By Grace Mayer
FRAMINGHAM – Everyday, Kathy Paquette runs through her son Billy’s routine like clockwork. Her day begins at 6 a.m., allotting herself exactly 45 minutes to enjoy her coffee and breakfast, before Billy’s alarm goes off at 6:45 a.m. When it does, Paquette shuffles to Billy’s room and lays out his clothes while her husband helps Billy shower. Then, she cuts up fruit, pours some dry cereal into a bowl, and shakes up a protein drink for her son’s breakfast.
Most parents dote over their kids like this when they’re still in the childhood stage, all the while priming them for independence by doling out chores, posing reminders to make their beds, teaching them how to drive, to cook, and eventually relinquishing them to live on their own. But Billy, who is 24, has autism, an intellectual disability, a developmental disability, and epilepsy, and requires around-the-clock care.
Paquette, 61, and her husband, Bill Paquette, 65, are currently responsible for providing this care. But as the couple approaches retirement, battling their own health problems along the way, caring for their son has turned into a balancing act between managing his life, his medicine, and providing emotional support that, Paquette said, leaves the couple drained at the end of the day. Only for the alarm to beep the next morning at 6 a.m.
Planning Billy’s life after the Paquettes are unable to care for him has also taken a toll on the couple. It started in 2018, when they looked into securing a permit to renovate their basement into an apartment.
The Paquettes imagined outfitting the basement with a full kitchen and bathroom, additional amenities that were prohibited under Framingham’s zoning laws.
They wanted their son to live there with an in-home caretaker, giving him a taste of independence from his parents but also ensuring help and family is nearby when he needs it.
That same year, District 4 Councilor Michael Cannon proposed an ordinance to the City Council to amend zoning restrictions to allow for in-law apartments, also known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The ordinance was rejected.. And so were the Paquettes’ plans to build an in-law apartment.
“We don’t really have a backup plan yet,” Paquette said. “It’s a pit that’s in our stomachs that keeps us awake at night.”
Three years ago, the Paquettes struck out of luck on gaining a permit to build an in-law apartment. But now, this plan suddenly seems possible again.
This year, the in-law apartment debate regained traction in Framingham after Councilor Cannon asked to revisit the ordinance.
While other municipalities throughout Massachusetts have recently passed similar laws allowing people to create and build rentable spaces, including Boston and Salem, Framingham is focused on passing an ordinance that accommodates those who want to age in the comfort of their homes and care for disabled family members.
In Framingham, City Councilor Cannon said there’s still a “need to provide solutions so families can stay together, so our seniors can age in place, so that an adult child that needs to be closer to home can do that.”
“The challenge of being able to provide these solutions still exists, so as soon as we were able to pursue this issue again, I kind of jumped on it,” Cannon said.
According to the Pioneer Institute’s 2018 review of zoning laws for ADUs in Massachusetts, 31 areas across the MetroWest allow ADUs strictly reserved for relatives of the homeowners, caretakers, elderly people, or low-income households. Some of these areas include Bellingham, Beverly, Hopkinton, Maynard, Medway, Melrose, Milton, Norwell, and Stoneham—all of which require permits to build ADUs.
After Cannon reintroduced the matter to the City Council, the council turned to the Framingham Planning Board in February and asked the board to research and recommend plans for a new ordinance. Cannon said he hopes that by facilitating city-wide conversations and adapting the ordinance based on community input, the council will pass it this time.
In an effort to create an open dialogue with residents, the Framingham Planning Board Chair Kristina Johnson is working with the Board to collect survey data on residents’ thoughts about in-law apartments, research the law in other communities, and host public workshops.
The first public workshop was hosted at the end of June.
Johnson said the board is planning to hold another workshop in the fall to gage residents’ thoughts before finalizing the ordinance.
“We’re hoping that we would be able to come to a consensus on an ordinance that we would feel confident and comfortable and proud of sending to the City Council for their consideration,” Johnson said.
Cannon said residents who are against a law allowing for in-law apartments, less than 12% of residents out of 190 responses, according to a June survey distributed by the planning board—have mainly cited concerns about homeowners turning in-law apartments into “illegal apartments.”
Councilor Cannon said the ordinance should have “checks and balances” in place to prohibit the apartments from being used as rental units.
“In other communities, as I’ve looked around, as others have looked around, we really haven’t seen that abuse,” Cannon said.
While Councilor Cannon believes the demand for in-law apartments will remain low, he said it would give older residents, those who are 65 and older being the fastest growing age demographic in the country, and their families additional options to consider for housing and care.
According to the Planning Board survey, nearly 30% of respondents said they would want to build an in-law apartment in Framingham within the next five years.
Paired with the Massachusetts housing crisis, in-law apartments could offer a more affordable alternative for families. Compared to assisted living communities, where the price tags in Framingham can be more than $60,000 a year, the cost of constructing an in-law apartment could set families back $150,000 to build a 500 square foot apartment—a little larger than a two-car garage.
“When you need an option like this, you typically really need an option like this,” Cannon said.
When Billy’s done eating his breakfast, a bus comes to collect him. He spends the morning and early afternoon at the Charles River Center, a program that provides support to children and adults with developmental disabilities, while Paquette and her husband go to work.
