A divided Montgomery County task force is recommending that the County Council allow owners of single-family houses to add "accessory" apartments, stirring a confrontation between advocates of cheaper housing and residents who don't like what has happened in neighborhoods where such units have been allowed.
The committee's report and legislation drafted by the council staff to permit the so-called "granny flats" in residential neighborhoods is expected to be introduced to the council Tuesday.
The proposed zoning change also would give owners of many existing units a repreive from a countywide ban on granny flats set for 1988, allowing them a chance to operate their units indefinitely.
The proposal has stirred questions concerning Montgomery's commitment to providing affordable housing to its low- and moderate-income citizens, debate over the rights of property owners versus housing opportunities, and concern about the county's enforcement capabilities.
After protracted haggling in Fairfax County, county supervisors in March approved the construction of accessory apartments for elderly and disabled people, but by early this month the county had received no building applications. Fairfax officials are hoping to create some interest by offering low-interest loans.
Rosalie Silverberg, head of the Montgomery task force, and other supporters of the measure said elderly people, low-income families, students and young adults could find affordable housing more easily if accessory apartments were permitted. These units would help fill a major need for housing in the county, and by renting part of their houses, owners with fixed incomes could keep up better with rising living costs, the majority said. Tenants also could perfom maintenance that elderly home owners cannot do easily or afford to hire others to do.
Dissidents on the task force are alarmed at the experience of Takoma Park, where the division of many single-family homes into apartments in the '40s and early '50s brought unexpected density and a strain on government services. They fear accessory units would bring heavy traffic, make parking scarce, absorb single-family houses and foster "transiency," that could "seriously affect neighborhood stability."
Under the proposed law, applicants would have to get special approval from the county Board of Appeals on a case-by-case basis, and would be limited to one apartment for each house. And they would be required to show that the unit would not alter the character of the neighborhood.
Each unit would have to have a separate entrance, kitchen and bathroom, plus one off-street parking space.
Owners would have to obtain construction and occupancy permits and undergo inspections, according to John Reinhart, a zoning inspector with the county Department of Environmental Protection, which monitors accessory apartments.
The committee favored making owner occupancy a requirement. However, County Attorney Paul A. McGuckian said in an opinion in May that that requirement "would be deemed disciminatory." The report recommends that an absentee owner be allowed to install a flat "only under the most extraordinary circumstances" and only if the owner has "sufficient control" of the property.
Owner occupancy is the most prominent of a number of features in the draft that are expected to be the focus of heated debate.
Granny flats concentrated in Takoma Park when officials encouraged area residents to accommodate military people flocking to Washington during World War II.
Takoma Park officials, citing the burgeoning conversion of large, wood-frame houses there as flats became popular, allowed existing units to be registered between 1953 and 1954, when the city imposed a cut-off. However, conversions continued there and throughout the county, said Frank DeLange, who heads the county Department of Environmental Protection's program that regulates accessory apartments.
After citizens complained about a lack of enforcement, the county council in 1978 sponsored a compromise amendment that, recognizing that government encouraged and allowed the war-era units, allowed them to operate until March 23, 1988, when they would be banned.
The proposed law would allow owners of units set up between 1929 and 1954 to apply for special permission to continue renting them indefinitely. Marilyn Piety, the committee's foremost opponent of legalizing accessory units, called the proposal "a legislative way to circumvent" that phasing-out that would "destroy single-family neighborhoods" and reduce property values.
She and another dissenting committee member, Takoma Park City Council member Carl Iddings, pointed to a 1969 Department of Housing and Urban Development-sponsored report that blamed "blight formation in Takoma Park" on "filtering down of old housing stock to lower-income groups in the form of rooming houses, small apartments and the occupancy of single-family units by more than one household."
Opponents were most critical of the county's enforcement. DEP officials said they move to close units only when neighbors make them aware of an illegal flat. The committee's dissenters said they fear that legalization would encourage more unregistered, unlicensed units and would make enforcement even more difficult.
Iddings said he favors a limited number of accessory units, but balks at allowing nonresident owners to intstall them. "In general, I think the proposal is a poor substitute for housing policy. It doesn't match up to the real problems people have with finding apartments for under $350 a month," he said, and noted that many Takoma Park flats go for more than $500 a month.
Teresa A. Mulliken, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group at the University of Maryland, said the county's case-by-case regulation could prevent substandard units and provide "a fantastic alternative to multifamily dwellings, especially for those, like elderly people, on a fixed income . . . [and] would help increase the diversity of the neighborhood."