Today in Prince George's County you can't build detached accessory homes like the one in the back. Image by lisamenard licensed under Creative Commons.

Right now in Prince George’s County, it’s nearly impossible to build new accessory apartments (such a basement apartment or converting a garage into home). Changing those rules and allowing more accessory apartments could create more flexible and affordable housing in the region.

The county has an opportunity to do just that as it creates its comprehensive housing strategy.

Accessory apartments bring a lot of benefits

Accessory apartments, also known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs, are a hot topic in urban planning all over our region. DC, Montgomery County, and soon Arlington County are all implementing new accessory apartment regulations.

In addition to providing comparatively affordable housing for renters, these kinds of multi-family living arrangements can make homeownership accessible to more people. Renting out an onsite apartment allows for supplemental income for the homeowner, or allows a downsizing owner to move to a smaller unit on their property and rent out the larger home to family or someone who needs the space.

This makes accessory apartments an important tool for keeping people in their homes. By creating an income stream for homeowners struggling with rising assessments in a changing region, accessory apartments can potentially help keep long-term residents from being priced out of their neighborhoods, while also creating affordable options for new residents.

It’s important to understand that an accessory apartment is not a boarding house or a group home, where four or more unrelated people are sharing the same living space. An accessory apartment either creates a second unit within a single structure or adds a second detached housing unit to the same property. Both add people to a neighborhood without fundamentally changing the look and feel, or creating a curb parking crisis.

When accessory apartments are banned outright, people often create them anyway. This means that landlords and tenants end up in situations where existing state laws to protect them do not apply, and the units are not licensed and inspected to ensure health and safety.

Accessory apartments can also include basement units. Image by Ted & Dani Percival licensed under Creative Commons.

Prince George’s County is rewriting its zoning code, so what’s the deal with accessory apartments?

If you look around Prince George’s County today, you can already find existing accessory apartments. Basement or attic conversions and separate structures like carriage houses that were created before 1949 are grandfathered in and can be legally rented out.

However, constructing new accessory apartments is mostly illegal throughout the county. Some zoning overlays, such as the Gateway Arts District zone, also allow conversions by permit and accessory structures by right. For the most part, however, unless it already exists you can’t build these in Prince George’s County. This seems particularly illogical since, under current law, it’s legal to have up to three unrelated roommates in a house: why license group houses but not accessory apartments?

Prince George’s County is currently modernizing its zoning code, with comments on the second comprehensive draft being taken through mid-December. Notably, the proposed new draft does not include accessory apartments.

Since one goal of the zoning rewrite is to simplify the code, most overlays are being eliminated. Since the only new accessory apartments you can build now are in these overlays (and accessory apartments are prohibited in all residential base zones) the current proposal would eliminate any possibility of building new accessory apartments in the county. The baby is going out with the bathwater.

Carriage houses can be converted into homes.  Image by Warming Up A Little licensed under Creative Commons.

Fear not, there’s a chance to save accessory apartments in Prince George’s new comprehensive housing plan

Against the backdrop of a zoning code rewrite, Prince George’s County is also working to create a Comprehensive Housing Strategy (CHS). The plan is currently in Phase 1 and focuses on analysis of existing and future conditions along with initial community engagement. The CHS reflects the county’s growing realization that changing economic conditions necessitate taking stock of the housing needs in the county.

Initial findings indicate that Prince George’s may not have enough housing options to accommodate the needs — in terms of range of income levels, preferences, and phases of life — of current and future residents.

Since 2000 the cost of housing has risen in Prince George’s by about 30 percent while household income has remained flat. This is creating a growing affordability crisis, because some residents cannot keep pace with rising housing costs.

Despite this trend, Prince George’s has some of the region’s lowest home values and rents. Adding housing stock in the form of accessory apartments creates value for property owners and affordable options for tenants.

What is more, the the county particularly lacks smaller apartment units and rentals for extremely low income residents. This is a gap that accessory apartments could help to fill.

Right now, the county is asking residents and non-residents who work in the county to participate in the CHS process, which will have multiple phases and fully wrap up in September 2018. As a first step you can take this short survey, but what we really will need is to push planners and officials during this CHS process to make sure that accessory apartments are incorporated and are made legal in more areas.

If you want to get more involved, consider joining a housing focus group (let us know if you do!) You can also sign up here to follow this issue with GGWash more closely.

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Brent Bolin is a community activist and non-profit executive with a background in environmental law, science, and policy. He is passionate about social justice, clean water, sustainable urbanism, and the Anacostia River. Brent served on the city council in Mount Rainier, MD and (rarely) blogs about local development issues.

Tracy Hadden Loh loves cities, infrastructure, and long walks on the beach looking for shark teeth. She holds a Ph.D. in city and regional planning from UNC-Chapel Hill. By day, she is a data scientist at the Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University. By night, she is an activist, a law enforcement spouse, and the mother of a toddler. She served two years representing Ward 1 on the Mount Rainier City Council in Prince George's County, MD.