Garage apartment in Houston. Photo by vacekrae on Flickr.

Montgomery County allows accessory dwellings, but homeowners must first obtain a “special exception” from zoning authorities. That’s a time-consuming and burdensome process. It’s no surprise, therefore, that in a county of about a million people, there are only 162 accessory apartments, most in Takoma Park and Silver Spring.

Affordable housing advocates are pushing for a change, according to the Gazette, to make it easier to establish accessory apartments. Former County Executive Douglas Duncan proposed such a change, but the plan went nowhere at the time.

Accessory dwellings are necessary because U.S. households have gotten a lot smaller over time. In 1900, when Takoma Park was already an incorporated town, the average household comprised 4.6 people. In the 1950s, when the postwar boom dramatically expanded suburbs, households averaged 3.68 people. By 2000, this declined to 2.59. By 2025, only 28% of households will include children, down from 48% in 1960.

We could respond to shrinking households by building smaller, more densely spaced houses, but that would destroy historic neighborhoods and local activists would decry changing neighborhood character. Or, we could allow more unrelated people to share a house, so that in place of a family of four, two younger and childless unrelated couples could split a house, or an aging widow share with a one-child family.

Inevitably, as the Gazettte article shows, there’s some local opposition from neighbors and groups like the Montgomery County Civic Federation. Some cite fears over parking, but there’s clearly also an undercurrent of concern about the type of people that might live in accessory apartments.

“Often if you ask ‘what about Mrs. Jones, who is getting old, having an accessory apartment?’” neighbors will say “OK” but they’ll say they are against loosening the rules, [expert Patrick] Hare said. He said evidence shows accessory apartments don’t run down neighborhoods.

The article doesn’t get any county Councilmembers on the record with positions for or against the idea, though Councilmember Nancy Floreen is quoted suggesting the county emulate DC’s program allowing units in higher density areas. That’s not a bad start, as long as there are enough high-density areas to provide more housing (after all, it’s better to concentrate more population in the higher density areas closer to shops and transit). But with a lot of suburban, single-family neighborhoods very close to DC and to regional job centers, Montgomery shouldn’t push the entire problem onto a small number of dense areas. All neighborhoods, at least downcounty, should chip in for more affordable housing for households of all sizes.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.