Existing accessory dwelling (which still doesn’t conform to the new rules) in Kentlands. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

Tonight, the Montgomery County Council is holding a public hearing on the proposal to allow many homeowners to rent out parts of their houses, like basements and garages, without a burdensome special exception process. If you live in Montgomery County, please ask the council to approve the proposal and eliminate some of the more onerous restrictions.

The hearing is at 7:30 pm. You can sign up to testify by calling 240-777-7803, or send written comments using the form below. The Action Committee for Transit, the Sierra Club, Takoma Park City Council, and others have endorsed allowing accessory apartments in Montgomery County, but some residents have been organizing to try to stop the proposal.

Montgomery-based contributors Dan Reed and Ben Ross have both written about the plan. Both argued that it’s a good idea, but also imposes some rules that will make it too hard for people to create accessory dwellings, especially in the places that most need them.

Most significant among these are limits allowing only 2,000 such units across all of Montgomery County, and requiring any unit be at least 300 feet from any other if they’re on the same block face. In practice, that means that in the more densely populated inside-the-Beltway communities, which contain most of the few existing accessory dwellings and have smaller lots, it will be much harder to build any new ones.

In fact, ACT’s testimony notes that according to the Planning Board staff, the new rule will not permit any new accessory units at all “in most of Takoma Park, Woodside, and North Woodside.”

Other restrictions say that the accessory apartment must have a separate door, but cannot have a separate address, forcing the tenant to get any mail from the owner. It limits a unit to 3 occupants, meaning that if a couple with a small child has another baby, they’ll have to move.

By comparison, the latest public draft of DC’s proposed rules would limit the accessory unit plus the main dwelling to 6 people. That gives a small amount more flexibility, as an empty nester couple would be able to rent to a two-child family, but similar situations could still arise.

The DC proposal does not prohibit separate addresses as far as I can tell, or require separate entrances, but it does say that any new entrance must be on the side or rear of the house. This is to keep single-family houses essentially looking like single-family houses instead of two-family houses from the street.

Accessory dwellings vs. two-family houses

Speaking of two-family houses, ACT’s testimony refers to these homes with accessory dwellings as “two-family houses.” That’s because ACT is pushing for a broader policy change, to legalize fully two-family houses, with separate units that people can own or rent independently.

In the District, there are many neighborhoods where two-family houses are the norm. Whole neighborhoods have “semi-detached” buildings, where pairs of houses share a wall, in what’s now called the R-2 zone. In R-4 row house zones like Capitol Hill or Mount Pleasant, it’s legal to divide a house into two separate units, and many houses are divided in just that way.

Montgomery County has far less of this. ACT writes,

Montgomery County urgently needs more two-family houses. This uniquely valuable living arrangement combines the ambiance of the suburb with the affordability and livability of the city. Yet in a county with 180,000 single-family houses, there are only 380 two-family homes in conformance with the zoning code (excepting a tiny area in Long Branch that is zoned for duplexes).

Letting some single-family homes be two-family homes is a great way to expand Montgomery’s population without creating as much pressure for development. This is the kind of policy that would be particularly appropriate in areas with good transit service, where new residents could come in and not be dependent on cars.

Distinguishing accessory dwellings from two-family houses, the Montgomery and DC proposals for accessory units both require that the owner of a unit continue to live in the house, either in the main unit or in the accessory unit. The Montgomery proposal also specifies that the accessory dwelling stops being legal if the owner doesn’t live in the house for 6 months.

ACT warns that this could mean tenants in an accessory unit would have to move out even if the owner of the home moves into assisted living, gets a temporary job overseas, gets divorced and gives the house to the spouse but has to wait 12 months under Maryland law for the divorce to go through, loses the house in foreclosure, and so on.

If the public policy goal is to keep single-family neighborhoods feeling like single-family neighborhoods, that provision protects this. For instance, some of the fears around accessory dwellings involved worries that houses would fall into disrepair or there wouldn’t be people invested in a neighborhood watching the street, the children, and so on. If owners still live in their homes in addition to renting out basements or garages, that’s not an actual danger.

Some Montgomery neighborhoods may well benefit from a more significant change to allow some single-family homes to become two-family homes, as some DC neighborhoods have long allowed. Right now, that’s not the proposal in Montgomery County or in the DC zoning update.

David Alpert created Greater Greater Washington in 2008 and was its executive director until 2020. He formerly worked in tech and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco Bay, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.