Photo by KTesh on Flickr.

Will reducing parking minimums and allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in upper Northwest neighborhoods make living more difficult for seniors? That’s what a number of people argued at the Ward 3 zoning update meeting, but others cited seniors who will directly benefit from more housing, and more affordable housing, near transit.

Claudia Phelps wrote on the Chevy Chase listserv after the meeting, Tuesday evening in Tenleytown:

I was astounded at how many OP supporters spoke. I believe that every 2nd comment throughout the question period praised OP’s work and their ideas! Some people around me suggested that OP had paid them to be at the meeting. (We have just a teensy bit of trust issues, I would say)

Many people at the meeting noticed that the pro-OP/radical change speakers were younger (30ish), and the anti-OP/radical changes were not so young. Apartment dwellers vs homeowners, most likely.

That last sentence evokes many of the anti-renter statements that have circulated throughout the debate, where some people insinuate (or outright claim) that anyone who doesn’t own property is less worthy of consideration or will even harm the neighborhood.

One person wrote afterward, “I’m especially concerned about ADUs, and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young children’s safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units.” Steve Seelig replied, “Personally, I am appalled to hear and read about suggestions that those who would live in ADUs are going to have a greater tendency to endanger the children of our neighborhood.”

As for age, I actually didn’t perceive much of a difference between people who supported the (very much not radical, indeed quite timid) OP proposal, and those who opposed it. One speaker, Tad Baldwin, has gray hair yet said how important he thinks the proposal to allow accessory dwellings is. Others who appeared to be in their 30s argued against some of the changes.

Still, a pervasive theme throughout the discussion was whether the zoning changes would create problems for seniors. Moira Gillick spoke about the virtues of walkable neighborhoods, and a few people (somewhat rudely) shouted over her that walking didn’t work for older residents.

In fact, a lot of pedestrians in Ward 3 are seniors, such as those who live in the assisted living facilities in the area. It’s also certainly true that some people face mobility challenges, and need access to a car.

The fallacy in this debate comes when people assume that because one mode doesn’t work for them, it won’t work for others. One speaker called it ridiculous that people would come live in a building, like the proposed parking-free Babe’s apartments in Tenleytown, without cars. Yet two speakers just minutes before had talked about how they live in parts of Ward 3 without cars.

One woman said she’s not going to take the bus to Safeway with 5 bags of groceries. Fair enough. She doesn’t have to. But on a Metro ride home (from Tenleytown, in fact) the next day, I stood on an escalator behind a man with 4 large bags of groceries. The majority of people in Ward 3 have cars, and that’s not going to change if zoning allows a few new housing units marketed to people without cars.

Many seniors will benefit from transit-oriented housing choices

Some of those people will be seniors who can’t drive any more. Herb Caudill talked about

his parents

his wife’s parents, who live in suburban New Jersey and are afraid of the day they won’t be able to drive any longer. He said when they came to visit his home in Cleveland Park, they were amazed that he could walk to the grocery store, and asked if there was a library as well (there is!)

As a result, Caudill said, his parents are going to sell their house in New Jersey and their 2 cars and move into an apartment on Connecticut Avenue where they can walk to the library and museums. They can live independently even as their ability to drive declines.

(They will also become some of those “renters” that people are impugning on the listserv, or which people fear would come move into basements or converted garages and disrupt the character of the neighborhood.)

There is one obstacle for those like

the elder Caudills

Caudill’s in-laws, he noted: affordability. It’s far cheaper to live in most of suburban New Jersey than in Cleveland Park “because the supply of housing is so limited,” he said. That’s why we need proposals like the accessory dwelling plan. “This housing is not just for young people,” he said.

This is why we need proposals like OP’s that expand the supply of housing. If anything, this plan does not expand it enough. A property owner who doesn’t have an external garage today will be able to still build one as of right once the zoning update proceeds, but won’t then be able to rent it out.

Richard Layman argued that at least near transit, zoning should encourage people to add extra housing on large lots with enough space for it. We could help more people like

the Caudills

Caudill’s wife’s parents to live the retirement lives they want to have, but anxiety about “renters” and scarce parking has already led OP to water down its plans and lose out on one opportunity to let senior couples (and people of other ages) afford to come to DC.

The Office of Planning is holding their Ward 7 information meeting Saturday, 10 am at the DOES building, 4058 Minnesota Ave. NE, and a Twitter town hall using hashtag #ZRR at noon Monday, and finally the Ward 4 meeting at Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd. NW by Takoma Metro at 6:30 on Wednesday, January 16.

Correction: Herb Caudill emailed to clarify that the couple in question is his wife’s parents, not his parents. I missed that when he was speaking at the event. Sorry for the error.


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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.