Image by linamenard licensed under Creative Commons.

There is an expanding discussion about accessory apartments in our region, and that’s a good thing. GGWash and many organizations we partner with have been advocating for accessory apartments, also known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs in one way or another for most of the almost 10 years we’ve existed, and in partners' case, long before.

Cities in our region are just starting to unlock the potential of these kinds of homes, and while there is more to be done, let’s take a moment to look back on how hard it was to get here.

Why accessory apartments are worth fighting for

Accessory apartments are smaller attached or detached homes that a homeowner builds on their property and rents out to others. They come in many forms, such as carriage houses or live-in garages, or basement or attic apartments.

While not a silver-bullet solution to our housing shortage or to our region’s affordability, accessory apartments are an essential tool for cities that want to equitably manage their growth.

Accessory apartments allow for more people to live in low-density neighborhoods without significantly altering the buildings in the neighborhood. They provide income for homeowners who build them and rent them out, making it easier for some to stay in their neighborhoods in an increasingly expensive place. Finally, they provide naturally cheaper housing options, especially in higher-cost neighborhoods that have a particular dearth of affordable homes.

We are not going to build our way out of our housing shortage solely by a massive proliferation of accessory apartments, but they are a simple addition to a city’s tool set that can make a big difference.

Unfortunately, zoning rules often make accessory apartments illegal, and some neighbors oppose them for all the typical reasons (more traffic, change the character of the neighborhood, overcrowd our schools, etc). So the battle to legalize and usher in more accessory apartments is has too often been difficult and long.

The fight for accessory apartments in DC

In DC, legalizing accessory apartments was part of a big zoning update process that went from 2008-2016 and ended with legalizing them in single-family areas with some conditions. We ended up with more conditions than the original proposal and more than we wanted, but fewer than what opponents pushed for.

GGWash wrote about this ongoing back and forth for years, educating readers about the proposals. We worked with partners like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and Ward 3 Vision to organize them to turn out to hearings. And it did take years; the original zoning update was meant to begin implementation 2011, but just last fall the rewrite was finalized.

Protestors outside a zoning meeting in DC. Image by David Alpert.

Part of this was due to constant demands from opponents for more time, more task force meetings, and more community input, spurred on by erroneous information they were circulating. Opponents kept sending out alarmist notes, which we and partner groups countered routinely.

During the lengthy delays, our planning office watered down the accessory apartment proposals a few times, but we beat back one of the worst of the waterings-down, which would have required detached accessory apartments (like a garage or carriage house) to have always gone through a burdensome zoning process as opposed to sometimes being by-right with conditions, as they are now.

Now that the rules are in place, there's a new push to try to help people actually build some of these, such as with assistance in financing and architectural design.

The fight for accessory apartments in Montgomery County

There was an effort to improve accessory apartment rules in Montgomery County in 2012. The changes expanded where accessory apartments could be built, and did away with a then-required public hearing (though homeowners still needed permits and to be approved by officials).

Again, opponents mobilized, saying that the approval process proposed was undemocratic and that accessory apartments would “devastate the area,” threatened the character of the neighborhood, and would provoke a “middle class fight.”

But many residents in Montgomery County including from GGWash testified and many more wrote in to county officials, ultimately helping to pass many of the big reforms.

An addition in White Oak Image by Dan Reed.

The fight for accessory apartments in Arlington

When Arlington first proposed legalizing basement apartments and other forms of accessory apartments, opposition was quick to arise, including racist and classist fears that these homes would bring more immigrants and poor people into the community.

After much debate Arlington legalized accessory apartments in 2009 but with a lot of restrictions, including the number that could be permitted each year (only 28), not allowing detached accessory apartments at all, and a host of other technical rules limiting everything from the apartment’s size to the type of entrance it can have.

Partly as a result, only 20 accessory apartments have been permitted since then, evidence that the current regulations aren’t working. Honestly, there are probably hundreds of illegal accessory apartments out there who have just been unwilling to “get legal” under these onerous rules, which could mean that the units could be unsafe and out of code.

Now, there's an ongoing campaign by the Alliance for Housing Solutions and other housing advocates, which GGWash is supporting, to lighten the more burdensome rules. The change would help Arlingtonians get a meaningful number of new homes through the accessory apartment process. Of course, some people oppose that, but we are hoping that the Arlington County Board supports these promising accessory apartment reforms at their upcoming vote this month. 

There is certainly more that can be done to support accessory apartments in all the cities of our region. Recently the Coalition for Smarter Growth convened a full-day summit to address remaining issues in DC, and planners in Prince George's County are considering what to do about accessory apartments there during the ongoing zoning rewrite. What are the challenges facing your community when it comes to bringing more accessory apartments online?