Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Tomorrow is the first public meeting for the DC zoning update. It might also be the most important, as the tenor of the discussion could shape a lot of press coverage. DC residents, are you going?

The meeting is Saturday, December 8, 10 am to noon at 1100 4th Street, SW, plus another Tuesday in Penn Quarter and Thursday in Anacostia. In any public process, regardless of the merits, decisions get made around the people who show up. If you can make one of these, please let us know here.

Some residents feel that letting someone rent out their basement or garage, allowing a corner store near homes, or not trying to override the market by requiring unnecessary amounts of parking near transit all will completely destroy life as we know it in many neighborhoods. You can bet that many will show up in force at the meetings.

Today, we will look at one of the controversial proposals that really shouldn’t be controversial: accessory dwellings.

As Lisa Sturtevant and Agnès Artemel have documented, the Washington region needs a lot more housing to keep up with job growth and replace retirees. In the District, they estimate demand for 122,613 new housing units by 2030. So far, we’re not on track to build that, even with all the construction going on.

Building more new buildings or larger ones is one answer, but new and larger buildings do bring impacts; plus, they concentrate the impacts in one small area. There’s an obvious, and easy, solution. Let people rent out their basements and garages in single-family neighborhoods and low-density row house zones where it’s not already legal to split townhouses into multiple apartments.

These existing houses held more people per building 50 years ago, when families were larger, than they do today. Now, we have more seniors remaining in their houses as they age, but who don’t need the space, but who don’t have children and grandchildren living with them that they would have in 1950. More young singles and couples are waiting to have kids and could live in a smaller space like a garage or basement.

It seems like a no-brainer, but there’s a lot of alarm in some of DC’s wealthiest low-density neighborhoods. Some is just fear of change, or worry that parking will become more difficult, and sometimes, it’s anxiety that poorer and browner people might start living nearby.

The details

The proposed accessory dwelling text is in Chapter 6 of subtitle D of the draft new regulations. In zones that don’t allow 2 or more units per house already, a property owner can create one “accessory dwelling” on their lot, either in the main building or an existing “accessory” building such as a garage, but not both.

Which zones does this apply to? It’ll be the single-family zones, plus zones currently called R-3, such as Georgetown, the northern part of Petworth, and parts of Ivy City and Anacostia. Those are in yellow, orange, and red on the big map here. All other row house zones, which make up the vast majority of row house neighborhoods, already allow at least 2 units per house or more; this won’t change anything there.

To minimize the impact on neighbors, there are a lot of conditions attached to accessory dwellings:

601.4 Either the principal dwelling unit or accessory dwelling unit shall be occupied by the owner of the lot coterminous with the accessory dwelling.

602 ACCESSORY DWELLING UNIT LOCATED WITHIN A PRINCIPAL BUILDING

602.1 In all R zones except [R-4 zones and on alley lots], one accessory dwelling unit shall be permitted by right in the principal dwelling, subject to the following provisions:

(a) The principal building shall have at least two thousand square feet (2,000 sq. ft.) of gross floor area, exclusive of private garage space;

(b) The accessory dwelling unit shall not occupy more than twenty five (25) percent of the gross floor area of the principal dwelling;

(c) No more than one entrance per story shall be located in each building façade that faces a street;

(d) The total number of persons that may occupy the building, including the principal and accessory dwelling units combined, shall not exceed six (6);

(e) An accessory dwelling unit may be added where a use category permitted as an accessory use is already located in the principal building; and

(f) The Board of Zoning Adjustment may grant, through special exception, approval to locate an accessory dwelling unit within a principal dwelling that does not meet up to two of the conditions of this section provided the applicant demonstrates that the application complies with the general special exception criteria of Y Chapter 8, and the general purposes and intent of this chapter.

603 ACCESSORY DWELLING UNIT LOCATED WITHIN AN ACCESSORY BUILDING

603.1 In all R zones except [R-3 and R-4 zones and on Alley Lots], one accessory dwelling unit shall be permitted by right in an existing accessory building, subject to the following conditions:

(a) The accessory building shall conform to all applicable setback and lot occupancy regulations;

(b) The accessory building shall be legally existing on [EFFECTIVE DATE], and shall not be expanded.

