The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


What's in the zoning update: Accessory dwellings

Tomorrow is the first public meeting for the DC zoning update. It might also be the most important, as the tenor of the discussion could shape a lot of press coverage. DC residents, are you going?

Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

The meeting is Saturday, December 8, 10 am to noon at 1100 4th Street, SW, plus another Tuesday in Penn Quarter and Thursday in Anacostia. In any public process, regardless of the merits, decisions get made around the people who show up. If you can make one of these, please let us know here.

Some residents feel that letting someone rent out their basement or garage, allowing a corner store near homes, or not trying to override the market by requiring unnecessary amounts of parking near transit all will completely destroy life as we know it in many neighborhoods. You can bet that many will show up in force at the meetings.

Today, we will look at one of the controversial proposals that really shouldn't be controversial: accessory dwellings.

As Lisa Sturtevant and Agnès Artemel have documented, the Washington region needs a lot more housing to keep up with job growth and replace retirees. In the District, they estimate demand for 122,613 new housing units by 2030. So far, we're not on track to build that, even with all the construction going on.

Building more new buildings or larger ones is one answer, but new and larger buildings do bring impacts; plus, they concentrate the impacts in one small area. There's an obvious, and easy, solution. Let people rent out their basements and garages in single-family neighborhoods and low-density row house zones where it's not already legal to split townhouses into multiple apartments.

These existing houses held more people per building 50 years ago, when families were larger, than they do today. Now, we have more seniors remaining in their houses as they age, but who don't need the space, but who don't have children and grandchildren living with them that they would have in 1950. More young singles and couples are waiting to have kids and could live in a smaller space like a garage or basement.

It seems like a no-brainer, but there's a lot of alarm in some of DC's wealthiest low-density neighborhoods. Some is just fear of change, or worry that parking will become more difficult, and sometimes, it's anxiety that poorer and browner people might start living nearby.

The details

The proposed accessory dwelling text is in Chapter 6 of subtitle D of the draft new regulations. In zones that don't allow 2 or more units per house already, a property owner can create one "accessory dwelling" on their lot, either in the main building or an existing "accessory" building such as a garage, but not both.

Which zones does this apply to? It'll be the single-family zones, plus zones currently called R-3, such as Georgetown, the northern part of Petworth, and parts of Ivy City and Anacostia. Those are in yellow, orange, and red on the big map here. All other row house zones, which make up the vast majority of row house neighborhoods, already allow at least 2 units per house or more; this won't change anything there.

To minimize the impact on neighbors, there are a lot of conditions attached to accessory dwellings:

601.4 Either the principal dwelling unit or accessory dwelling unit shall be occupied by the owner of the lot coterminous with the accessory dwelling.


602.1 In all R zones except [R-4 zones and on alley lots], one accessory dwelling unit shall be permitted by right in the principal dwelling, subject to the following provisions:

(a) The principal building shall have at least two thousand square feet (2,000 sq. ft.) of gross floor area, exclusive of private garage space;

(b) The accessory dwelling unit shall not occupy more than twenty five (25) percent of the gross floor area of the principal dwelling;

(c) No more than one entrance per story shall be located in each building façade that faces a street;

(d) The total number of persons that may occupy the building, including the principal and accessory dwelling units combined, shall not exceed six (6);

(e) An accessory dwelling unit may be added where a use category permitted as an accessory use is already located in the principal building; and

(f) The Board of Zoning Adjustment may grant, through special exception, approval to locate an accessory dwelling unit within a principal dwelling that does not meet up to two of the conditions of this section provided the applicant demonstrates that the application complies with the general special exception criteria of Y Chapter 8, and the general purposes and intent of this chapter.


603.1 In all R zones except [R-3 and R-4 zones and on Alley Lots], one accessory dwelling unit shall be permitted by right in an existing accessory building, subject to the following conditions:

(a) The accessory building shall conform to all applicable setback and lot occupancy regulations;

(b) The accessory building shall be legally existing on [EFFECTIVE DATE], and shall not be expanded.

