A house and garage with accessory apartment in the Kentlands, Gaithersburg. Image by Dan Reed licensed under Creative Commons.

Candidates for Montgomery County Executive talked briefly about housing issues in the county at a recent forum sponsored by the realtors' association, GCAAR. In one question, they were asked where they'd suggest a young couple making $100,000 look to live in the county. According to Bethany Rodgers at Bethesda Magazine,

[District 1 Councilmember Roger] Berliner and [businessman David] Blair both mentioned Silver Spring and Wheaton as possible choices. [Delegate Bill] Frick said county leaders need to create communities geared toward attracting millennials.

[County deputy planning director and former Rockville mayor Rose] Krasnow said she’d probably tell the hypothetical couple to explore renting an apartment that’s an accessory to a single-family home and added that the county needs more rental housing for all income brackets.

Accessory apartments are a great housing tool in low-density areas because many seniors are staying in their homes but no longer needing all the space they used when they had kids in the house. Rather than saddle these homeowners with higher and higher property taxes for a too-large house or the burden of moving, they can convert part of the property into a smaller unit perfect for a single or childless couple. Meanwhile, people who can't afford the county's rising prices for single-family homes can find places to live.

DC, Arlington, and Montgomery County have all debated accessory apartments and in one way or another, loosened rules around them in recent years. Krasnow is advancing a good concept in her answer to this question.

Unfortunately, David Lublin, a professor at American University, former mayor of the Town of Chevy Chase, and blogger at Seventh State chose to sneer at the concept instead of genuinely discussing its pros and cons:

Somehow, I don’t think “Move to Montgomery County, so you can live above your parents’ garage” is a winning slogan. In articulating the latest fad among planners, Krasnow inadvertently captured the nervous national zeitgeist of expectations of a lower quality of life than previous generations.

Allowing more accessory apartments into existing neighborhoods is a popular idea at the Planning Department. Existing neighborhoods wonder why plans for parking or additional infrastructure to accommodate new residents never accompany these proposals.

Accessory apartments are far from “live above your parents' garage.” Rather, they're a way to re-adapt a housing type that's not entirely well suited to the needs of today's population, often without substantially changing the way neighborhoods look. Lublin's cheap shot language does the county's political discourse a disservice.

But Lublin, in fact, inadvertently captures a nervous zeitgeist of his own. Land use policies, including ones in Montgomery County which he pushes for, freeze neighborhoods in amber and limit new homes. This indeed means that today's millennial couples are less likely to be able to afford the kinds of homes their parents could in the same kinds of areas, including the Bethesda-Chevy Chase are where Lublin lives.

They could live farther from jobs than their parents did, but that will mean long waits in traffic. Or, Maryland could ease the traffic by building projects like the Purple Line, but the Town of Chevy Chase and its residents filed an endless (though ultimately unsuccessful) chain of lawsuits to try to stop it.

In a nutshell, the NIMBY boomer/Gen X attitude toward millennials is: We are sitting on large plots of land in our houses right near job centers. We don't plan to move out of them. We will oppose any efforts to add new apartments nearby for you. We will also oppose any proposed trains that might get you to our job center from your more distant home. Oh, and some of us will sneer at laws that might let you live in space we aren't even using right now.

On the issues of parking and infrastructure: There's plenty of parking in low-density areas. A lot of homeowners who don't turn garages into accessory apartments still don't use them for cars and instead for equipment storage. More infrastructure is great, but neighbors seem to oppose most anything that's actually proposed.

Besides, accessory apartments just let a house that once might have held a family of five instead work for one or two seniors and one or two unrelated young people. That's fewer people and often even fewer drivers than used to live in the house. Rather than adding population, accessory apartments help an area not lose it so fast, and meet the needs of today's younger adults.

It's nothing to sneer at.