The home on the right is currently illegal in Arlington. New regulations could change that. Image by radcliffe dacanay licensed under Creative Commons.

Arlington County passed an ordinance in 2009 legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs), meaning a homeowner can rent or sell a livable portion of their home like a basement or carriage house. But in nearly a decade only 20 ADs (as they’re referred to in Arlington) have come on the local market, in part because of overly restrictive regulations. This fall, the County Council is considering fixing that problem.

Accessory dwellings are important tool for cities that are trying to create affordable options for people of all incomes across all neighborhoods. Because of the nature of these units, they are often cheaper than nearby market prices, offering comparably affordable options in what are often higher cost neighborhoods.

ADs can also help homeowners stay in their neighborhoods. One of Arlington’s policy goals was to help older homeowners “age in place”, as ADs offer an additional source of income for those willing to rent out a portion of their home.

Image by Arlington County.

Finally, ADs are an important opportunity to bring additional density to an area without significantly altering the landscape of the surrounding neighborhood (something that drives some BANANAS). In a region that’s adding more than a thousand new residents every month, we need all jurisdictions to consider how to best make room for new neighbors in our existing neighborhoods. Otherwise, among other consequences like rising rents, we set ourselves up for increased displacement as those coming here with more resources will continue to outbid those with less.

Arlington’s original ordinance has produced far too few AD’s

Advocates and planners in Arlington successfully passed an ordinance legalizing ADs in Arlington in 2008, with its regulations coming online in 2009. The results have been lackluster: only 20 ADUs have been approved since.

Image by Arlington County.

There are many potential barriers to a homeowner attempting to bring an AD to their home, such as construction costs and regulatory barriers. We need those regulations to make sure these units are safe and not shoddily constructed (something that might be already happening in unpermitted ADs around the region).

However, if we want to homeowners in our region to actually invest in AD’s, cities need to make sure the projects are worth the owner’s while. Arlington’s current regulations have a host of rules that dictate everything from the size the type of entrances AD’s can have.

Image by Alliance for Housing Solutions used with permission.

Some of these restrictions aren’t uncommon, and are in fact part of a good AD policy. Taking a regional perspective however, there are a few that are out of sync with AD regulations in nearby cities.

Image by Arlington County.

While over-regulation might discourage homeowners from creating AD’s at all, some point out that there are unknown amounts of unpermitted ADs in Arlington currently operating. Seeing the regulations as too onerous, these owners are not yet incentivized to “become legal”, which means lost tax revenue for the city and the possibility of unregulated, unsafe accessory dwellings.

Ken Aughenbaugh, former Housing Director for Arlington County and current resident of Arlington, has seen this issue from multiple angles: from his seat in the government, and now from his ongoing efforts to bring his own AD online in his retirement. In a recent testimony, Aughenbaugh said, “[w]hen adopted, it was hoped that owners of the many ‘illegal’ ADs would seek a permit. That did not happen. Instead, the ordinance created many new hurdles that have made it nearly impossible to create, finance, or resell an AD without severe financial hardship.”

As someone who has been attempting to get an AD approved on his property for years, Aughenbaugh is now frustrated by many of the regulations he helped institute while in office. Again from his testimony:

“I feel responsible, in part, for not pushing harder in 2008 to make the AD and Family Suites ordinance provisions a more workable tool for creating some additional rental units in the County. At that time, after careful discussions with senior staff, my wife and I decided to make the effort to create an AD in our own home – to be available for future use by a caregiver, family member, or tenant helper as we age in place. I/we failed on both fronts due largely to the required deed covenant and related financing restrictions. So here I am nine years later, again trying to help create a workable solution to both matters.”

A new amendment could legalize more ADs in Arlington

This past year Arlington has held a series of working groups to identify what wasn’t working about the old ordinance, and to borrow from best practices around the region and country.

The new bill includes many small tweaks to the original ordinance, to highlight a few:

  • Allow detached ADs, like a carriage house or granny flat (previously not allowed)
  • Remove lot, size and zoning restrictions on the unit
  • Increase the allowable occupants from 2 to 3
  • Remove a variety restrictions on the homeowner, including how long the owner must have lived in the main home
  • Remove the annual limit of approved ADs (original ordinance allowed only 28 new AD permits a year)
  • Allow ADs in townhouses (previously not allowed)

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The vote on this bill is coming up in November, and there are opportunities for neighbors to organize in support of these common sense fixes. Sign up here to stay updated and get involved!

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David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.