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Support accessory dwellings in Montgomery today

Tonight, the Montgomery County Council is holding a public hearing on the proposal to allow many homeowners to rent out parts of their houses, like basements and garages, without a burdensome special exception process. If you live in Montgomery County, please ask the council to approve the proposal and eliminate some of the more onerous restrictions.


Existing accessory dwelling (which still doesn't conform to the new rules) in Kentlands. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

The hearing is at 7:30 pm. You can sign up to testify by calling 240-777-7803, or send written comments using the form below. The Action Committee for Transit, the Sierra Club, Takoma Park City Council, and others have endorsed allowing accessory apartments in Montgomery County, but some residents have been organizing to try to stop the proposal.

Montgomery-based contributors Dan Reed and Ben Ross have both written about the plan. Both argued that it's a good idea, but also imposes some rules that will make it too hard for people to create accessory dwellings, especially in the places that most need them.

Most significant among these are limits allowing only 2,000 such units across all of Montgomery County, and requiring any unit be at least 300 feet from any other if they're on the same block face. In practice, that means that in the more densely populated inside-the-Beltway communities, which contain most of the few existing accessory dwellings and have smaller lots, it will be much harder to build any new ones.

In fact, ACT's testimony notes that according to the Planning Board staff, the new rule will not permit any new accessory units at all "in most of Takoma Park, Woodside, and North Woodside."

Other restrictions say that the accessory apartment must have a separate door, but cannot have a separate address, forcing the tenant to get any mail from the owner. It limits a unit to 3 occupants, meaning that if a couple with a small child has another baby, they'll have to move.

By comparison, the latest public draft of DC's proposed rules would limit the accessory unit plus the main dwelling to 6 people. That gives a small amount more flexibility, as an empty nester couple would be able to rent to a two-child family, but similar situations could still arise.

The DC proposal does not prohibit separate addresses as far as I can tell, or require separate entrances, but it does say that any new entrance must be on the side or rear of the house. This is to keep single-family houses essentially looking like single-family houses instead of two-family houses from the street.

Accessory dwellings vs. two-family houses

Speaking of two-family houses, ACT's testimony refers to these homes with accessory dwellings as "two-family houses." That's because ACT is pushing for a broader policy change, to legalize fully two-family houses, with separate units that people can own or rent independently.

In the District, there are many neighborhoods where two-family houses are the norm. Whole neighborhoods have "semi-detached" buildings, where pairs of houses share a wall, in what's now called the R-2 zone. In R-4 row house zones like Capitol Hill or Mount Pleasant, it's legal to divide a house into two separate units, and many houses are divided in just that way.

Montgomery County has far less of this. ACT writes,

Montgomery County urgently needs more two-family houses. This uniquely valuable living arrangement combines the ambiance of the suburb with the affordability and livability of the city. Yet in a county with 180,000 single-family houses, there are only 380 two-family homes in conformance with the zoning code (excepting a tiny area in Long Branch that is zoned for duplexes).
Letting some single-family homes be two-family homes is a great way to expand Montgomery's population without creating as much pressure for development. This is the kind of policy that would be particularly appropriate in areas with good transit service, where new residents could come in and not be dependent on cars.

Distinguishing accessory dwellings from two-family houses, the Montgomery and DC proposals for accessory units both require that the owner of a unit continue to live in the house, either in the main unit or in the accessory unit. The Montgomery proposal also specifies that the accessory dwelling stops being legal if the owner doesn't live in the house for 6 months.

ACT warns that this could mean tenants in an accessory unit would have to move out even if the owner of the home moves into assisted living, gets a temporary job overseas, gets divorced and gives the house to the spouse but has to wait 12 months under Maryland law for the divorce to go through, loses the house in foreclosure, and so on.

If the public policy goal is to keep single-family neighborhoods feeling like single-family neighborhoods, that provision protects this. For instance, some of the fears around accessory dwellings involved worries that houses would fall into disrepair or there wouldn't be people invested in a neighborhood watching the street, the children, and so on. If owners still live in their homes in addition to renting out basements or garages, that's not an actual danger.