(c) The floor area devoted to the accessory dwelling unit shall not exceed 900 square feet;

(d) The foot print of the accessory dwelling building may not exceed 450 square feet.

(e) The accessory dwelling unit within an accessory building shall have pedestrian access to a public street via an alley, yard, an easement recorded with the Office of the Surveyor, or any combination of these pathways;

(f) The closest façade of the accessory building shall be separated from the closest façade of the principal building by a distance of thirty (30) feet minimum;

(g) A deck or balcony is permitted as a portion of any story of the accessory building; provided:

    (1) The deck or balcony is located entirely within the permitted footprint of the accessory building; and
    (2) The deck or balcony is oriented so as to not face a principal building on an adjoining property in an R zone; and
(h) An accessory building that houses an accessory dwelling unit may not be used at the same time for any other accessory use, other than as a private vehicle garage for either occupant of the property.

(i) The Board of Zoning Adjustment may grant, through special exception, approval to locate an accessory dwelling unit within an accessory building that does not meet up to two of the conditions of this section provided the applicant shall demonstrate that the proposal complies with the general special exception criteria of Y Chapter 8, and the general purposes and intent of this chapter.

One of the most key provisions here is that the owner has to live in either the main house or accessory unit. In a long letter to the Current, chief opponent Linda Schmitt talked about how when she was growing up, people looked out for the kids in the neighborhood because they knew them, and letting the neighborhood turn into one filled with "renters" (a code word, perhaps?) would destroy this. But it can't, because the owners will still live there, and their tenants could only add even more "eyes on the street" (or backyard).

The condition (b) in 603.1 is new since earlier drafts. Schmitt and other opponents raised alarm that this provision could start a boom of people building new garage-type buildings in their backyards to rent out. That seems a little unlikely, but the Office of Planning nevertheless changed the code to say that only existing, not new, garages and other accessory buildings can have accessory dwellings without a special exception hearing.

That hasn't stopped Schmitt from claiming that OP is "driving a relentless agenda" to, among other things, "allow 22-foot high expansion of garages for apartments or enterprises of varying descriptions. That's higher than second storey windows!" Actually, the existing code lets accessory buildings be 20 feet, and OP says "we're proposing an extra two feet to account for the slope of a roof." 2 feet doesn't seem like much of a "relentless agenda," but okay.

This does mean that even if someone builds a garage 2 years after the new code goes into place, sells the house, and 20 years from now someone wants to rent it out, they won't be able to. I'd suggest changing 603.1(b) to also allow renting out accessory buildings some number of years, like 5 or 10, after the accessory building is built; nobody is going to build one just to wait a decade and then rent it.

Also, why should it be okay to rent out a space above a garage if you're using the garage for car storage, but not if the ground floor is an art studio for the owner? The Board of Zoning Adjustment can give a "special exception" to this provision, but that's a cumbersome process; it still seems to unnecessarily privilege car parking.

Overall, OP has created an excellent proposal that bends over backward to accommodate existing residents' legitimate concerns while avoiding some of the more onerous limitations of Montgomery County's proposal. It's still getting fierce opposition from the vast majority of posters on lists like Chevy Chase's, along with the usual snide comments about people under 40 daring to participate in civic discourse.

Some areas, especially in that part of the city, have many seniors living in big houses. That means these blocks are far emptier of children and other people than they were when those residents were younger. Some want to be able to rent out parts of their homes to get more income, while others simply want to keep out the same kinds of people who used to live there or they themselves used to be. We shouldn't dismiss those views, but neither should public policy cater to this desire.

Please go to tomorrow's meeting, or the ones Tuesday and Thursday, and either support, or ask OP to further loosen, their proposals for accessory dwellings, corner stores and more. Tell us here which of these meetings, or the ones in January, you can make, so we can all be sure that there's a strong contingent of support for a growing and more livable DC at each one.

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. 


Add a comment »

So as I read this, here is what I am able to surmise:

Old Code:
Can have an interior and exterior ADU (if the exterior ADU is inhabited by a domestic employee);

New Code:
Can have EITHER an interior OR Exterior ADU, but not both. Removes the domestic employee restriction.

