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Why the angst over accessory dwellings?

While DC's zoning update discourse has bizarrely revolved thus far around a small group of opponents spreading false information, there are serious policy differences to genuinely debate. One is the proposal to allow accessory dwellings in single-family zones in DC and Montgomery County.

Photo by Kelly Sue on Flickr.

Planning departments in both jurisdictions want to follow many other places around the nation and allow homeowners to rent out a garage, base­ment, or other space. This would create more diverse housing choices, make aging in place more affordable, and help more customers for neighborhood businesses.

They have also attracted vociferous opposition. In Montgomery County, opponents packed some recent hearings to fight the proposal. In DC, hearings haven't come up yet, but posts on local listservs have been rallying residents to organize against the change.

Some residents have been meeting with DC councilmembers, including Michael Brown, who sent a letter opposing accessory dwellings after a meeting with "Neighbors for Neighborhoods."

Much of the opposition is driven by fears of neighborhoods become predominantly filled with renters. But there are protections against this. The homeowner still has to live in the house to create an accessory dwelling. They can't create an accessory unit and then rent out the main house at the same time while living elsewhere. There are also limits on how big such an accessory dwelling can be, and there can't be more than one on a property.

Young and old alike need accessory dwellings

Accessory dwelling rules address twin challenges we face today that stem from 20th century suburbanization: Homes that are unaffordable for the young and impractical for the aging.

Metropolitan areas have ballooned in diameter as the population has grown, while at the same time older suburban areas have lost population compared to the mid-20th century. While most single-family homes were built for large families, today families have fewer children and couples are waiting longer to have children.

In addition, empty nesters are living longer in the large houses where they raised families, unlike previous eras where grandparents often lived with children and grandchildren. Thanks to all of these factors, rather than accommodating some growth, many inner-ring suburbs are gradually growing emptier.

That means that young professionals increasingly can't find a place to live. There are not enough units smaller than full houses in desirable areas to meet the demand and often people have to buy more house than they need. Meanwhile, seniors face challenges "aging in place" such as dealing with stairs or the cost of maintaining a large house.

The solution is simple: Let property owners rent out garages or basements. A homeowner who doesn't have children at home can rent a room over a garage to someone else's adult child who needs a place. A senior can make some extra money or even move into the accessory unit and earn money from renting out the whole house. Housing can get more affordable for many people while also increasing property values.

Why not?

Why would people oppose this? Here are a few potential reasons:

Neighborhood busybody-ism. Look at some of these quotes from the Patch article:

"If they take away our voice by allowing accessory apartments by right, we don't have a say," said Kim Persaud, president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association. ... Said Howard Nussbaum, president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association, "With the special exception, I know what's going on next door and I can put my two cents in."
There's an understandable impulse to want to have a say over what every neighbor does all the time, but that doesn't mean the government should cater to it. In many neighborhoods, people rent out their basements all the time and the world doesn't come to an end.

Race and class. David Moon at Maryland Juice suggests that people are scared of "poor people moving into their neighborhood" and that there is a racial element to this fear. To some people, a rental unit conjures up images of a Latino family or someone else "different."

Many zoning regulations in the mid-20th century promoted de facto segregation by making certain neighborhoods unattainable to a large segment of the population. Neighbors for Neighborhoods has been actively trying to recruit members and start chapters east of Rock Creek Park, but residents in these areas may want to think carefully before signing onto any anti-accessory dwelling campaign.

Traffic and parking. More people could mean more traffic and more difficulty parking. Regionally, having more people live in established neighborhoods creates less commuting traffic along long routes in and out of the core, but it could mean slightly more cars in residential areas.

As Kaid Benfield thoughtfully explains in the Atlantic, these types concerns are real. Benfield writes that smart growth "manages impacts by concentrating them." We get less overall traffic and pollution, but more in one specific place from an individual development project.

Making accessory dwellings legal across the District and in Montgomery County is actually better for impact-averse residents than any specific development because it will bring only slow and small change spread out over a wide area.

