Housing Laws That Leave Granny Out in the Cold

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, April 28, 2007

Do you wonder where young adults can find an affordable place to live around here? How about someplace for a nanny or your aging grandmother?

If you don't want to move out of your neighborhood, what will your options be when you're rattling around in a house that's too big, with stairs that are too challenging and costs that are too high?

One possible answer: an accessory apartment or backyard cottage added to your property. Unfortunately, these are illegal in most local jurisdictions.

I moderated a session at this week's 16th annual Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County, during which panelists discussed how accessory apartments, cottages and, by contrast, "mansionization" could redefine and resize neighborhoods.

How ironic, I thought, to focus on these types of housing in a single session of an affordable-housing conference. Mansionization -- a controversial phenomenon in existing communities -- is enabled by zoning ordinances. Accessory apartments and backyard cottages are widely outlawed. Yet accessory apartments and cottages represent a potential source of affordable housing, while mansionization makes homes and neighborhoods less affordable.

Zoning was not on the conference agenda, yet it was always there in the background, always posing the same question: How does public policy, embodied in zoning regulations, either promote or obstruct the development of affordable housing and expanded housing options?

The panelists seemed to agree that, given demographic trends, accessory apartments and cottages could significantly increase the affordable-housing supply for America's aging population, as well as for others whose housing choices are limited.

Also noted was how inefficiently many single-family houses are used. Many are occupied by only one or two people, with empty bedrooms, attics and basements filled with unneeded stuff. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of underused back yards deep enough to accommodate small buildings.

Contemplate the benefits of having a modest, second dwelling -- either an accessory apartment or backyard cottage -- on your property. For you, the owner, it would mean additional rental income, tax deductions and possibly someone to watch the kids. If you want to live in less space but not leave your neighborhood, you could rent out or even sell the main house and occupy the smaller apartment or cottage.

For tenants, an apartment or cottage provides a convenient, affordable place to live. Typical tenants include young or elderly couples, needy parents, dependent grandparents, college students and local workers who cannot find affordable, conveniently located housing.

In most local jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, accessory apartments and backyard cottages are not permitted on lots or in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.

I have ranted regularly about zoning and land-use regulations impeding desirable development and, equally lamentable, impeding good urban design and architecture. Zoning ordinances that outlaw accessory apartments and cottages are a prime example of public policy getting in the way of meeting critical public needs. Outlawing such dwellings in areas with access to transportation, shopping and other civic amenities is especially ill-conceived.

After panelists finished their presentations, someone in the audience pointed out that because of vocal opposition at public hearings, previous attempts had failed to amend county zoning ordinances to allow accessory dwellings.

Why do citizens oppose what seems to be a benign yet potentially effective method for providing affordable housing?

Allowing an accessory apartment or backyard cottage on a single lot doubles the lot's dwelling-unit density. Extrapolating to an entire subdivision, it means a neighborhood hypothetically could have 100 dwellings instead of 50, or 400 dwellings instead of 200.

In the minds of many property owners, this translates into more traffic, more competition for parking and more demand for public services. If tenants are students, opponents envision loud parties. Skeptics think that people who live in accessory apartments could alter the neighborhood's socioeconomic composition, and not necessarily for the better.

Plus, it's a pocketbook issue for some who fear that allowing accessory dwellings could hurt property values.

But this opposition is based on questionable assumptions, speculative perceptions and emotionally driven biases.

In assessing the impact of increased density, demographic characteristics and population numbers are what matter, not the dwelling-unit count. Decades ago, when mature neighborhoods were planned and built, it was assumed that each home would have four to six occupants, including two or three school-age children. Today, many of those homes house only two people.

Further, it's highly unlikely that an accessory dwelling would be added to every house in a neighborhood. Even if this occurred, the total population still could be less than originally contemplated.

As for traffic and parking, many of the people likely to occupy accessory dwellings drive infrequently. Some may not drive at all. Tenants are also unlikely to increase public school attendance, throw wild parties or cause property values to drop. In fact, it's far more likely that an accessory dwelling would increase a property's value.

In some other countries, accessory dwellings, sometimes known as granny flats, are widely accepted.

Talking about affordable-housing challenges is undeniably worthwhile. But Montgomery County needs to sponsor a different conference, one specifically addressing the obstacles to affordable housing in its zoning regulations.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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