Posts about Accessory Dwellings
One of the most significant ways to ensure some affordable housing is to provide more housing. It's not the only way and not sufficient on its own, but the clear connection between housing supply and price appears lost on multiple candidates for the April 23 DC Council at-large special election.
At a Chevy Chase Community Association meeting last week, many candidates affirmed support for affordable housing, according to a report on the Chevy Chase listserv, but then wavered or even outright opposed allowing people to rent out basements, garages, or parts of their homes to create new housing opportunities.
Lorrie Scally wrote:
Patrick Mara said "No" to the rentals because he feared they would result in an overflow of students into already crowded schools.
Meanwhile, according to Scally, "Matthew Frumin expressed his support for ADU rentals in all residential neighborhoods," while Elissa Silverman said she wants to ensure they don't impact neighbors much (similar to what she said on Let's Choose DC).
Yet, Scally said, "The candidates' presentations gave support to DC education issues and affordable housing for residents." Mara has endorsed affordable housing spending in the past; on one of the Let's Choose questions he actually answered, he said, "I'm certain we can find the millions need to fund libraries and affordable housing initiatives." He told the DC realtors, "The cultural diversity of DC is at risk if we do not protect and build affordable housing."
Anita Bonds did not attend the forum.
Adding housing must be a part of the housing strategy
About 1,000 more people move into the District each month than the number who leave. Moreover, the demand to come into DC is even greater than this.
Absent enough new housing, many people who want to come here will rent or buy units in gentrifying neighborhoods where prices are still lower than elsewhere. That raises housing prices in those neighborhoods, hastening the problem of some longtime residents being or feeling priced out, and others deciding to take a windfall and sell their houses at a big profit.
If we want longtime residents to stay, an important element of the equation is to find somewhere else for the people to live who want to come into DC. Basement and garage apartments are one important potential source. We already have large single-family houses with one or two retirees who aren't actually using the whole house. Letting them rent the space is a win-win for everyone except for those who want to keep the neighborhood exclusive and underpopulated relative to its 1950 size.
A lot of people in Ward 3 would rather the population growth go somewhere else. A lot of people vote in Ward 3, and several candidates are clearly seeking their votes. But letting a whole section of the city opt out of growth is not the right policy. It harms poorer neighborhoods by diverting more housing pressure to other areas, hastening gentrification.
How do the candidates stack up?
Four years ago, when I endorsed Patrick Mara, I perhaps assumed too readily that because he lives in a denser neighborhood and bicycles, he also supports a growing city. He might, but he came out strongly against a new matter-of-right building in Chevy Chase, opposes accessory dwellings, and refused to answer either of the two Let's Choose questions on growth. That's disappointing and a little surprising for someone who claims to want less government regulation.
I'm also disappointed Elissa Silverman has not been stronger on smart growth. She has less reason to try to pander for votes in Ward 3, when Ward 6 has become the highest-voting ward. Many of Ward 3's supposedly-liberal residents and newspapers nonetheless seem to go for whomever will lower their own taxes. As a supporter of affordable housing and equity for all neighborhoods, she also shouldn't tolerate some residents west of Rock Creek trying to redline growth and change solely to the east.
Unfortunately, while Matthew Frumin has been willing to stand up for (reasonable) growth more vocally than others, this morning's poll seems to confirm that he is most likely to play a "spoiler" role. Our readers, contributors, and I myself have often wrestled with how to think through the game theory of a race, and decide how much to weigh various policy positions or trade off candidate strengths versus electability.
This post is not an endorsement; our policy is to decide endorsements by a poll of recent, active contributors, which came out clearly for Silverman. On balance, I'm still going to vote for her, too. Besides, zoning isn't the only issue that matters, and she has some definite strengths on workforce development, oversight of city agencies, and more.
But just because we've endorsed should not prevent us from helping inform readers about candidates' positions, whether or not they comport with our endorsement (in this case, it's mostly a neutral effect), or holding candidates responsible for staking out good positions.
After being postponed a day because of the threat of snow, the marathon 7-hour oversight of the Office of Planning almost entirely revolved around the same controversial subject as the last 4-5 years: the zoning update.
DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at the hearing.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked tough questions of people on both sides of the issue. At first, he wondered how some people could say the Office of Planning did plenty of public outreach while others complained it was lacking, but later in the hearing, he began to realize that no amount of communication would satisfy opponents.