Much of the impact of this policy would be positive. Restaurants and local stores will be more likely to thrive or at least survive with more potential customers. More eyes on the street will make neighborhoods safer for children. A larger tax base will allow the District to tax each resident less.

Pro-DC will be pushing the DC Council and Zoning Commission to support accessory dwellings. Join the list below to stay informed about ways to weigh in as the process proceeds.

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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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I tell you why. Accessory dwellings often attract students and other transients; people with lifestyles that conflict with traditional single family neighborhoods. They lead to parking, noise, and trash issues. Apart from that, group housings deteriorate faster and become blights on the neighborhoods.

I am under 30 and just moved into a single family home area and will try to stop this development. Homes are not unaffordable everywhere, but some neighborhoods are an aspiration to work towards.

by North Arlington on May 31, 2012 2:33 pm • linkreport

I think North Arlington gives us an example of why we want accessory dwellings because without them, we tend to develop neighborhood ghettos with his sort of "element" which ends up dominating the social and political culture, making it worse for everyone.

by JustMe on May 31, 2012 2:35 pm • linkreport

But who wouldn't love to have Fonzie living over their garage!


by Tom A. on May 31, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

Accessory dwellings erode the single-family neighborhood structure that is quintessentially American. This isn't Europe so please don't try to make it so. We like the model we have now, thank you very much. It encourages self-reliance and personal responsibility.

Higher density is not desirable and leads to an inevitable increase in socialism as when more people are packed in a given space, demand for gov't services necessarily goes up. If you want to live in a particular neighborhood, work hard and save money and one day you too may afford it. These structures also cause home values to plummet. I don't want them in my neighborhood, or anywhere else.

I don't want my neighbors cluttering up their back yards with these things and renting them out to low-class people who otherwise couldn't afford to live in my nice, clean, safe neighborhood. In the end, the main thing that's at stake are our personal property rights and liberty.

by JamesG on May 31, 2012 2:56 pm • linkreport

Someone please tell me that JamesG's comment is sarcastic.

by Gray on May 31, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

@JamesG - I would say not allowing these types of dwellings is the antithesis of personal property rights.

by Laura on May 31, 2012 3:05 pm • linkreport

@James G

In the end, the main thing that's at stake are our personal property rights and liberty.

I'm glad you're for personal property rights.

So, why are you denying the right of others to build accessory dwellings on the land they own?

by Alex B. on May 31, 2012 3:07 pm • linkreport

@Alex B.: Don't forget liberty, too! Which can only be defended by imposing restrictions on anything you don't like.

by Gray on May 31, 2012 3:10 pm • linkreport

The ridiculous comments in this thread spurred me to take action and send an email to Chairmen Hood and Brown. Here is what I wrote in the comment:

"Allowing families with extra space to rent those spaces to more people will in the short run allow more people to experience the amazing amenities and cultural life that the best neighborhoods in DC have to offer. This will in the long run lead to more people being willing to pay the premium to live in the city, as they develop tastes for such a lifestyle. The student who lives in an accessory dwelling now is the homeowner dedicated to the city 10 years from now.

Accessory dwellings help DC compete against neighboring jurisdictions for tax dollars by opening up certain lifestyles that only DC can offer to more people. Keeping DC more suburban only shoots DC in the foot - we need to emphasize our competitive advantages, which in the long run will lead to greater viability for our beloved city. "

by David on May 31, 2012 3:16 pm • linkreport

If you put in the accessory unit over a garage that fixes the parking issue doesn't it?

And if your neigbhors are noisy you can talk to them and call the police if necessary.

And if people leaving trash out is an issue then organize a clean-up.

And then realize that these issues (except maybe the parking one) exist independently of what type of building a person lives in.