Some Montgomery neighborhoods may well benefit from a more significant change to allow some single-family homes to become two-family homes, as some DC neighborhoods have long allowed. Right now, that's not the proposal in Montgomery County or in the DC zoning update.

Take action

This petition is now closed. Thank you for participating!

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Comments

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I'll try to list the reasons this would be a good idea.

1-People already do it to no ones detriment.
2-It enables multi-generational families to live together.
3-It provides an income source for struggling families.
4-It provides much needed affordable housing.
5-It mixes incomes which is good for social stability.
6-It provides more eyes on the street.
7-Accesory buildings can be charming and picturesque.

I hope they're successfull.

by Thayer-D on Sep 11, 2012 1:23 pm • linkreport

Great post, and I look forward to testifying in support of the accessory apartments bill (with improvements like the ones listed above) tonight.

You can already find two-family houses (many of which predate the current zoning code) throughout MoCo - in fact, here's one in Takoma Park and here's another in Aspen Hill. And in the recently-built Fallsgrove neighborhood in Rockville (which has their own planning + zoning) there are duplexes disguised as single-family homes. These are MPDUs, but there's no reason why they couldn't be built market-rate as well.

A quibble, though - the house in the picture (which I took) is in Gaithersburg, which also has its own planning and zoning departments, so they wouldn't be affected by the county's accessory apartments bill.

by dan reed! on Sep 11, 2012 1:38 pm • linkreport

I live in a neighborhood in PG County with almost every home being rented out to all kinds of people (students, young adults mostly). There is little in the way of controlling the impacts of these rental SF homes. So the neoghborhood is overrun with cars, noise, trash, couches on proches, etc. Why let SF homes be rented out to multiple unrelated individuals? It destroys SF blocks.

by fk on Sep 11, 2012 1:59 pm • linkreport

fk,

you're problem is that you live near a major university with a large de facto residential student population. That's not the situation in much of montgomery county but rather in college towns across the country.

Also in the majority of cases the landlord will be living on the property as the ADU.

Not to mention you could have neighbors who are homeowners and don't take good care of their property.

Whatever "destroy's SF blocks" means.

by drumz on Sep 11, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

The entire property tax system -- which is the primary source of funding for schools -- is based on the assumption that one family is going to live in a single family home. When you start doubling up, the burden on schools increases substantially, but there's no corresponding increase in property taxes to cover the cost of educating all these additional children.

Many of the schools in Montgomery County are severely overcrowded today. If the accessory apartment bill passes, today's overcrowding will be nothing compared to what we'll see next year.

Louis Wilen

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 3:29 pm • linkreport

Why let SF homes be rented out to multiple unrelated individuals?

Because of private property. If I and a couple friends want to live in the same house together, we can!

by JustMe on Sep 11, 2012 3:34 pm • linkreport

Many of the schools in Montgomery County are severely overcrowded today. If the accessory apartment bill passes, today's overcrowding will be nothing compared to what we'll see next year.

Accessory apartments are inconducive to having a whole other family with children. They would typically be lived in by relatives or childless renters. Take the example of DC: in a city FULL of accessory apartments in houses (the number of which continues to increase), the schools are CLOSING because there aren't enough student.

by JustMe on Sep 11, 2012 3:35 pm • linkreport

JustMe: The schools aren't closing in Montgomery County. They are bursting with kids and they are growing. Portables (trailers) are at nearly every elementary school in Gaithersburg, Germantown, Wheaton, and many other areas of the county. And even the best portables are a terrible solution, since they do nothing to increase the gym space, cafeteria space, playground space, and other common areas of schools.

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

Reposting because of a typo in the URL that my name is linked to.

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

The schools aren't closing in Montgomery County. They are bursting with kids and they are growing.

That has nothing to do with accessory dwellings, and the situation won't measureably change if accessory dwellings are allowed. The multiplication of accessory dwellings in DC has not coincided with a flood of students into the schools. Why do you think that it would have that result in MoCo?

by JustMe on Sep 11, 2012 3:56 pm • linkreport

Nor would it be any different if a new neighborhood is built or an apartment building going up in a neighborhood.

The solution to school over crowding is to build more schools. Not restrict the number of people who want to live in one of the most successful counties in the nation.

by drumz on Sep 11, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

@sf So the [PG] neighborhood is overrun with cars, noise, trash, couches on proches, etc. Why let SF homes be rented out to multiple unrelated individuals? It destroys SF blocks.

If these houses have--for practical purposes--become boarding houses already, accessory dwellings will not necessarily deteriorate the neighborood. There is already someone living in the basement paying what? $300/mo? So the owner puts a bathroom and kitchen in the basement and raises the basement rent to $600. That could raise the standard.

But this is moot because no one is proposing to change these rules in Prince Georges County.

by Jim T on Sep 11, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport

I think a lot of problems would be solved if local taxes were no longer (just) based on property values, but on the size of the household as well. Also, that way you can add a "children's tax" so that single people like me no longer unfairly have to pay for other's spawn. It might even slightly reduce population growth.

by Tax Reform on Sep 11, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

Drumz, you said "The solution to school over crowding is to build more schools."

Okay, let's build more schools. Would you be okay with changing the property tax system so that houses with accessory apartments get a supplementary tax assessment to cover the cost of building more schools? This would similar to the development charge that builders have to pay in Montgomery County to help cover the cost of new schools. How about a flat fee of $40,000 per accessory apartment?

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

@Tax Reform
Also, that way you can add a "children's tax" so that single people like me no longer unfairly have to pay for other's spawn.

I would really be interested in knowing the process by which you entered the world as a living, breathing, working, liberated 18-year-old, while the rest of us had to go through childhood.

by MLD on Sep 11, 2012 4:16 pm • linkreport

The entire property tax system -- which is the primary source of funding for schools -- is based on the assumption that one family is going to live in a single family home.

No, the public schools are public schools, paid for by the community and open to all. People who rent apartments are not second-class citizens.

by Ben Ross on Sep 11, 2012 4:23 pm • linkreport

Louis,

Sure, I think we can consider some sort of tax implication. But with the caveat that it shouldn't be used as a tool to basically keep the status quo. 40k is probably laughable in that light since most of these ADU's will run on a tight margin when you consider the cost of the rennovations.

Montgomery county benefits from a larger population and one of the best ways to accomdate that growth is to let people move into areas that have already been built up rather than eat away at the Ag. reserve.

by drumz on Sep 11, 2012 4:26 pm • linkreport

and also, if we are going to assume that 1 family per lot (of sfh) whats the qualitative difference of educating two families with two kids each vs. 1 family with four kids. The district still has the obligation to educate them?

by drumz on Sep 11, 2012 4:38 pm • linkreport

Drumz:

If we really ended up with two families with two kids each -- that is, four per taxed property -- that would be fine. But what if we end up with six kids, on the average? That's when we run into serious overcrowding.

Admittedly, the "one child per accessory apartment" rule would (or should) prevent overcrowding. But will it really be enforced? Somehow, I just don't see Montgomery County forcing families to move just because they have more than one child.

-------

Ben Ross:

I really don't follow your reasoning. Nowhere did I say or imply that renters were second-class citizens. But if we end up with overcrowded schools because the taxpayers say "enough is enough", it's the renters that are in the areas with accessory apartments that are going to end up being treated as second-class citizens when it comes to education.

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 4:48 pm • linkreport

Louis, accessory dwellings are inherently not family-oriented living spaces. This isn't about turning a SFH into a duplex.

by JustMe on Sep 11, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

JustMe:

Kids are allowed to live (with parents, of course) in accessory dwellings. So while accessory dwellings aren't family oriented, there will be more kids in schools if accessory dwellings are allowed.

It all comes down to whether there's going to be enough tax revenue to cover the increased demands on the schools. If the property tax assessment system is changed so that accessory apartments are valued at a high enough rate to bring in enough tax revenue to cover the additional cost of county-provided services, then there should be no problem.

But given the issues that the Maryland SDAT has (see many Baltimore Sun articles about their problems), I am very skeptical that the SDAT will assign fair values to accessory apartments. (Google if you're not familiar with the numerous oversights that have been uncovered recently.)

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 5:08 pm • linkreport

On my last sentence, that should be "Google "baltimore sun assessments" ...