(c) The floor area devoted to the accessory dwelling unit shall not exceed 900 square feet;

(d) The foot print of the accessory dwelling building may not exceed 450 square feet.

(e) The accessory dwelling unit within an accessory building shall have pedestrian access to a public street via an alley, yard, an easement recorded with the Office of the Surveyor, or any combination of these pathways;

(f) The closest façade of the accessory building shall be separated from the closest façade of the principal building by a distance of thirty (30) feet minimum;

(g) A deck or balcony is permitted as a portion of any story of the accessory building; provided:

    (1) The deck or balcony is located entirely within the permitted footprint of the accessory building; and(2) The deck or balcony is oriented so as to not face a principal building on an adjoining property in an R zone; and


(h) An accessory building that houses an accessory dwelling unit may not be used at the same time for any other accessory use, other than as a private vehicle garage for either occupant of the property.

(i) The Board of Zoning Adjustment may grant, through special exception, approval to locate an accessory dwelling unit within an accessory building that does not meet up to two of the conditions of this section provided the applicant shall demonstrate that the proposal complies with the general special exception criteria of Y Chapter 8, and the general purposes and intent of this chapter.


One of the most key provisions here is that the owner has to live in either the main house or accessory unit. In a long letter to the Current, chief opponent Linda Schmitt talked about how when she was growing up, people looked out for the kids in the neighborhood because they knew them, and letting the neighborhood turn into one filled with “renters” (a code word, perhaps?) would destroy this. But it can’t, because the owners will still live there, and their tenants could only add even more “eyes on the street” (or backyard).

The condition (b) in 603.1 is new since earlier drafts. Schmitt and other opponents raised alarm that this provision could start a boom of people building new garage-type buildings in their backyards to rent out. That seems a little unlikely, but the Office of Planning nevertheless changed the code to say that only existing, not new, garages and other accessory buildings can have accessory dwellings without a special exception hearing.

That hasn’t stopped Schmitt from claiming that OP is “driving a relentless agenda” to, among other things, “allow 22-foot high expansion of garages for apartments or enterprises of varying descriptions. That’s higher than second storey windows!” Actually, the existing code lets accessory buildings be 20 feet, and OP says “we’re proposing an extra two feet to account for the slope of a roof.” 2 feet doesn’t seem like much of a “relentless agenda,” but okay.

This does mean that even if someone builds a garage 2 years after the new code goes into place, sells the house, and 20 years from now someone wants to rent it out, they won’t be able to. I’d suggest changing 603.1(b) to also allow renting out accessory buildings some number of years, like 5 or 10, after the accessory building is built; nobody is going to build one just to wait a decade and then rent it.

Also, why should it be okay to rent out a space above a garage if you’re using the garage for car storage, but not if the ground floor is an art studio for the owner? The Board of Zoning Adjustment can give a “special exception” to this provision, but that’s a cumbersome process; it still seems to unnecessarily privilege car parking.

Overall, OP has created an excellent proposal that bends over backward to accommodate existing residents’ legitimate concerns while avoiding some of the more onerous limitations of Montgomery County’s proposal. It’s still getting fierce opposition from the vast majority of posters on lists like Chevy Chase’s, along with the usual snide comments about people under 40 daring to participate in civic discourse.

Some areas, especially in that part of the city, have many seniors living in big houses. That means these blocks are far emptier of children and other people than they were when those residents were younger. Some want to be able to rent out parts of their homes to get more income, while others simply want to keep out the same kinds of people who used to live there or they themselves used to be. We shouldn’t dismiss those views, but neither should public policy cater to this desire.

Please go to tomorrow’s meeting, or the ones Tuesday and Thursday, and either support, or ask OP to further loosen, their proposals for accessory dwellings, corner stores and more. Tell us here which of these meetings, or the ones in January, you can make, so we can all be sure that there’s a strong contingent of support for a growing and more livable DC at each one.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.