever lives in the ADU be related to a person living in the main house.
  • Because ADUs are most often built by regular homeowners, rather than professional developers, it can be difficult to finance them. It’s most common for homeowners to use a home equity loan, but other options are becoming more common.

A Few Small Questions

How can my town's sewer system handle this?

The small size of ADUs makes their impact on public infrastructure minimal, especially when compared to large single-family homes or multifamily dwellings. For example, the impact of ten ADUs with two people living in each would have the same impact as that of four large single-family houses with five people living in each.

If my neighbor builds an ADU, will my property values go down?

That's unlikely. There is no conclusive evidence that ADUs negatively impact property values; on the contrary, ADUs can increase surrounding property values. Zoning bylaws can also be crafted to ensure the design of ADUs is in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood. [1]

What if these increase the number of schoolchildren in town?

ADUs' impact on school system enrollment is usually very small, because ADUs are overwhelmingly occupied by small households without school-age children. [2]

Select another typology

Dig deeper into Living Little with these additional resources: