D.C., Montgomery County look to ease rules on adding accessory rental units to homes


Donna Olsen and Chuck Dulaney, retired teachers from Raleigh, Nc. moved to the area when their grandchildren were born last year. Cost overruns on their home have them contemplating finishing their basement and renting it out. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 8, 2012

When retirees Chuck Dulaney and Donna Olsen built a home in Kensington several months ago, they made sure to plan for the future: They included space for a basement apartment that they could rent out someday for extra income.

The couple figured that the rental money could supplement their budget. What they didn’t realize is that the apartment would address a growing problem in neighborhoods like theirs, where land is scarce and prices are high: the lack of affordable housing.

But now Dulaney and Olsen, both 64, find themselves in the middle of a fierce debate in Montgomery County that pits affordable housing advocates against residents concerned that such efforts might adversely affect parking, public services and property values.

“We know why we wanted to live here, but now it’s a question of how to afford it,” Dulaney said.

A Montgomery proposal to change restrictions on converting basements, garages and other spaces into apartments makes sense, Dulaney said. He and his wife came from North Carolina, where housing costs were significantly less, he said, and the proposal would help them remain near their children and grandchildren.

Montgomery planning officials say they want to make it easier for people like Dulaney and Olsen to rent space in their homes — as long as they meet certain conditions — by eliminating the requirement that they go through a public hearing.

But some longtime residents and elected officials worry that changing the rules would lead to a big increase in such rental units and spur conflicts over parking and a loss of privacy. They also said they fear that the increased density of development would strain public services such as police, fire and schools — particularly in neighborhoods where such units are not common.

“This particular proposal isn’t well thought out,” said Meredith Wellington, a former member of the Montgomery County Planning Board. “It fails to preserve the character of our neighborhoods.”

Focus on affordable

A similar debate is playing out in the District, among a growing number of jurisdictions across the country. And the controversy over “accessory dwellings” will probably intensify in the region because a relatively healthy job market is attracting a steady influx of 20-somethings who are looking for housing and often finding that they are priced out of the market.

In the past 13 years, the District’s population increased by more than 45,000 people, most of them 18- to 34-year-old newcomers. During the past decade, the number of low-cost rental units fell to 34,500, from 70,600, according to a recent report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

D.C. and Montgomery officials are considering revisions to zoning rules governing accessory dwellings (referred to as accessory apartments in Montgomery). In the District, as well as Montgomery, the changes would allow applicants to go forward with such projects without a public hearing as long as they meet certain conditions. Under the current rules, neighbors have to be notified when such a change is proposed.

Planners in both jurisdictions say the changes would combat sprawl by making more efficient use of development already in place and make it possible for people to live in neighborhoods that they could not afford otherwise.

They also say they see the proposed changes as helping residents like Dulaney and Olsen avoid being priced out of their homes.

“For people who want to live in a suburban setting, but don’t have a down payment to buy a house, these accessory apartments will provide an option for [them] to have a suburban lifestyle,” said Valerie Berton, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Planning Department.

Foes and friends

But critics of the Montgomery and D.C. proposals say that accessory housing is simply not appropriate in some neighborhoods.

Sue Hemberger, a resident of the District’s Friendship Heights neighborhood, said her main concern is that city officials have the resources to ensure that the units are safe and meet code requirements and that landlords are paying the appropriate fees and taxes.

Hemberger, a member of the newly formed Neighbors for Neighborhoods group, which seeks to educate residents about the proposed zoning change, also said she has her doubts about whether the units will be affordable, even though planning officials are promoting them for that reason.

“There’s not a requirement that the rent has to be below market rate,” she said. “If the issue is growth, why put new people in neighborhoods that aren’t losing people?”

Others have a different view.

Dave Alpert, founder of the blog Greater Greater Washington, which focuses on growth and development issues in the region and across the country, said that allowing more rental units in areas where single-family homes predominate can bring vitality and diversity to neighborhoods that in recent years have lost more residents than they’ve gained.

“Why not let someone who doesn’t have kids enjoy that space?” said Alpert, who helped launch Pro-DC, a coalition focused on making the District a more walkable, bike-friendly and transit-oriented city. “At the same time, there’s extra money for the homeowner that allows [him or her] to age in place.”

Zoning rewrites

The proposed changes in Montgomery and the District are part of broad rewrites of the county and city zoning codes — essentially the rules that govern land use, building height, density of development and related issues. In the District, the code is undergoing its first wholesale rewrite since 1958. In Montgomery, officials last rewrote the code in 1977.

An accessory dwelling is defined as a separate living space in a home or in a building on the same property as the home. This is not a new concept, but in recent years, the strategy has gained appeal in communities seeking to create affordable housing and accommodate population growth. Such dwellings are also seen as a way to help families care for aging relatives or help senior citizens remain in their homes.

Stuart Meck, associate research professor and director of the Center for Planning Practice at Rutgers University, said it’s not surprising that the issue has surfaced in the Washington region given the high cost of housing.

These days, Meck said, homeowners — particularly empty nesters and seniors — might be more open to the idea of such rental units because of the high cost of maintaining a large home or because of the area’s high cost of living.

Still, the idea remains controversial. In 2008, when officials in Arlington County wanted to allow such units, some residents were vocal about their opposition. County Board members ultimately approved the measure but with stringent conditions. In the meantime, only eight units have been approved.

Gregory Russ, a planner coordinator with the Montgomery Planning Department, said officials think that eliminating the public hearing requirement for many homeowners will make the process less intimidating and expensive and will speed approval of accessory apartments.

Under current rules, an average of about 10 accessory apartments a year are approved. Russ said it’s unclear how many more units might be created if the County Council approves the proposal.

In the District, residents in some single-family neighborhoods may rent out living space in a garage for domestic help only — without seeking permission from the city. In other cases, they must go through a public hearing process in which neighbors are also informed about the request.

Under an early draft of the D.C. proposal, residents would be able to create one unit in the home or elsewhere on the property without having to seek permission from the city if certain conditions are met, according to Arlova Y. Jackson, zoning update manager at the D.C. Office of Planning.

But Jackson said that, in response to community comment, planners may alter the proposal so that anyone seeking to rent out space in a separate building would have to go through the public hearing process.

Other changes are possible, Jackson said. For example, she said, a group of rowhouse owners in Woodley Park are asking that they have options similar to those proposed for detached single-family houses.

Meanwhile, some opponents in both the District and Montgomery question whether doing away with public hearings is really the best strategy.

“When you start to allow more units and more people into these units, you really are messing with the school balance and the transportation balance,” Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said. “This is not a panacea.”

He said a better solution might be to make the existing process for approving such units more efficient.

“Let’s just fix the process,” he said. “That way people will get their answers in timely matter, [neighbors] get a say. Residents can put their accessory apartment in and not get grief.”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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