Old Code:
External ADU can be as large as zoning lot coverage permits and 20 feet in height;

New Code:
External ADU is limited to 450 square feet and 22 feet in height.

Old Code:
Existing out structure can be converted to an ADU by right as long as neither the footprint nor height change. Any changes to the footprint or height requires a special exception.

New Code:
Existing out structure can be converted to an ADU by right as long as neither the footprint nor height change. Any changes to the footprint or height requires a special exception (identical to old code).

Other than the removal of the "domestic employee" restriction, can someone please point out where there is a significant change to the existing code?

by Andrew on Dec 7, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

So If I have a building in a R-4 zone with an existing upstairs unit, separate basement unit and a carriage house out back can I finish the carriage house and make it its own separate unit? There is already a studio apt on the 2nd floor it would just be adding a kitchen and the ground floor. Or would I have to get a special exception? The lot is and end unit on a alley if that changes things. This whole process is so confusing!

by Chris R on Dec 7, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

Chris R: No, you can't make effectively a 3rd unit. An R-4 allows 2 regular units and 0 accessory units. I think you would even need a variance, not just a special exception, because the rules do not provide for a special exception to exceed the number of units as far as I am aware, and the accessory dwelling rules do not apply to R-4s at all.

Note that in the R-4, you CAN have a 3rd unit if the lot is unusually big. There's some number of square feet that if you are over, you can do a 3rd unit. But it's larger than the typical lot, so it's unlikely.

by David Alpert on Dec 7, 2012 1:51 pm • linkreport

One of the big issues being raised is that new ADUs can be constructed without there being a hearing. As I read this, if you want to build a new ADU that meets the other requirements, meaning that you violate one of the factors, there is no need for a hearing. Am I reading this right?

by Steve on Dec 7, 2012 2:07 pm • linkreport

If you violate no factors, you don't need a hearing. If you want to get out of 1-3 factors, you need a hearing and need to demonstrate that it's not averse to the public interest and the intent of the zoning regulations and comprehensive plan. So if neighbors are fine with it, they'll probably allow it, but if neighbors object and seem to have good reason, then probably not.

by David Alpert on Dec 7, 2012 2:16 pm • linkreport

I think that one can debate the merits and demerits of this proposal without raising the race/class bogeyman. There are plenty of reasons to think this could be a positive development for Washington. Let's also acknowledge that some residents who live in single family neighborhoods have concerns about impacts on parking, crowding, noise, light, etc., without (darkly) suggesting that it is about new residents being "pooer and browner." Let's keep the civic discourse civil and on point.

by Alf on Dec 7, 2012 2:22 pm • linkreport

renters is a code word for poor people. And somehow renters don't contribute to the community. Their tax dollars don't count and an increase in a house's value from having an ADU doesn't count either.

by drumz on Dec 7, 2012 2:27 pm • linkreport

And would it be better for size restrictions to be based on lot size than an arbitrary number?

by drumz on Dec 7, 2012 2:31 pm • linkreport

Not being a fan of legalese, I'll rely on youz guys to break it down, but as a general rule, they should let people live in their homes as they like, since they do it anyway. Group houses can be very crowded, and what's the difference between a family of 12 and a family living in the basement? The idea that renters will bring down the value of an area by itself is crazy. If you've got jobs, buzz, and beauty, no amount of renters is going to bring down a neighborhood. These fears are a hold over from the 1950's when an urban neighborhood's vitality seemed much more tenuous. We know that most people have moved beyond all the stereotypes that kept many a potential city dweller at bay. This is one of those areas in the zoning code that should be one page long. Life safety and 'nuff said.

by Thayer-D on Dec 7, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

Vancouver has a more robust accessory dwelling program that, I think, would work well in the District and (maybe, someday) in the redeveloping Metro station areas in Prince George's.

by Bradley Heard on Dec 7, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

Big fan of this concept.

The idiocy of allowing perfectly good space go to waste because technically it's on an alley never made any sense to me.

What many fail to realize about renters is that for many it's a lifestyle choice. They make as much $$ if not more $$ than many of these longtime-residents that own these massive but unused houses do, and many remain renters for a lifetime, by choice.

Building on an alley increases public safety, as a good many crimes start in the alley, or the alleys are used as an escape route.

You put a few houses back there with better lighting and the people living in those houses can keep an eye on things.

by Hillman on Dec 7, 2012 5:08 pm • linkreport

Also as I understand it this would allow a family in the main house to utilize their basement.

If you live in a small house that currently has a rental basement you could reclaim the basement when you have kids or whatnot, and rent out the ADU on the alley.

This flexibility would be really beneficial to a lot of people.

And it would increase property values, as the idea of extra square footage and flexibility would make a house appealing to a wider range of people.

by Hillman on Dec 7, 2012 5:13 pm • linkreport

. . . [A]s a general rule, they should let people live in their homes as they like, since they do it anyway.
I think this is a good point. There was a huge fire in a house on my block the other week, and the fire department said that when they got there they discovered that the house was subdivided into three units, one of which was a salon. It seems like even my neighbors who are afraid of this change would find it preferable to houses being divided in crazy, unsafe ways outside of any system. It's not like inspectors are going to discover most of these until something bad happens, so why not be proactive and see that it's done in a safe way?

by Gray's The Classics on Dec 7, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

A lot of controversy to try and get some changes in upper northwest and far southeast low-residential neighborhoods.

Bringing density levels in R-4 and R-5 up to modern times is much more needed. Instead OP's chosen to pick it's fight on something that really doesn't matter much.

Of course more than a few of these folks live in 3K sq' townhouses in R-4 and R-5 neighborhoods.

by Tom Coumaris on Dec 7, 2012 11:54 pm • linkreport

There have been problems with people filling in their backyards with some monstrosity and doing it without permits, etc. the case I remember best was in Colonial Village. You see a lot of this in places like SoCal and Vancouver whe there are lage Chinese extended families and postage stamp sized lot is turned into a compound.

by Rich on Dec 8, 2012 12:00 am • linkreport

Condition b in 603.1 basically eliminates most of the ability to add ADUs to places where they can be accommodated. Why tout or f*ing bother with it, if you can't add in substantive ways to the building stock through expansion of this opportunity.

I didn't think a provision in DC's zoning code could be even stupider than MoCo's maximum number provision of 2000 ADUs being allowed under their changes (this number is totally arbitrary which is why I think it's stupid), but this far exceeds it.

My neighborhood could accommodate hundreds of ADUs. Many of the blocks east of 5th Street have large lots (e.g., my backyard is 90 feet long). Many lots do not have garages, even if they may have existed in the past. A large section of my neighborhood lies within 3/4 to 1 mile walking distance of the Takoma Metro Station. Not being able to create new ADUs from the ground up destroys at least 75% of the opportunity for ADUs within this neighborhood. Adding to the population would make it possible to better support neighborhood retail, transit use, eyes on the street, etc.

by Richard Layman on Dec 8, 2012 6:17 am • linkreport

... although yes, if every one of the potential units in my neighborhood were built and all of the occupants used a car for the most part to get around it would have tremendous negative impact.

I think the biggest point ought to be to focus allowability in transit station catchment areas.

by Richard Layman on Dec 8, 2012 6:42 am • linkreport

I agree with Tom C. in that they'll waste a lot of energy and political ammo on a device that while useful, would be negligable in terms of increasing density when the real up-zoning fight stays on the side line. Maybe this is being adressed already, but it seems a lot more important to upzone every metro stop to a 6-8 story height along the commercial corridors and wherever else it makes sense within a half mile.

by Thayer-D on Dec 8, 2012 5:33 pm • linkreport

Just a clarifying question on the R-3 zones. Does this include only Anacostia or all of the neighborhoods east of the river?

by Nicole DuPuis on Dec 9, 2012 8:36 am • linkreport

Interesting that people are reading the provision about the owner also living on the lot as discriminatory. In my experience renters sometimes, not always but definitely sometimes, have a different level of investment in the community and the physical property they live in. That's ok, as a comedian once said "I like to rent because I don't have to buy (anything at the hardware store)." But the big problem isn't renters, which this law is in fact designed to increase, but absentee landlords who do not invest in maintaining either their own properties or the community - instead relying on everyone who actually lives there to keep things up while they collect a nice fat check every month.

by Paul on Dec 10, 2012 2:20 pm • linkreport

OP has confirmed that the limit of 6 people on a property applies to both internal and external ADUs. Thus a family of 4 in the main house could only have up to 2 people living in the ADU, not the 4 or 5 claimed by many opponents of the rewrite.

I suppose there is a scenario where a single person living in the main house could rent out their 450/900 foot ADU to a group of 4 or 5 people, but that seems both uncomfortable, unlikely, and still possibly illegal, depending on the space requirements are per person in a dwelling.

by Andrew on Dec 10, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

Nicole DuPuis: You can see it on the map here:

Click on that map for a bigger version. It looks like the only R-3 east of the river is in Anacostia, Fort Stanton, and River Terrace and a tiny piece along Oxon Run (not sure if that's Douglass or Congress Heights).

by David Alpert on Dec 11, 2012 12:56 pm • linkreport

I'm an owner of a business and building in the westend.A two story building is adjacent to our main building. Both are on an alley 30 feet wide. I believe I could build a single family home there but under the proposed changes could I build multiple family housing.

by Lansing on Dec 13, 2012 5:48 pm • linkreport

I have lived in DC basements, apartments, ADUS and now my own house in the upper northwest. I have walked, biked, motorcycled, cross country skiied and driven the city, and appreciated all. I do, I admit, own a car now, to go with my house, a little VW golf. I do go to work by bus and metro.

I appreciate very much all the benefits brought by a larger population of younger residents. And I have appreciated a lot of the discussion you have sparked.

But you know, condemning people over 40 and anyone who disagrees with you as unfit for a voice in DC is really getting tiring. You have condemned opposition to ADUs as being opposed to neighborhoods and neighbors.

Now you have condemned people with small families as unfit to live in 'big' (1500ft2 in my case) houses. Never mind that my neighborhood schools are already 50% over capacity and kids study in trailers, and DC has no solution; that there is no more room for street or alley parking, even for my dinky car (the under-30 gloriously bike-conscious young generation students that rent across the street have 4 cars). Never mind that I actually let my parents visit my house without sleeping on the floor.

And then you say shit like: for people in my neighborhood "sometimes, it's anxiety that poorer and browner people might start living nearby."

No, people in my neighborhood, which include "brown" people, are mostly concerned that the local public schools are so overcrowded and that DC has no good solution that they will be forced, like decades ago, to move to Montgomery County because they can't afford private schools.

Let's do it this way: why don't you propose to raise the unit occupancy ratio in your building and rent out floor space to friends, allow hard-working low-paid people and students to occupy your building 10 to a room. Isn't that the logical conclusion to the way you express your sentiment?

And as you do, figure out the educational demands and alternatives and expenditures of your denser neighborhood, and whether your kid will be able to go to a neighborhood school or be forced to find an accepting charter school across town. And figure out whether all of you in the apartment should pay more tax to support all of that.

I could actually benefit from your ADU advocacy as I rebuild an old garage. But you know what? Suggesting that because i don't have 5 kids I don't merit living in my 1500 ft2 house makes me want to oppose anything you have to say. Even if it benefits me.

And seriously, as one of the gentrification generation which has helped push out black DC, perhaps you ought to put your "browner" crap where it belongs -- up yours.

by polo on Jan 8, 2013 2:37 pm • linkreport

Is the author an attorney or has this article been reviewed by an attorney? If not, it's risky to go into such detail about a law without causing confusion of readers and spreading misinformation.

I also thought it was absurd to suggest "it's anxiety that poorer and browner people might start living nearby." If we actually examine the neighborhoods that will be most affected by the proposed changes, there are just as many, if not more, in the eastern half of the city, which are majority "browner" homeowners.

by Duponter on Sep 16, 2015 1:59 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us