The Kojo Nnamdi Show recently discussed accessory apartments, where homeowners turn basements or garages into separate rental units to get income. It's been a topic of public policy debate in many regional jurisdictions, including DC, Arlington, and Montgomery County.
Accessory apartments, or Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), allow homeowners to make some extra money and help afford their own homes, and provide housing units in single-family neighborhoods to those who can’t afford or don’t need a whole large house, especially young, childless people or retired seniors. It's a win-win.
So why is it controversial? It also changes the “character” of these single-family-home neighborhoods, or in other words, breaks down some of their exclusivity. Neighbors worry about having more competition for parking, in part. But Hans Riemer, president and at-large member of the Montgomery County Council and one of the show participants, pushed back on this idea.
There's a little bit of a cultural issue — we all feel we own the parking space in front of our house, and we're entitled not to have to walk…. It's kind of a cultural thing. And I think we have to think about, what's more important? Working to solve the housing crisis which has so many economic and social and equity challenges for of us, where we have communities that are increasingly shut out, people even of middle class means are shut out, where people who work at nonprofits or work at restaurants have to spend an hour or more to commute to their jobs — is that a bigger problem than that I might have to work three doors down to where my car's parked? What is the bigger issue?
Montgomery County is considering loosening ADU rules, since very few ADUs have been created under the current, very restrictive ones. Responding to homeowner anxiety, many jurisdictions that legalize ADUs also impose strict rules like requiring a large lot with lots of space, limiting the ADU size itself, and others which end up disqualifying a great many homeowners.
Most often, ADUs allow the children or parents of the people who already live in that or a similar neighborhood to afford to be there. However, another big part of neighbor fear is having renters in the neighborhood who might be younger, browner, and/or poorer.
GGWash contributor Tracy Loh was also part of the Kojo panel, and responded to this:
I want to push back on accepting this idea that just because something might be used for short term rentals, that means it's okay to be against it. If we are going to continue to be a society where the majority of American wealth is going to be in our homes and our homes are going to be a very important asset, especially for middle class families then we need to be allowing families to maximize that asset. There's growing income inequality in our society that's going to cause a crisis if we don't do that.
She makes a good point that if neighborhoods prohibit, or make extremely difficult, renting out part of one's larger house (an extremely common practice in DC half a century ago), then it further ensures expensive neighborhoods are only affordable to the most affluent, who can afford to pay for the entire house even if they don't need all of it — even if their children are grown and they aren't using most of the space. Of course, that's not a bad thing in the minds of many, but from a public policy standpoint, it is.
Speaking of affluent, exclusive areas, Ward 3 Vision and the Coalition for Smarter Growth are hosting a forum on ADUs in Cleveland Park on Thursday, October 11. This follows others they have already held in Northeast DC and east of the Anacostia River, where there are a lot of opportunities for homeowners to add income and help meet the city's housing need.