Also, why in this tough economy are you against people having additional sources of income in the form of rent? And God forbid we actually have people renting in the neighborhood. Obviously their choice to live in the neighborhood doesn't signal desirability, only their ability to take out a 800,000$ dollar mortgage.

by X on May 31, 2012 3:18 pm • linkreport

Dear Mr. Alpert,

At this time there is no proposal/case before the Zoning Commission (“Commission”) regarding Accessory Dwellings. The Zoning Regulation Revision (ZRR) project is ongoing and the Office of Planning (OP) is currently working on text to bring before the Commission. When this proposal is properly before the Commission, we would encourage people to write signed letters of support or opposition for inclusion in the case file. We also encourage people to go to our website at to monitor when ZRR proposals are scheduled for hearing before the Commission.


Jennifer Jenkins
Public Information Officer

by Jennifer Jenkins on May 31, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

Funny, because this country's formative years were marked by boarding houses and paying guests. Got a room? Rent it out. Particularly so in DC.

by David R. on May 31, 2012 3:25 pm • linkreport


Obviously their choice to live in the neighborhood doesn't signal desirability, only their ability to take out a 800,000$ dollar mortgage.

That's the thing - at or near the very top of the list of things that make a neighborhood "desirable" to a large percentage of people IS the fact that all of their neighbors have the ability to take out an $800,000 mortgage (or whatever price level it is). Many of the other indicators - lot size, school quality, maintenance and upkeep of properties, etc. - are functions of the wealth level of residents. The chain of logic runs the other way: it's not that you want to exclude poor people from your desirable neighborhood, it's that your neighborhood is desirable specifically because it is sufficiently exclusive that few to no lower-income people can locate there. A significant number of lower-income people would make it less desirable ipso facto.

I don't agree with this logic - although I understand it and admit that it does "work" for the wealthier residents of many areas - but many do.

by Dizzy on May 31, 2012 3:28 pm • linkreport

Funny, because this country's formative years were marked by boarding houses and paying guests.

Wrong; everybody knows from their Amercian history textbook that this country was founded on the principles of gas-guzzling SUVs, interstate highways, and sprawling suburbs.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, "Higher density is not desirable and leads to an inevitable increase in socialism."

by MLD on May 31, 2012 3:33 pm • linkreport

I think it's interesting to note that accessory dwellings are allowed to some degree in Kentlands (Gaithersburg, MD). Kentlands is one of the most successful New Urbanist neighborhoods in the nation, and the neighborhood's home values are consistently higher than surrounding neighborhoods.

"Isn't it ironic...don't you think?"

by AP on May 31, 2012 3:35 pm • linkreport

Looks like the proponents as well as opponents are spreading rumors.

by charlie on May 31, 2012 3:36 pm • linkreport

JamesG's comment is an example of Poe's Law in action.

by JustMe on May 31, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport


I just mention it because I hate the meme that renters inherently detract from a neighborhood.

Reminds me of a story I read about how people were opposing an apartment building because the renters wouldn't help contribute to making the schools nice b/c they don't directly pay property taxes. As if even if you rent an apartment and send your kids to the school and want your kids to be successful you obviously don't care since you rent.

And besides, there are mounds of evidence that show its not poverty per se, its the concentration of poverty when it comes to crime and other issues.

by X on May 31, 2012 3:41 pm • linkreport


Renters are less vested in a neighborhood because they do not have skin in the game. I used to rent until 2 years ago. If something happened that I did not like (which it did), I could easily move out.

Now that I own and have vested at least 12 years of full salary in a place, and boy do I care now. Higher density and accessory dwelling would lower my property value.

by North Arlington on May 31, 2012 4:02 pm • linkreport

Jennifer Jenkins,

Thank you. You are correct that the Office of Planning has not formally submitted this idea to the Zoning Commission as a formal proposal for setdown and hearing, yet. However, they have shared their intention to do so. When I say "proposal," I think that encompasses "thing an agency plans to do which hasn't yet gotten to the official hearing stage."

This whole thing raises an awkward issue of process. Normally, a plan such as for a PUD first becomes public in considerable detail when it gets filed with the ZC to be set down. For the ZRR, at the request of Chairman Hood and the commission, OP has been sharing intermediate work product with the task force, which includes members from the Committee of 100, Federation of Citizens' Associations, individual wards and more.

Ironically, this has created a strange situation where the members of the task force opposed to the direction of the ZRR have shared this work product with neighbors, raising alarm, and leading OP to conduct a series of meetings with concerned neighbors earlier than they would normally have done. Yet they've then been coming under attack for "moving too quickly" and "not sharing enough with the community."

OP might have waited until they had a fully baked proposal and then gone out to public information sessions, but instead they are now getting attacked for not doing the information sessions.

This only matters in this context because Chairman Hood berated OP at a recent ZC meeting over the fact that many people are confused or don't understand the zoning update well enough. Rather than waiting for the official setdown, people opposed to the zoning update have already been bending Mr. Hood's ear about it, and he has been responding as a result.

Therefore, I think it's not fair for OZ to say this is not yet properly before the commission. If it's not, then Mr. Hood should not yet be listening to the people he says he is hearing from. If he is hearing from them, then I hope he will be open to hearing from us.

by David Alpert on May 31, 2012 4:07 pm • linkreport

@North Arlington: Higher density and accessory dwelling would lower my property value.

Guaranteed for sure? And you know that because? And if you yourself put in an accessory dwelling, would that lower your property value too?

(I am thinking that "traditional single family neighborhoods" are like "traditional marriage" -- i.e., not actually traditional.)

by Miriam on May 31, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

North Arlington,

Care to somehow prove that renters categorically don't have skin in the game? Why is owning property the only relevant metric? Why not voting, or contributing at public meetings, or being a law-abiding citizen? My salary goes into my rent, why would I somehow care less about where I live?

by X on May 31, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

"That's the thing - at or near the very top of the list of things that make a neighborhood "desirable" to a large percentage of people IS the fact that all of their neighbors have the ability to take out an $800,000 mortgage (or whatever price level it is). "

I'm not sure that's true. Why wouldn't those suburban McMansion neighborhoods be holding up in this down turn, and why are inner city neighborhoods in Columbus and Cleveland begining to out perform their suburban coiusins?

People are getting smarter, and realizing it's about quality of life. True, once the Manhatanization of other central cities continues, this mixed income thing becomes rarer, but it's undeniable that a heterogeneous population is more vital than a homogeneous one (with the caveat that there are no absolutes)

by Thayer-D on May 31, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport


Because a renter can easily move, and because the degradation of a neighborhood will not hurt a renter's wallet. Lowering property values would actually help renters, because their rent would go down (look at all the gentrification protests). I am a member of an Arlington civic association, and I have yet to meet a renter there. I'm not blaming renters, I have nothing against them and I used to rent myself, but a renter will, on the whole, inherently care less about a neighborhood.

by North Arlington on May 31, 2012 4:42 pm • linkreport

@ Thayer-D

Quality of life to me means not having to worry about whether my wife can safely walk home from the metro at night, my car not being broken into, no trash in the neighborhood and great schools. Those are exactly the reasons why I choose not to live in the economically diverse inner-city. These qualities make my neighborhood expensive, and therefore exclusive.

More economic diversity would simply lead to people like me moving out again towards places where poverty is not forced on our doorstep (Great Falls, perhaps?).

by North Arlington on May 31, 2012 4:49 pm • linkreport

again, its the "inherently" that I disagree with. Maybe 9 times out of 10 but also caring about the neighborhood doesn't mean you have to join a civic association either.

Besides, this is all beyond the fact that I fail to see any evidence for the fact that accessory dwellings will be the deciding factor in driving down property values, which if you're trying to sell your house I can understand but 20 years from now if you lose money on your home the reason probably won't be because there is someone living in your neighbor's garage.

by X on May 31, 2012 4:50 pm • linkreport

@North Arlington,

Even if we stipulate for the moment that all you claim is true, I don't see how such claims are relevant at all to sound public policy.

by Alex B. on May 31, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

@North Arl. 1)see @Alex B's comment above. 2)Your whole premise is based on the assumption that renters don't care about quality of life, that ALL renters care more about low rent even if it means the neighborhood is crappy. But this assumption is violated in your own series of comments -you moved b/c "something" [bad] happened. Even YOU cared about quality of life when you rented. You've said so.

by Tina on May 31, 2012 5:03 pm • linkreport

Quality of life to me means not having to worry about whether my wife can safely walk home from the metro at night, my car not being broken into, no trash in the neighborhood

Wow. You think people who live in accessory dwellings mug people, break into cars, and throw trash around? WOW.

by JustMe on May 31, 2012 5:04 pm • linkreport

Just having the ability to build an accessory dwelling on your property would raise your property value. And building one would raise it more. Isn't a three-story house worth more than a two-story house in the same neighborhood?

by MLD on May 31, 2012 5:10 pm • linkreport

North Arlington,

Good news! Accessory dwellings will actually increase your property value. You see it's not your house (i.e. the building) that is valuable its the land. The house is just a consumer good,like a really big washing machine. Over time the building will start to lose value as it ages and begins to break down from wear. Your land is the investment part of what you bought and by allowing you or anyone to whom you sell it to add a building or addition that brings in revenue will make your land more valuable not less.

Now,I imagine you think your property value is going to go down because you believe it will incite the unshaven hordes of renters to descend upon your little hamlet like a zombie apocalypse leaving PBR cans,trucker hats and prophylactics strewn about. I've got more good news! Once again you are mistaken! You see,contrary to popular belief,renters are actually people. Like you! As a renter myself I dispose of my waste through the municipal trash system,smile at neighbors and babies in my neighborhood,and don't go outside without wearing pants. You know,normal people stuff. You don't need to be afraid of us.

I'm sure you're relieved to hear your worst fears are unfounded! Your welcome!

by RoddyRenter on May 31, 2012 5:11 pm • linkreport

@JustMe, You think people who live in accessory dwellings mug people, break into cars, and throw trash around?

i interpreted North Arl's comments to mean that "renters will gladly put up with that crap if the rent is low enough" -b/c low rent is their only criterion for quality of life.

Tell that to all those renters in Woodley and Cleveland Park...

by Tina on May 31, 2012 5:13 pm • linkreport

@North Arlington - And what's stopping homeowners in your "exclusive" neighborhood from renting their homes out? Are there restrictive covenants in place saying that owners in your neighborhood cannot rent their homes to "economically diverse" people? I doubt it. Your argument is extremely flawed and goes against everything modern day urban planners are fighting for.

Sounds like you want to live in Mayberry. NEWSFLASH: this is not 1960.

by AP on May 31, 2012 5:16 pm • linkreport

@AP, Mayberry was economically diverse.

by Tina on May 31, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

The homeowner still has to live in the house to create an accessory dwelling. They can't create an accessory unit and then rent out the main house at the same time while living elsewhere.

Perhaps there's a reasonable lack of confidence that DC will be capable of enforcing this. Once the accessory unit is built, how often is DCRA going to check to make sure the main house isn't also rented?

That said, don't the limitations on location make accesorry dwellings impractical on all but the largest lots? I thought the draft rules said they had to be something like 30 (or 40) feet from the main dwelling. How many houses have that much space in the back yard? You'd probably need a lot that's at least 100 feet deep, if not more.

by ah on May 31, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

What will happen in DC is that people who live in-bounds for crappy schools will "rent" a garage, claim it as their home, then send their kids to good schools west of the park.

Limit seats in the good schools. Let's see what happens.

by mch on May 31, 2012 7:07 pm • linkreport

It's a great way to keep intergenerational members of families closeby. If you have a backyard, you could have a little Katrina cottage-type dwelling. It makes sense to me.