Councilmember Muriel Bowser (ward 4), meanwhile, breezed in at the end to voice opposition to a number of elements of the zoning update, but misunderstood some key provisions around accessory dwellings.
"What am I missing here?"
Many people testified, including representatives from Ward 3 Vision and other supporters of the zoning update, but there were many opponents as well.
After hearing many complaints about proposals to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and how threatening they would be to the character of neighborhoods, Chairman Mendelson tried to figure out what is so bad about having one in your neighborhood.
He calculated how many could fit in a block, then noted that not every property owner would want one. He asked Justine Kingham, "What am I missing here?"
When Kingham said that the issue is letting neighbors have a say in whether someone rents out a room in their house, Mendelson wondered aloud why it is anyone's business but the resident's own. "But should my neighbors decide whether I want somebody, one person coming in and out of the basement of my house or should I? Because that can be subjective."
Kingham then suggested that the Office of Planning limit the number of people who can live in an ADU, raising the specter of 5 "students" sharing a garage. In fact, there are limits: a main house plus an ADU can have only a maximum of 6 people combined.
Bowser: Enlarging ADUs is the problem
After all of the members of the public testified, Councilmember Bowser spoke about the good work that OP did in her ward but also raised concerns about some aspects of the zoning update, including effects of removing parking minimums and allowing corner stores by right.
Bowser opposes allowing accessory dwellings in existing detached garages. She said the reason is because people who live in them will want to enlarge them. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning pointed out, however, that under the proposed rules enlarging an exterior ADU will indeed require a special exception.
Bowser responded that she still thinks the Board of Zoning Adjustment will bias its decisions toward allowing people to expand ADUs once created, and therefore she still wants to have a longer process with hearings to create an external ADU in the first place.
Of course, no discussion of the zoning update would be complete without Linda Schmitt. In her vehement testimony, she said that the Office of Planning is trying to "remake every ward and every neighborhood," that her organization is not racist, and that a public input process that involves 700 people plus using Twitter isn't enough.
You can watch the entire hearing here.
Wednesday is the final ward-based community information session for the zoning update, in Ward 4. This is a particularly important one as Councilmember Muriel Bowser seems undecided on, or leaning against, proposals to reduce parking minimums near transit or to permit corner stores in Petworth, and confused about the specifics of the proposal to let homeowners rent out a basement or garage.
The meeting starts at 6:30 (doors open at 6) at Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW. As with the others, the Office of Planning will present, then there will be time for people to ask OP staff questions individually, followed by a "town hall" where people can speak at a microphone.
Bowser has already asked the Office of Planning to delay forward motion on the zoning update last year. In a December email to the Chevy Chase listserv, she expressed "concern" over many of the very important, fairly timid, yet fiercely opposed provisions of the zoning update:
Neighbors-Explanations of accessory dwellings are confusing
I'm happy to answer any specific questions you have. My office has convened at least two meetings on the Zoning Update. I'll post to my website the major issues for which we've advocated. Briefly, the chief concerns raised in our meetings: parking requirements near transit zones, by right corner stores and accessory dwelling units, height requirements, non-residential uses in neighborhoods, and community input.
I remain concerned about parking requirements near transit zones and by right, non-residential uses in residential neighborhoods. I believe the issue with by right Accessory Dwelling Units (detached) has been removed from the recommendations.
Again, I'll alert you when a full summary of the issues is posted on my website. I've been invited to present to Citizens Association in January and will plan to spend some time discussing there as well.
Ward 4 Councilmember
Bowser appears to be, or to have been, confused about the accessory dwelling proposal. It's not surprising, since OP has been explaining it in a very opaque way.
At the Ward 3 meeting last week, OP's Jennifer Steingasser explained that the current, old regulations require a variance for an accessory dwelling inside a main house, but allow a unit by-right for a "domestic employee" above a garage. Steingasser said that OP's goal was to "flip" the two, allowing accessory units as of right inside main buildings but requiring a special exception for a new carriage house.
However, this wording confused many people, including some of our commenters who were at the meeting, as well as a vocal opponent who spent about 10 minutes arguing with Steingasser. I didn't agree with that opponent's views on the issue, but sympathized with her confusion as she received one complex answer after another that didn't elucidate the issue very well.
Accessory dwellings are an important policy. They are the easiest way to add housing choices without changing the built form of neighborhoods, help house people at stages of life where they want an English basement or small garage, and give homeowners a way to earn more income and help pay the mortgage or supplement a fixed retirement income.
The Office of Planning need not "spin" the issue as not really much of a change. Instead, they should proudly explain why this is the right policy and stand up for it.
Map shows more about corner store proposal
They are standing up for, and more clearly explaining, the corner store proposals. OP made this map of corner stores in Ward 4, and says they are working on comparable maps for other wards. (At the Ward 3 meeting, a few residents asked for Ward 3 specific maps; it wasn't clear to me why they couldn't just focus on the upper-left portion of a citywide map, but whatever.)
In the map above, the dark purple is the mixed-use or commercially zoned areas, and the light purple the "buffer zone" in which it will be illegal to create a corner store. The red dots are examples of the type of store that the new zoning will allow (though most of them are in the buffers).
Yellow is the area where corner stores will be legal under the zoning update; in Ward 4, it's pretty much just Petworth and a few other very small areas. With corner stores limited to actual corners or buildings originally built as commercial, there will be very few eligible sites, since most of the buildings already have residents in them.
Can you attend?
Thanks in part to Greater Greater Washington readers, people supporting the zoning code or asking for it to go further equaled the number of people opposing the changes at last week's Ward 3 meeting. One person asked OP to restore their proposal for parking maximums (which require just a transportation analysis to exceed), and another spoke up for lighter restrictions on corner stores.
DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Councilmember Mary Cheh, Zoning Commissioner Rob Miller, reporters Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis, and many others heard a wide range of views from residents, ranging from wanting more change to none at all. It's important to have a similar diversity of views at tomorrow's Ward 4 meeting, the last one of this series.
Please stop by Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW, at 6:30 (doors open at 6) and try to stay until about 8, when they'll let people speak in the town hall. The balance of views during that open mic session will likely have a lot of sway over whether Councilmember Bowser stands in the way of the zoning update or not.
Update: The original version of this post suggested that Bowser was leaning against or "unsure" on the accessory dwelling proposal. However, the email shows she is leaning against the other proposals. She does not appear to be undecided on, but apparently is confused about, the accessory dwelling proposal. The post has been corrected.
Will reducing parking minimums and allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in upper Northwest neighborhoods make living more difficult for seniors? That's what a number of people argued at the Ward 3 zoning update meeting, but others cited seniors who will directly benefit from more housing, and more affordable housing, near transit.
Claudia Phelps wrote on the Chevy Chase listserv after the meeting, Tuesday evening in Tenleytown:
I was astounded at how many OP supporters spoke. I believe that every 2nd comment throughout the question period praised OP's work and their ideas! Some people around me suggested that OP had paid them to be at the meeting. (We have just a teensy bit of trust issues, I would say)
Many people at the meeting noticed that the pro-OP/radical change speakers were younger (30ish), and the anti-OP/radical changes were not so young. Apartment dwellers vs homeowners, most likely.
That last sentence evokes many of the anti-renter statements that have circulated throughout the debate, where some people insinuate (or outright claim) that anyone who doesn't own property is less worthy of consideration or will even harm the neighborhood.
One person wrote afterward, "I'm especially concerned about ADUs, and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young children's safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units." Steve Seelig replied, "Personally, I am appalled to hear and read about suggestions that those who would live in ADUs are going to have a greater tendency to endanger the children of our neighborhood."
As for age, I actually didn't perceive much of a difference between people who supported the (very much not radical, indeed quite timid) OP proposal, and those who opposed it. One speaker, Tad Baldwin, has gray hair yet said how important he thinks the proposal to allow accessory dwellings is. Others who appeared to be in their 30s argued against some of the changes.
Still, a pervasive theme throughout the discussion was whether the zoning changes would create problems for seniors. Moira Gillick spoke about the virtues of walkable neighborhoods, and a few people (somewhat rudely) shouted over her that walking didn't work for older residents.
In fact, a lot of pedestrians in Ward 3 are seniors, such as those who live in the assisted living facilities in the area. It's also certainly true that some people face mobility challenges, and need access to a car.
The fallacy in this debate comes when people assume that because one mode doesn't work for them, it won't work for others. One speaker called it ridiculous that people would come live in a building, like the proposed parking-free Babe's apartments in Tenleytown, without cars. Yet two speakers just minutes before had talked about how they live in parts of Ward 3 without cars.
