Accessory apartment in Kensington, Maryland. by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

We’ve written a lot lately about accessory apartments like English basements and granny flats—why they're an important affordable housing tool, how to build them, and how onerous regulations could be changing in Montgomery County. On February 26, opponents and supporters of accessory apartments (also known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs) gathered in the county office building in Rockville to weigh in on a measure that would make them easier to build

Montgomery County councilmember Hans Riemer’s ZTA (Zoning Text Amendment) 19-01 would remove some of the red tape involved in building this type of housing. Accessory apartments are already legal in the county but are limited to large lots, and there are restrictions on where units can be placed and how big they can be. As a result, very few have been built—about 40 or 50 per year since 2013. The county faces a severe housing crunch, and Riemer hopes that this will help provide some badly-needed homes.

County Executive Marc Elrich released a statement of opposition to the ZTA earlier in the day, claiming that the measure wouldn't help the people who most need affordable housing. He also said it was too early to make changes to the legislation, that it doesn't encourage building near transit, and that it wasn't clear that existing infrastrucuture could absorb new residents.

The council is expected to vote later this month, and readers who act quickly still have a chance to influence the final decision.

Riemer's new bill would make it easier to build accessory apartments

Like much of the region, Montgomery County faces a housing shortage. Accessory apartments can help provide more homes in the county, especially for an older parent or returning adult child. They're also a great aging-in-place solution for retirees, and can provide an affordable option for young families who are just starting out.

Riemer's ZTA would liberalize accessory apartment rules and allow them in all current single-family zones and in basements and backyards (on sufficiently large lots). It also includes slightly reduced off-street parking requirements, and has no restrictions on the number in a given neighborhood. One unit would still have to be owner-occupied, and only a single rental unit would be allowed on a property. Accessory apartments could not be used for short-term rentals like Airbnb.

Montgomery County residents listen to testimony for and against accessory apartments on Tuesday, February 26. Image by the author.

More than 30 people signed up in advance to testify in person at the hearing on the 26th; those who did not get a spot were asked to send written testimony. Opponents, emboldened by Elrich's opposition statement, were impassioned and sometimes visibly upset. Accessory apartment supporters were also out in force. GGWash’s Dan Reed live-tweeted the proceedings.

I thought that this issue would be contentious, yet less than 100 people turned out to listen on Tuesday night. So keep in mind their views may not be representative.

Four reasons people give to oppose accessory apartments

Opposition to accessory apartments typically falls into common themes: parking and crowding, inspections and enforcement, neighborhood character, and the sanctity of historical zoning. I’ll go through opposition talking points and proponents' rebuttals.

1. What about parking, schools, and crowded living conditions?

Elrich claimed in his written testimony that areas have a certain “carrying-capacity” in terms of roads and schools and parking, and accessory apartments could push them past that. Opponents frequently cited parking and school crowding concerns.

Jeffrey Slavin of Somerset, just next to Friendship Heights, insisted that prior community approval is necessary for municipalities to plan for services and control density. Kimblyn Persaud of Wheaton declared that currently, first responders in her neighborhood have a hard time seeing oncoming traffic and people walking because the streets are so crowded with parked cars. Janet Johnson of Aspen Hill complained that police were doing nothing to enforce parking regulations on her block, and said that “reducing the standards we already have is opening Pandora’s Box.”

However, even if these concerns are valid in specific situations, people have to live somewhere. It's unlikely that streets and schools would be affected by making accessory apartment requirements more reasonable.

Mary Ann Dillon of the Housing Initiative Partnership pointed out that since accessory apartments are much smaller than the average detached home, they're likely to have smaller households sizes and are much less likely to have children. Local architect Ileana Schinder pointed out in her testimony that people who are likely to rent an accessory apartment are statistically less likely to own a car and drive.

2. Concern over enforcement

Several individuals also raised concerns about poor enforcement of existing housing regulations.

Barry Wides of North White Oak Civic Association said that his area was plagued by code violations in unauthorized multifamily housing conversions and asked for a moratorium on new housing conversions until existing units had been inspected. Persaud accused the county of “over[looking] the way that blacks and immigrants continue to live in overcrowded roach- and rat-infested communities.” She asked, “How can you loosen restrictions that are not being enforced in the first place?”

Illegal conversations are a problem in the county, Casey Anderson, chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, acknowledged, but making it hard to build legal accessory apartments drives the market underground and makes it harder to address code violations.

3. Hand-wringing over “neighborhood character”

The most common negative comments weren't about parking or code enforcement, but rather were emotional appeals to protect neighborhoods from change.

Laurence Dickter of South Four Corners asked councilmembers: “How many voters did any of you encounter on the campaign trail last year who begged you to destabilize their neighborhoods, unravel their social fabric, permanently alter their character, and undermine their unity and cohesion by pitting neighbor against neighbor?” He wondered aloud why single-family home neighborhoods weren’t as sacrosanct as the Agricultural Reserve, which restricts new development.

A pro-accessory apartment sign created by supporters of the new legislation. Image by the author.

Proponents of the new legislation like Miche Booz, a representative from Brookeville, testified that currently about a fifth of his town’s houses have accessory apartments. He said liberalized laws had been a net benefit to his community without any negative impacts, including no “degradation to the historic town atmosphere.”

Cheryl Gannon of the Woodside area near downtown Silver Spring, Carl Elefante of Takoma Park, and Richard Hoye of downtown Bethesda testified that accessory apartments would supply more housing and could help both landlords and tenants.

Gannon pointed out that a basement apartment can be less expensive than high rise apartments in the nearby commercial center. As an empty-nester, she expressed a personal desire to create a space in her large home where her elderly mother could live independently. Elefante testified that he’s lived next to an accessory apartment for 26 years which has allowed him to meet a variety of residents “who have made my neighborhood a better place to live.”

Speaking professionally as a retired firefighter, Hoye said that he was able to afford a home in Bethesda years ago by renting out space to housemates, but now only 15% of area firefighters can afford to live in Montgomery County. Providing more housing closer to jobs is a public safety issue, he argued, and permitting a greater variety of housing “builds social capital” by allowing closely-situated neighbors of different ages, skills, and means to help one another.

4. A back door to breaking the promise of zoning?

Some opponents accused Riemer and accessory apartment proponents of wanting to trick them into upzoning their neighborhoods.

Andy Leon Harney of Chevy Chase Section 3 asked, “How is it anything but the destruction of single-family zoning by stealth?” attendee Laurence Dickter said, “If any of you had campaigned on converting our single-family residential neighborhoods…into backyard cottages and duplex cities… you definitely would not be sitting here tonight.” (In fact, GGWash did ask candidates in the 2018 primary about increasing housing and changing zoning laws, and we got some positive responses).

“Montgomery County made a promise, a compact…in our vision and our zoning,” attendee Lisa O’Connor said. “Those definitions are what drove many of us to find our American Dream in this county.” She described how residents rented until they could buy, and then bought multiple houses until they achieved the home and community they desired. “Zoning is a fundamental, a promise.”

Proponents responded that the county has a severe housing shortage, and the impacts of inaction could be dire. John Paukstis of Habitat for Humanity discussed how restrictive zoning policies lead to segregated communities and schools.

Tina Slater, representing the Sierra Club, stated that the need for housing has outpaced the supply, and “if people have to leave the county for affordable housing we will still have the benefit of their traffic.” Attendee Mary Ann Dillon said that “we have boxed ourselves out of building because most of our land is single-family zoned.”

Stephen Crawford, a homeowner in the Derwood area and expert in land use at George Washington University, said: “The choice before us seems pretty clear—more sprawl, with all its negative impacts on the environment, or more density…For now, however, we can add capacity without changing the character of these communities or engaging in the difficult disagreements that such more radical proposals [i.e. wholescale upzoning] would elicit.”

We need to provide housing where we can

The County Executive and some of the other skeptics have a point—accessory apartments won’t solve all of our affordable housing problems, and accessory apartments will likely not be affordable to very low-income renters. However, that isn’t a reason not to do it. This is not an “and/or” situation, it’s an “and, yes, let’s do other things as well.”

We shouldn’t be allowing some residents to hold the properties of their neighbors hostage to their fantasies of what the suburbs should be. We need more housing, we need to live more densely, and we need to use every means at our disposal—including liberalizing accessory apartments—to achieve this goal. If you want to weigh in, contact the Montgomery County council using the button below today.