Laws should help people come together - not force them apart.

by Capt. Hilts on May 31, 2012 10:14 pm • linkreport

FWIW, that 40' distance between house and ADU seems excessive. I'd want to see what other jurisdictions do. I think the distance ought to vary by R zone. It happens my backyard is 90 feet long. There is a garage on the alley that could easily be converted into an ADU. (It's actually legal now in my R zone.) HOWEVER, there is another proposed rule that the buildings can't be zero lot line on the alley side, which further limits the ability to do this. I think it would be advantageous to have the building on the alley lot line, not disadvantageous. But I haven't had a chance to read the proposal. (It's dumb to not allow the building's on the alley, because that will increase separation from extant houses, which seems to be an issue with people.)

WRT the general thread about those f*ing renters, it's really about SES more than anything. Maybe renters aren't at the civic assn. Can you blame them? So often the groups are so f*ing petty and the meetings dull as hell, plus the puffery and self-importance of various people can be problematic.

If renters have kids, they could well be involved at the school. If they have less space because they are in an ADU, they probably use the park and may be involved in the parks friends group or the group that maintains the playground, etc.

It's all about building the right capacity and outreach to get involved. Most civic institutions and neighborhood groups don't do a very good job of this. The challenge is to build the opportunity and interest on the part of renters, rather than just prima facie excoriate them.

Hell, in my neighborhood, I am one of the only people who picks up litter off the street, and my face block of 24 hourse has 1-2 vacants, maybe 3 renters (maybe), and the rest are owner occupied. We don't have a functioning neighborhood assn. (Takoma, a few blocks over, does.) But we manage.

by Richard Layman on May 31, 2012 10:16 pm • linkreport

I think we need to distinguish per se rules against accessory dwellings from density limits. Many people have lots that are twice the minimum lot size in a given neighborhood; allowing them an accessory dwelling might be less disruptive to a neighborhood than subdivision which is alliowed anyway.

Another small step would be conditional zoning for a narrow set of special exceptions, such as a residential unit for aging parents, disabled children, etc. As properties change hands, new owners would not be subject to the same restrictions.

by Jim Titus on May 31, 2012 10:28 pm • linkreport

I, for one, don't want my mother-in-law living that close to me. Who's with me??

by Gray on May 31, 2012 10:29 pm • linkreport

Regarding the owner vs. renter argument. First off, IF the owner-resident is living on the property, why would the property be cared for any differently than if the owner-resident didn't have the accessory apartment on the property? Actually, the argument could be made that with the additional income made available from the rental for maintenance, taxes, mortgage, etc., that the owner-resident might actually keep the place better maintained then they would otherwise.

Of course, the whole place (main house and accessory unit) could be rentals. BUT that's already the case. There's no law saying that you cannot rent out your single family house.

by Lance on May 31, 2012 10:52 pm • linkreport

Would someone define "accessory dwelling" for me? What amenities are required or not required for it to be livable space?

by selxic on May 31, 2012 10:55 pm • linkreport

ah: Yes, the draft does apparently say that an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in an accessory building has to be 30 feet from the main building in single-family zones. I agree that doesn't make sense. I will ask OP if there is a reason they had that in there.

An ADU can also be in the main building, and then is limited in size and some other rules.

selxic: The draft zoning code defines "dwelling unit" as One or more habitable rooms comprising complete, independent living facilities for one or more persons, and including within those rooms permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation.

And an "accessory dwelling unit" is A dwelling unit that is secondary to the principal unit in terms of gross floor area, intensity of use, and physical character.