One woman said she's not going to take the bus to Safeway with 5 bags of groceries. Fair enough. She doesn't have to. But on a Metro ride home (from Tenleytown, in fact) the next day, I stood on an escalator behind a man with 4 large bags of groceries. The majority of people in Ward 3 have cars, and that's not going to change if zoning allows a few new housing units marketed to people without cars.
Many seniors will benefit from transit-oriented housing choices
Some of those people will be seniors who can't drive any more. Herb Caudill talked about
his parents his wife's parents, who live in suburban New Jersey and are afraid of the day they won't be able to drive any longer. He said when they came to visit his home in Cleveland Park, they were amazed that he could walk to the grocery store, and asked if there was a library as well (there is!)
As a result, Caudill said, his parents are going to sell their house in New Jersey and their 2 cars and move into an apartment on Connecticut Avenue where they can walk to the library and museums. They can live independently even as their ability to drive declines.
(They will also become some of those "renters" that people are impugning on the listserv, or which people fear would come move into basements or converted garages and disrupt the character of the neighborhood.)
There is one obstacle for those like
the elder Caudills Caudill's in-laws, he noted: affordability. It's far cheaper to live in most of suburban New Jersey than in Cleveland Park "because the supply of housing is so limited," he said. That's why we need proposals like the accessory dwelling plan. "This housing is not just for young people," he said.
This is why we need proposals like OP's that expand the supply of housing. If anything, this plan does not expand it enough. A property owner who doesn't have an external garage today will be able to still build one as of right once the zoning update proceeds, but won't then be able to rent it out.
Richard Layman argued that at least near transit, zoning should encourage people to add extra housing on large lots with enough space for it. We could help more people like
the Caudills Caudill's wife's parents to live the retirement lives they want to have, but anxiety about "renters" and scarce parking has already led OP to water down its plans and lose out on one opportunity to let senior couples (and people of other ages) afford to come to DC.
The Office of Planning is holding their Ward 7 information meeting Saturday, 10 am at the DOES building, 4058 Minnesota Ave. NE, and a Twitter town hall using hashtag #ZRR at noon Monday, and finally the Ward 4 meeting at Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd. NW by Takoma Metro at 6:30 on Wednesday, January 16.
Correction: Herb Caudill emailed to clarify that the couple in question is his wife's parents, not his parents. I missed that when he was speaking at the event. Sorry for the error.
This Tuesday is a very important day! It's my birthday. (And Kojo Nnamdi's.) Also, it's the zoning update meeting in Ward 3, a ward which houses many of the most strident opponents, but where a great many residents also support growing and more walkable neighborhoods.
Can you go to the meeting? You don't need to know much about the zoning update; it's a great chance to learn. It would also help a lot to say something. Many opponents will be there and not shy. The meeting is 6:30 pm at Wilson High School.
Reader Steve asked, "Do you have specific talking points that we should try to convey?" You can say whatever you want, of course, and make up your own mind, but below are a few themes you might want to mention.
In addition, there are many ways OP has backed off earlier plans based on either resident pressure or internal OP decisions to push for a less significant change than they had originally planned. Or there are ways the zoning update could go beyond the original proposals. Therefore, for each policy area, there are a few changes you could request, if you feel they match your own views.
What's happening: The zoning update will restructure the zoning code (while keeping almost all provisions the same). Instead of having to look in up to 3 places for conflicting rules that all apply to your property, the key information will be in one place.
Main positive point: The zoning code is too hard to understand right now. It needs reorganizing into a form that better helps property owners understand what is and isn't legal on their property.
What's happening: The zoning update removes minimum parking rules for buildings downtown, residential buildings under 10 units, and buildings in mixed-use and higher-density residential areas near Metro and frequent bus lines.
Main positive point: Current rules force many buildings to include more parking than their residents or workers need. It's really important to remove many of the parking minimums, especially downtown and near transit.
Ways OP could go further:
- Fill in the "holes" in places like Logan Circle and Columbia Heights by making transit zones apply to non-residential uses in R-4 row house zones near transit.
- Go even farther and have no minimum parking requirements at all, citywide.
- Add parking maximums as well, in addition to one on 100,000-square foot parking lots. These would not have been absolute caps, but would just make developers do a Transportation Demand Management plan if they want to put in more parking than a set threshold.
What's happening: In low- and moderate-density residential areas, people can't rent out a basement or existing garage without going through complex approvals. The proposal would allow this in most lower-density areas for interior units or existing external buildings, but still require a hearing for new or expanded external buildings.
