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Accessory dwelling debate comes to MoCo

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.

Garage apartment in Houston. Photo by vacekrae on Flickr.

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 the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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 now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Many of the homes in the Old Town neighborhood of Takoma Park were multi unit until recently. But, the new more affluent residents have been buying these houses, and returning them to single family because many of them want a larger house. There is also the argument that the multiple unit houses attracted the wrong kind of people. One house down the street from me used to contain 5 apartments, now it houses a single resident.

by kenf on Sep 3, 2008 10:24 am • linkreport

kenf, can you please give some examples of who the "wrong kind" of people are?

by Bianchi on Sep 3, 2008 10:44 am • linkreport

Wow, I have been desperately searching for a reasonably priced one bedroom apartment within walking distance of Takoma Park metro for months now. They just plain don't exist and now I know why! It strikes me that Takoma Park is the opposite of transit-centered development; all the high-density housing is far from the Metro out along Flower and Wayne, and all the low-density housing gets to enjoy a walk to transit.

Maybe I am "the wrong kind of people" for being young and single, but I send a hearty "screw you" to the Montgomery County Civic Federation if they are in fact actively working to keep affordable apartments out of Takoma Park.

by Erica on Sep 3, 2008 11:34 am • linkreport


You're onto something that is fundamental to Takoma Park's current politics. Takoma Park is about maintaing privilege for its privileged few. (I suppose that's quite a common thing so sorry for singling them out) Screw everyone else who isn't one of the current priviledged few, including you. Probably, especially you, because you are young and single and probably will invite friends over and have social events or something.

It's quite simple... if you're not in the (current rich person's club) than you're not relevant and need to be excluded at all costs.

I find it sad because the town outwardly projects this image of "green" or something. But when push comes to shove, in the modern day, it will always oppose environmentally friendly things like building more housing next to the Metro. Because that will 1) heaven forbid change something and 2) decrease the exclusivity of what they have.

From what I can tell, it's more the town than the county. The county has wanted to add more development to the town side of the Takoma Metro for years.

by Cavan on Sep 3, 2008 1:28 pm • linkreport

The fact is that we have a huge crisis in affordable housing within walking distance of transit. Ask any young person looking to live here. The beauty of the accessory apartment approach is that it doesn't add bulk, only people, to communities. Plus, it doeasn't require government subsidies like so many of our afforable housing efforts. Contrast the traffic of one family with a couple of teenage drivers and that of two small families (or a family and a single), and communities are unlikely to see any difference.

by Councilmember Nancy Floreen on Sep 3, 2008 1:55 pm • linkreport

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