Photo by Kelly Sue on Flickr.

While DC’s zoning update discourse has bizarrely revolved thus far around a small group of opponents spreading false information, there are serious policy differences to genuinely debate. One is the proposal to allow accessory dwellings in single-family zones in DC and Montgomery County.

Planning departments in both jurisdictions want to follow many other places around the nation and allow homeowners to rent out a garage, base­ment, or other space. This would create more diverse housing choices, make aging in place more affordable, and help more customers for neighborhood businesses.

They have also attracted vociferous opposition. In Montgomery County, opponents packed some recent hearings to fight the proposal. In DC, hearings haven’t come up yet, but posts on local listservs have been rallying residents to organize against the change.

Some residents have been meeting with DC councilmembers, including Michael Brown, who sent a letter opposing accessory dwellings after a meeting with “Neighbors for Neighborhoods.”

Much of the opposition is driven by fears of neighborhoods become predominantly filled with renters. But there are protections against this. The homeowner still has to live in the house to create an accessory dwelling. They can’t create an accessory unit and then rent out the main house at the same time while living elsewhere. There are also limits on how big such an accessory dwelling can be, and there can’t be more than one on a property.

Young and old alike need accessory dwellings

Accessory dwelling rules address twin challenges we face today that stem from 20th century suburbanization: Homes that are unaffordable for the young and impractical for the aging.

Metropolitan areas have ballooned in diameter as the population has grown, while at the same time older suburban areas have lost population compared to the mid-20th century. While most single-family homes were built for large families, today families have fewer children and couples are waiting longer to have children.

In addition, empty nesters are living longer in the large houses where they raised families, unlike previous eras where grandparents often lived with children and grandchildren. Thanks to all of these factors, rather than accommodating some growth, many inner-ring suburbs are gradually growing emptier.

That means that young professionals increasingly can’t find a place to live. There are not enough units smaller than full houses in desirable areas to meet the demand and often people have to buy more house than they need. Meanwhile, seniors face challenges “aging in place” such as dealing with stairs or the cost of maintaining a large house.

The solution is simple: Let property owners rent out garages or basements. A homeowner who doesn’t have children at home can rent a room over a garage to someone else’s adult child who needs a place. A senior can make some extra money or even move into the accessory unit and earn money from renting out the whole house. Housing can get more affordable for many people while also increasing property values.

Why not?

Why would people oppose this? Here are a few potential reasons:

Neighborhood busybody-ism. Look at some of these quotes from the Patch article:

“If they take away our voice by allowing accessory apartments by right, we don’t have a say,” said Kim Persaud, president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association. ... Said Howard Nussbaum, president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association, “With the special exception, I know what’s going on next door and I can put my two cents in.”

There’s an understandable impulse to want to have a say over what every neighbor does all the time, but that doesn’t mean the government should cater to it. In many neighborhoods, people rent out their basements all the time and the world doesn’t come to an end.

Race and class. David Moon at Maryland Juice suggests that people are scared of “poor people moving into their neighborhood” and that there is a racial element to this fear. To some people, a rental unit conjures up images of a Latino family or someone else “different.”

Many zoning regulations in the mid-20th century promoted de facto segregation by making certain neighborhoods unattainable to a large segment of the population. Neighbors for Neighborhoods has been actively trying to recruit members and start chapters east of Rock Creek Park, but residents in these areas may want to think carefully before signing onto any anti-accessory dwelling campaign.

Traffic and parking. More people could mean more traffic and more difficulty parking. Regionally, having more people live in established neighborhoods creates less commuting traffic along long routes in and out of the core, but it could mean slightly more cars in residential areas.

As Kaid Benfield thoughtfully explains in the Atlantic, these types concerns are real. Benfield writes that smart growth “manages impacts by concentrating them.” We get less overall traffic and pollution, but more in one specific place from an individual development project.

Making accessory dwellings legal across the District and in Montgomery County is actually better for impact-averse residents than any specific development because it will bring only slow and small change spread out over a wide area.

Much of the impact of this policy would be positive. Restaurants and local stores will be more likely to thrive or at least survive with more potential customers. More eyes on the street will make neighborhoods safer for children. A larger tax base will allow the District to tax each resident less.

Pro-DC will be pushing the DC Council and Zoning Commission to support accessory dwellings. Join the list below to stay informed about ways to weigh in as the process proceeds.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.