Main positive point: Accessory dwellings help young people afford places to live and seniors age in place. They make housing more affordable and accommodate more residents without fundamentally changing the character of buildings in a neighborhood. They just let neighborhoods house the numbers of people they did 50 years ago.
Ways OP could go further:
- Allow ADUs by right in new external structures as well (as long as the new external structure conforms to the other zoning rules).
- Impose fewer restrictions such as on size, balconies, whether an artist can live above a studio, and more.
- Include ADUs by right in Georgetown as well
— the current proposal requires a special exception for them (more on that later).
What's happening: Retail can locate in moderate density residential row house areas (not low-density or the higher density areas), as long as it's pretty far from other retail, in a corner building or historically commercial building, and satisfies many more restrictions.
Main positive point: People want to be able to walk to neighborhood-serving retail, and if they live in an area without a neighborhood commercial strip right nearby, they should be able to have a corner store to serve their needs.
Ways OP could go further:
- Allow stores on properties besides literal "corners" and historically commercial buildings.
- Allow corner stores even within 500 feet of mixed-use zones.
- Let corner stores locate in row house and apartment zones (now R-5) as well; now they do not count.
- Let the Board of Zoning Adjustment waive more of the conditions in a special exception hearing.
Green Area Ratio
What's happening: New or substantially changed buildings will need to get a certain score of environmental sustainability features, such as grass, green roof, stormwater management, or green walls, based on the property's size.
This will help reduce stormwater runoff and the urban heat island effect and potentially make DC a more pleasant place to live even as it grows. Some fear it will also further disadvantage urban development versus exurban greenfields.
There are many other small tweaks in the zoning update, mostly good.
Some top positive changes:
- The new code requires more bicycle parking for buildings. There would be "long-term" spaces, such as in a locked room inside the building for employees or residents, and "short-term" outdoor racks for visitors or shoppers.
- Larger garages will have to have a number of car sharing spaces. Surface parking lots need canopy trees to shade some of the lot.
- Rules for building homes on alley lots become a little bit more permissive.
Proposals OP dropped:
- The previous proposal had the same limits on the actual size of a house but did not prescribe how many stories you can have inside (except as the fire code limits). In low-density zones, OP reinstated a limit of 3 stories.
- The original proposal let homeowners build a house of similar size to others nearby even if their lot has an extra-short rear yard. The Zoning Commission approved this idea but OP removed it.
The meeting is at Wilson High School, 3950 Chesapeake St NW by the Tenleytown Metro. It starts at 6:30 with a presentation by Harriet Tregoning, an "open house" format where you can ask OP staff questions, and then a "town hall" where people can speak to the entire group about their views.
Linda Schmitt, head crusader against DC's zoning update, just sent out an email warning people about the accessory dwelling proposals:
Thought you might want to see what an ADU looks like. Photo provided by DC resident who says six of these are within shouting distance of her house. She is very upset and angry about it.She attached this picture:
Clearly, we look at the same thing and see it differently, because this looks like a pretty charming, well-maintained little house that's doesn't mar the look of the neighborhood. Many of us would love to have six of these in the alleys, with people who have an incentive to keep them clean and more eyes on the street instead of just a garage which could attract rats.
Ultimately, most of this comes down to a simple matter of values. Would you like to have more people in your neighborhood, especially if they can fit into existing buildings? (The Office of Planning's current proposal does not allow ADUs in any accessory buildings constructed after the change goes into effect). Or do you want government rules that keep people away?
OP has shown statistics about how existing houses are holding far fewer people than they did 50 years ago. Schmitt wants a public policy that makes it impossible for these neighborhoods to accommodate the numbers of people they once did, without changing the built environment much at all.
Schmitt calls her group Neighbors for Neighborhoods, but maybe it should really be Neighbors for Empty Neighborhoods, or Neighbors Against More Neighbors.
Please try to make the zoning update meeting on Tuesday, January 8, 6:30 pm at Wilson High School, or one of the other remaining meetings in wards 5, 7, and 4.
After a little breather for the holidays, it's time for DC's most contentious, important, yet timid public policy proposal to roll forward once more. The public meetings on the zoning update resume this weekend in Columbia Heights, with the biggest clash to follow Tuesday in Tenleytown.
Please attend one or more of the meetings this month and let us know which you'll be going to. It's especially important to get more folks to the Ward 3 meeting Tuesday. You don't need to go to the meeting in your own ward, and all meetings cover the same topics.
First and foremost, the meetings are a chance to educate yourself about the details of the plans and ask questions. In addition, you can ask OP to fill in some of the holes in their proposals.
Change is already here
The meetings start out with a presentation by the Office of Planning explaining the issues, the history of DC's zoning, and what they're hoping to tweak in the new code. After that, there is an "open house" format where you can write comments on post-its at various stations, and ask staff questions. They end the meeting with a more traditional "town hall" style where people can speak or ask questions one by one.
As they explain in the presentation, DC is very different than it was in 1950 and 1960, even though our zoning code is still substantially the same:
This last decade was the first time DC gained population since 1960, but the population is very different today. There are far more residents 60 years and older, and in the 20-34 age group, while there are far fewer children. The average household is a third smaller as well, which is why our existing stock of housing could be very full despite significant new construction, but still hold over 200,000 fewer people than in 1960.
What about the holes?
In its efforts to bend over backward and placate opponents, OP has left some significant gaps in proposals that are generally excellent steps forward. The upcoming meetings are also a good opportunity to ask OP to fill in the holes.
Parking minimums go away for mixed-use, non-residential, and high-density residential areas near transit and everywhere downtown, but that leaves what Matt Yglesias called the "Logan Circle gap": R-4 row house areas even right near transit. There's also a similar "Columbia Heights gap" and others.
There won't be parking minimums for residential buildings under 10 units, which covers most of the buildings in the "gaps," but this still leaves parking minimum requirements for some buildings right near Metro stations.
Corner stores will only be able to go in corner buildings or ones that have historically served as retail, and only 500 feet away from other retail. This leaves very few potential sites. Accessory dwellings can go in exterior garages but only if they already exist.
OP's early proposals had none of these holes. They added each one to try to address resident opposition and pare down the proposal to the absolute minimum necessary.
If the Zoning Commission approves the new code just as OP is proposing, it will be a major step forward for DC. It will fix many of the occasions when property owners have to ask for special exceptions to do things which match residents' desires and needs for our city. However, a number of these situations will remain, and we'll get less housing, bigger gaps between neighborhood stores, and more unnecessary parking than we might under a more expansive version.
Worse yet, if the Zoning Commission decides they need to "split the baby" and compromise between OP's plan and vocal opponents, we'll end up losing some essential component of the changes, since there's no fat left. There are almost no elements remaining that might be a good idea but maybe have some drawbacks, where you could go either way, since OP took all of those away already.
I'd have preferred to see OP leave the holes out, since we're better off without them, and also give zoning commissioners some room to compromise away elements that aren't absolutely essential. These public meetings are a chance to show OP that many residents not only support the zoning update but would support a less-timid variant as well.
Find the meeting nearest you
Here are the 5 remaining meetings over the next 2 weeks:
|Saturday, January 5||10 am-noon||Ward 1||Harriet Tubman Elementary School||3101 13th St NW (1 block east of Columbia Hts Metro)|
|Tuesday, January 8||6:30-8:30 pm||Ward 3||Wilson High School||3950 Chesapeake St NW (adjacent to Tenleytown Metro)|
|Wednesday, January 9||6:30-||Ward 5||Foster Auditorium (Ely Building), Gallaudet University||800 Florida Ave NE (5 blocks east of NY Ave/Gallaudet Metro)|
|Saturday, January 12||10 am-||Ward 7||DOES Building, Room 2309/10||4058 Minnesota Ave NE (adjacent to Minnesota Ave Metro)|
|Wednesday, January 16||6:30-||Ward 4||Takoma Education Campus||7010 Piney Branch Rd NW (3 blocks west of Takoma Metro)|
Which one can you go to? Let us know on this form and help us make sure we have good coverage at all the meetings!
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?
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 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.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).
602 ACCESSORY DWELLING UNIT LOCATED WITHIN A PRINCIPAL BUILDING
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 ACCESSORY DWELLING UNIT LOCATED WITHIN AN ACCESSORY BUILDING
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.
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.
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.
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.
The DC Zoning code shapes the form of our city and influences how walkable, inclusive and transit-oriented it is. Yet the code hasn't been comprehensively updated since 1958.
Priorities have changed a lot since 1958 The text of the petition is below: Sign the petition today and speak up for a better DC!
The text of the petition is below:
Sign the petition today and speak up for a better DC!
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