There are also various other regulations about accessory dwellings, including that 30 foot separation. The rules for single-family zones are in subtitle B, chapter 6 of the draft.

by David Alpert on May 31, 2012 11:09 pm • linkreport

"the draft does apparently say that an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in an accessory building has to be 30 feet from the main building in single-family zones

This is probably intended to ensure you don't end up with a defacto density rezoning just because you're allowing accessory apartments. I.e., while this is being viewed by some as a means to increase density, it's not being 'sold' that way. It's being sold as a way to allow people to age in place, get some rental income etc. If your lot isn't large enough to allow that 30 foot separation then your lot (and probably the surrounding ones) aren't really big enough to add the accessory units and still remain a single family neighborhood. I'd argue that this is fair because the city wants to maintain a variety of types of neighborhoods for a variety of people. For example, we live in a neighborhood where you don't need the 30 feet because high density is the nature of our neighborhood. And that's good for us because we want that. But what about the people who don't? Must ALL neighborhoods in the District become highdensity neighborhoods with sidewalks and other urban amenities? Not all neighborhoods ... especially the ones where the 30 foot reg comes into play, which I think I read were zones R-1 through R-3 (old names) ... need to become 'urban'.

by Lance on May 31, 2012 11:21 pm • linkreport

Also ... (to repeat since this was buried in what I just wrote) at least from what I read (when you go into the details) that 30 foot reg is NOT for ALL zones ... Just the already suburban-type ones.

by Lance on May 31, 2012 11:24 pm • linkreport

ADUs are a great idea but as with any good development, additional density should be transit oriented. That means that ADUs should only be allowed a short distance from metro stations (or in DC, express bus service). Initially, that could be a 10-20 minute walk from stations and if that ends up working well, the ADU zone could be expanded further. That said, ADUs shouldn't be permitted in most of the burbs given that most of MoCo is more than a couple miles from a metro station.

Also, owners renting out ADUs should be made to pay a fee (say $20/month) that goes toward financing benefits for the community. That could be improved ped/bike infrastructure or a playground.

Making ADUs transit oriented and providing community benefits should mitigate a lot of the resistance.

by Falls Church on May 31, 2012 11:35 pm • linkreport

How many ADUs are we talking about? I can't believe many people would have both he necessary extra space and would actually want to take up yard space to put one in. So with the zoning and space requirements as drafted, how many ADUs could we potentially be talking about? Seems to me that people are getting bent out of shape over something that few people will actually do.

by Adam L on Jun 1, 2012 12:32 am • linkreport

At the end of the day, I think the hysteria over ADU comes down to two points:

1) the potential that a garage can be made to a 22 foot height "in my next door neighbor's back yard" and
2) the distinction that it can be rented "to anyone".

As it is currently, one can have an ADU, but it can only be utilized by a "domestic servant." I don't know about anyone else, but other than a nanny or au pair, I cannot thing of anyone I know who has a "domestic servant" in this day and age. Currently, one could have such a person living in a garage space and then have a renter in their basement/garden apartment. Under the new rules, it would be one, or the other, but not both.

As to the size/height of such a unit, perhaps that can be reexamined, but all of this is over the distinction between a "domestic servant" and a renter.

I think many, if not all impartial readers would consider this a "ward 3 problem" and quite frankly is appalling to the core.

by Andrew on Jun 1, 2012 6:29 am • linkreport

How is this at all different from a rowhouse owner renting out her basement as a one-bedroom apartment? To those who claim that property values will plummet, houses with rental units routinely sell for more than their counterparts without rental units. Plus, I've never heard of those units being blamed for a degredation in the standard of living. And since the homeowners are required to live on the property as well, the fears of roving packs of trash-strewing renters mugging three people an evening seem a bit overblown.

And JamesG? If that was a farce - well done. If you were serious with that nonsense about personal property rights and liberty, please go look up irony and get back to us. While you're at it, take a look at hypocritical.

by dcd on Jun 1, 2012 7:51 am • linkreport

There's nothing wrong with allowing these by right. Nothing at all, and it creates more housing at relatively low cost (including environmental externalities).

I don't understand why neighbors need "a say," as Kim Persaud was asking for.

As for inspectors, well, that's something that neighborhood activists can be, at least to some extent. If they see things that may be breaking the rules, they can point the inspection people in the right direction.

by C. P. Zillliacus on Jun 1, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

Falls Church has it right that this is the classic externality problem.

by charlie on Jun 1, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

So does any of this have to do with the "English Basements" that are for rent all around DC.

by Nickyp on Jun 1, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

Nicky: These are mostly the same as English basements. Some English basements are accessory dwellings. In higher-density zones, it's just legal to have multiple dwelling units (no "accessory" required), so someone with a townhouse can just turn it into 2 units, a main house and a basement (or another combination).