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 5:10 pm • linkreport

Kids are allowed to live (with parents, of course) in accessory dwellings.

Well, kids are allowed to live anywhere, but our experience with DC -- a city full of accessory dwellings -- is that they don't play that kind of role. If you have some kind of inside information that would indicate that MoCo accessory dwellings are uniquely different in that they will serve as family housing, then you should explain why.

It's a pretty standard expectation in DC that people who can turn their basement into an apartment for a renter will do so. Perhaps you can explain why there is something "special" about MoCo houses that this is somehow unacceptable.

by JustMe on Sep 11, 2012 5:32 pm • linkreport

The implicit assumption in the argument advanced by Louis appears to be that there should be a limitation to the number of children (specifically school-aged children) for a given lot. That's not how it works.
MCPS certainly uses assumptions about family sizes and the number of households to try to predict demand - that's why they've lowballed many places in the past decade, because older neighborhoods in MoCo have turned over from childless households into young families. MCPS didn't predict that surge in demand but that's a flaw in their forecasting.

by Distantantennas on Sep 11, 2012 5:40 pm • linkreport

Distantantennas:

Wrong, not an implication at all.

What I am very explicitly saying is that, under the current property tax system, there won't be revenue to support schools and other services if neighborhoods are overcrowded due to the high density that accessory apartments create. So if we're going to have lots of accessory apartments, the assessment system needs to be modified to so that properties with accessory apartments are taxed similarly to apartment complexes.

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 6:40 pm • linkreport

Or a new assessment can be created, or we can see if the the ADUs can up the regular assessment enough to cover it since having an income source drives up the value of a home anyways.

It's too early to tell what sort of impact it will have and retain ly too early to declare that it will or will not have a negative impact on schools.

But it will have no impact is if you make the conditions for adding one so onerous people won't even try.

by Drumz on Sep 11, 2012 7:16 pm • linkreport

Mr. Louis Wilen,

When I was a student in the MCPS system, I learned about a similar fight. Don't the schools exist for the children and not the children for the schools?

by WRD on Sep 11, 2012 8:48 pm • linkreport

WRD:

Officially, the schools exist for the benefit of the children. But considering the high salaries of many of the high-level MCPS administrators and contractors who work at Carver Center (and who rarely, if ever, actually see students), I often think that the school system exists for the benefit of the high-level administrators. But that's another topic for another day.

by Louis Wilen on Sep 11, 2012 9:00 pm • linkreport

Exactly. That's why the school issue is a red hearing.

by WRD on Sep 11, 2012 9:06 pm • linkreport

Just to emphasize the point that Drumz made at 7:16: we should not assume that a property's valuation should remain fixed if an accessory unit is added. If what used to be a pure SFH now generates rental income as well as housing for the owner, the county had better increase the assessed value! Clearly apartment buildings pay property tax even though the owner almost surely doesn't live there. So, if increasing the property valuation doesn't cut it, then, as Drumz indicates, create a new valuation system for properties with an accessory unit.

A municipality with 100% apartment buildings should presumably still be able to fund schools. I can't imagine that having some accessory units (could it ever be more than 10% to 15% of SFHs??) would bring the downfall of the county and its school system.

by EMD on Sep 11, 2012 9:07 pm • linkreport

There is some really flawed logic here. Are D.C. schools considered to be the same at Montgomery County schools? No! We already have families from out of area putting their children in Montgomery County schools. More housing would bring more families that want their children in Montgomery County schools. 1 more child in a class can be a tipping point. As usual, the people that "think" they are planners are not at all familiar with the facts.
Montgomery County has had overcrowded schools for OVER 25 years. MORE housing is clearly NOT the answer to the problem. But, we can all be sure that a REALLY REALLY BAD decision will be made on this issue and our children WILL pay the price. That's the Montgomery County way. Children don't vote and they get mowed over by the "planners".

by Janis on Sep 12, 2012 10:00 am • linkreport

the assessment system needs to be modified to so that properties with accessory apartments are taxed similarly to apartment complexes

Properties with accessory apartments are already taxed the same way as one-family houses and apartments -- as a percentage of their value.

