2-family house in New Hampshire. Photo by ilovebutter on Flickr.

Let’s say you own a house in Montgomery County and you’re having trouble paying the mortgage. Or you have more space than you need and would like some extra income.

If the zoning code is rewritten the way county planning staff proposed last week, you will be able to split your house into two apartments and rent one of them out … if you are five feet seven inches tall, have red hair, and were born in West Virginia.

Actually, the limits proposed on so-called accessory apartments aren’t quite that restrictive. But almost. Under the draft code, the following conditions must be met before a house can be divided into two units:

  • The owner must live in the larger of the two apartments. If work takes you out of town for a year and you want to rent out your house, you have to evict your tenants first.
  • The area of the smaller apartment must be less than 800 square feet.
  • You can’t rent to a family of more than three.
  • There can’t be another two-family house within 300 feet.
  • Each apartment must have its own outside entrance. The door to the smaller of the two apartments has to be on the side or back of the house.
  • You need at least three off-street parking spaces, covering at least 480 square feet of land. These parking spaces must be built without paving more than half of the front yard, even if the front yard is less than 960 square feet.
  • And when you somehow manage to meet all these requirements, if 1000 other people split up their houses before you, you’re out of luck.

Some of these petty restrictions are already included in the present zoning code, which in addition makes homeowners go through a 9- to 13-month review process that includes public hearings. Only about 10 houses a year have been able to pass the tests. The county today has about 180,000 one-family houses, and only a few hundred two-family buildings.

This is simply absurd. Montgomery has an acute shortage of affordable housing. The greatest need is for large rental apartments. Two-family houses save money for owners and renters alike. It’s time to make them legal.