But in single-family zones, this practice is not allowed, or require a special exception. "Accessory dwelling" rules make it legal, subject to a number of restrictions, like requiring that the accessory unit be much smaller than the main one, that the owner occupy the home, and so on.

by David Alpert on Jun 1, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

"Renters are less vested in a neighborhood because they do not have skin in the game. I used to rent until 2 years ago. If something happened that I did not like (which it did), I could easily move out."

Except when those renters live in an accessory dwelling along with the landlord, said landlord is now even MORE invested in the neighborhood.

by Omri on Jun 1, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

"Accessory housing" = sub-standard structures that DO NOT MEET CODE.

by Ironchef on Jun 1, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

Falls ADU owners should pay an additional fee to the city. Oh, you mean like the registration, inspection, and licensing fees they need to pay to legally rent their ADU? Or the additional income tax they will pay on the rental income? Or the higher property tax on the now more-valuable property? Being a landlord is a business, and, like all businesses, there are numerous taxes and fees levied on the gains. DC gets a nice chunk of change out of me for my rental property (and gets income and sales tax and other fees from my tenant), and income tax gains, the most immediate, will be more substantial for ADU owners as they don't have nearly the mortgage interest, maintenance, and other expenses of a landlord who owns a unit separate from their primary residence.

by Ms. D on Jun 1, 2012 3:15 pm • linkreport

Hi David, good article.

One thing both proponents and opponents of accessory dwellings should know is that most of the claims about them, for good and bad, are anecdotal. For example, the idea that they cause home values to rise, or fall, is only beginning to be tested now. There are simply not enough legal ADUs out there for there to be any consensus among appraisers on how to value properties that have them. The Appraisers Research Foundation recently funded a colleague and I to study this subject; hopefully the results will be published officially soon.

Another thing opponents should know is that in areas with high rental demand, ADUs will occur whether the local government knows about them or not. There are hundreds of thousands of illegal ADUs in the country, for example in California and in the Boston area. A lot of those illegal ADUs are substandard and unsafe and probably rent for less because of it. As a neighbor I would rather have permitted and inspected units, renting for a market rate.

I invite people to visit a site I edit,, to see examples of real legal ADUs and discuss the issues around them.


by Martin John Brown on Jun 2, 2012 4:24 pm • linkreport

A question - how much of this comes down to an irrational fear of the use of the word "urban"?

Thinking back to when I was a kid living in "rural" America, "urban" was clearly a racial code-word. I wonder to what extent that remains a fact in some minds.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jun 3, 2012 8:36 am • linkreport

Ms. D

No I'm talking about a specific fee that funds community benefits over and above the things you've mentioned. There's a reasonable argument to be made that ADUs will have some externalities on the community and that should be mitigated with some community benefits. It's no different than what we ask of many other developers. As someone who also owns real estate rental properties, I'm happy to make a fair contribution to my community through special tax districts.

by Falls Church on Jun 3, 2012 8:09 pm • linkreport

"Another thing opponents should know is that in areas with high rental demand, ADUs will occur whether the local government knows about them or not."

This is very true. ADUs have been legal in Charlottesville for the last few years. In this time period, permits have been issued for about 50-60 units. However, a field study conducted last summer estimated the number of actual ADUs in the city to be a little over 400. Most of the units were created or converted before the zoning code was changed to allow this building type.

by Daniel on Jun 6, 2012 7:56 am • linkreport

@Daniel-- very interesting to hear about the Charlottesville field study on the actual number of ADUs. Can you post a link to that? Thanks. -mjb

by Martin John Brown on Jun 7, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

You might be interested in these presentations at a seminar we hosted last year on this subject.

by Phyllis Orrick on Jun 8, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

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