Almost by definition, a unit of affordable housing is less expensive than the average single-family house. Therefore it will bring in less tax revenue. If you think new housing should be allowed only when valued at a high enough rate to bring in enough tax revenue to cover the additional cost of county-provided services, then you don't want any new affordable housing for families at all.

by Ben Ross on Sep 12, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

Isn't ensuring that someone is able to basically provide the full cost of educating a child in order to build a house/apartment kind of make the whole idea of "public" schools a farce anyway?

Anyway, as I said before. The solution to school overcrowding is to build more schools. A good way to pay for new schools is to allow existing homeowners to update their property that would raise the value of the house and allow a new person to move to montgomery county that would have otherwise moved to PG or Frederick county. The chance of Montgomery county schools deteriorating is much more likely when the county starts losing population not the other way around. Population growth is very preferable to stagnation or outright loss.

Plus my sister in law has 45! students in her freshman history class out in lower income (in the denver area) Colorado. That's when you have problems (and well before likely).

by drumz on Sep 12, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

I don't think we need MORE apartments and dwellings in MoCo. The county is overcrowded right now, and the schools are too. Furthermore, I think accessory apartments may not only be an eyesore (depending on how they are constructed, etc.), if there are families with kids living in the accessory apartment, they most likely will be sending the children to the MoCo public schools. So, if the MoCo Council votes for this, I hope that a big huge property TAX on the accessory apartments comes as part of the deal. Tax the apartments at the rate that the county taxes SFHs, at a minimum!

by MKU on Sep 12, 2012 1:55 pm • linkreport

Ben:

Actually, unlike single-family homes, apartments are normally valued by using the "income approach". In other words, their value is determined by looking at the income that they produce. Will accessory apartments be valued by using the income approach? AA's are not specifically addressed in the Maryland Assessment Procedures Manual.

http://www.dat.state.md.us/sdatweb/procedures/014065005.htm

by Louis Wilen on Sep 12, 2012 1:58 pm • linkreport

How is the county crowded? By what metric? Moreover, typically the response has historically been to accomodate that growth rather than stagnate it. Now here in particular is a good way to accomodate that has a pretty minimal impact on neighborhoods. SFH's are staying SFH's and the Agricultural reserve is preserved. ADU's still have to meet safety and zoning restrictions for a neighborhood so if something looks out of place then they shouldn't be able to get the permit. Arguing against something because someone might mess it up isn't very persuasive to me.

by drumz on Sep 12, 2012 2:06 pm • linkreport

I respect the pro accessory apartment opinions but if approved a couple of things will happen.

1. Traffic will increase. Simple math shows if you put more people in the same amount of space, there will be more cars on the road. You can do this smart and only allow accessory apartments in transit oriented areas (TOA's) IF there are plans to increase TOA's (i.e. BRT). Most single family homes in MoCo that have room to add on are not in a TOA and thus more cars will be on the road and crowding (while parked) residential streets.

2. Property values will be hurt. I’m not necessarily saying they will plummet or even go down. But this will hinder the ability for properties to increase the way they did in the early to mid 2000’s for the next real-estate boom. I’m saying this not from a supply vs. demand view but from the perspective of potential buyers who will inherit a rental property without wanting one or perceive a neighborhood with several accessory apartments as being overcrowded, especially in a suburban setting. Maybe this is by design but good luck getting buy-in from property owners who actually live in their SFH. Ultimately the neighborhoods with the least amount of accessory apartments will be the big property value winners (maybe another metric for realty agents/websites?). Obviously, there is a reason why neighbors will fight tooth and nail to prevent a fellow neighbor from having an accessory apartment as this will affect property value, in result affecting someone’s ability to sell or retire.

3. Lastly, this will decrease development in certain areas. I view this as a bad thing. If dense areas only become denser, retail and jobs will stay where they are. If new mixed use communities are built with office space, jobs will come closer to those out in the burbs, which will alleviate traffic to some extent. Eventually the entire county will be dense for the most part. Isn’t it better to build an infrastructure now to accommodate the future (i.e. transit) before communities are established to avoid issues such as the purple/silver lines (cost and schedule)?

by Lane on Sep 14, 2012 12:11 pm • linkreport

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