Around 3 p.m. when Billy returns, Paquette fills the remainder of his day with activities. Sometimes a trained therapist, called an applied behavioral therapist, will assist the Paquettes by taking Billy for a walk or a swim. Other days, the Paquettes take turns keeping Billy occupied with activities.
Maintaining routine and consistency is key to Billy’s lifestyle. Throughout his whole life, Paquette has worked to surround Billy with familiar people and places to help regulate his mood and emotions. Until Billy was seven, Paquette said he was self-injurious. At 8 years old, after completing an evaluation, Billy was still functioning with the emotional self-regulation skills of a 2-month-old.
“With my son, the way his autism presents is he can’t redirect himself,” Paquette said. “He just goes on doing [something] over and over and over again until it builds, and then there could be a meltdown.”
But things have improved since then. A large part of Paquette’s daily responsibilities includes teaching Billy alternative ways to express his emotions and regulating his mood. Since he was 6, the Paquettes have had a therapist visit their home, sometimes as often as five days a week.
After living in Framingham for 25 years, Billy’s grown comfortable in his neighborhood. Because he’s grown up in the same home surrounded by the familiar faces of friends and neighbors, Paquette doesn’t want to remove him from what he knows. Building an in-law apartment would ensure he continues to live in familiar territory.
“Everyone loves him and understands him, and so this is the community that’s been built for him, that he’s enjoyed his whole life,” Paquette said. “We don’t want to rip this community away from him and have him try to start this road to independence in a place where he doesn’t have all the natural supports that we have in our community.”
With two parents alive and capable of caring for him, Paquette said Billy doesn’t currently qualify for government funding, group homes, or shared living arrangements—limiting his options for the future.
“If we were to die and we didn’t have a plan for our son, then the state would make the plan for the living situation,” Paquette said. “And that’s not something that we want. We want to be able to get him settled before we pass.”
Although Billy’s behaviors have significantly improved over the years, the pit in Paquette’s stomach returns when she thinks about her son’s future and the uncertainty that still surrounds it.
The Paquettes aren’t the only family banking on this ordinance passing. Framingham resident Suzanne Garcia said she would have built a detached in-law apartment for her dad two and a half years ago if the law had been passed the first time.
Instead, her family had to place her father in assisted living. But after he experienced a stroke and his health began to deteriorate this past year, Garcia decided to move him in with her family.
In a matter of two weeks, she built a wall to divide her living room, giving her father his own space in their home.
Although their house was brimming at full capacity, with three teenagers, Garcia’s husband, the family dog, and now, her father, Garcia said being around family has helped her father’s health significantly improve.
“You make the best of a bad situation,” Garcia said. “He’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him literally since the stroke. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
While for the last seven months her family’s adjusted to their current living arrangements, Garcia said an in-law apartment would have improved their situation by giving her father greater privacy and autonomy. Instead, Garcia said her father at times feels like he’s infringing on her family, and even avoids cooking in the kitchen because he feels like he’s in the way.
But the in-law apartment wouldn’t just be for Garcia’s father. By the time Garcia’s 17-year-old son, who has autism, is an adult, she wants to have an apartment set up for him.
Similar to her father, having an in-law apartment would ensure her son had familial support close by and the freedom to exercise his own independence.
“If you’re a young adult and going into adulthood, you want to be able to have a friend over and cook a meal and not be in your parents’ house,” Garcia said.
Like the Paquettes’ son, Garcia’s son will require oversight. In nearly every facet of her son’s life—employment, relationships, cooking, shopping, traveling, and emotionally—Garcia said he’ll need additional support.
After researching other housing options for her son, including group homes funded by the state and assisted living, where “the price tags are astronomical,” Garcia has ruled these out as options. For Garcia, the cost of building an in-law apartment would be more affordable for her family.
“Having looked at all the housing options for him, it’s a really grim reality out there for any disabled young adult,” Garcia said. “There aren’t really any options.”
When Paquette saw on the Framingham Planning Board survey that the majority of Framingham residents said they supported in-law apartments, she had a renewed optimism that she would get to build one for her son.
But now that Billy’s getting older, and so are she and her husband, Paquette said it’s even more critical for her family that the ordinance pass this time.
“We realize that as we age, we will need care, and we won’t have the capability or the stamina to provide the care that my son needs,” Paquette said.
When it’s time for bed, Paquette tucks Billy in with his iPad. He’ll search for videos of Sesame Street or images of familiar places. Some nights he’ll look at scenes of Natick, where his day program is located, and other nights he’ll settle on pictures of Framingham, the city he’s known and called home for 24 years.
While plans for constructing an in-law apartment are currently pending, the Paquettes are hoping Billy will get to live in their home for another 24 years and more.
“He would be able to feel the dignity and respect of being able to live on his own, as someone of his age should be…” Paquette said. “I don’t want to deny him that.”
Paquette sets her alarm for 6 a.m, and goes to bed. When her alarm goes off the next morning, she’ll swing into Billy’s routine—like clockwork. But at night, she thinks about a time when she won’t have to worry about Billy’s future housing plans. She imagines a future where he would be settled into their renovated basement. And she could finally plant the pit in her stomach.
“I am praying and hoping that this passes, because this is a perfect situation for my son,” Paquette said. “…. But in the back of my mind, I know I have to deal with the reality of it not passing.”
Grace Mayer was a 2021 summer intern for SOURCE. She is a Boston College student.