Posts about Accessory Dwellings
Let's say you own a house in Montgomery County and you're having trouble paying the mortgage. Or you have more space than you need and would like some extra income.
If the zoning code is rewritten the way county planning staff proposed last week, you will be able to split your house into two apartments and rent one of them out ... if you are five feet seven inches tall, have red hair, and were born in West Virginia.
Actually, the limits proposed on so-called accessory apartments aren't quite that restrictive. But almost. Under the draft code, the following conditions must be met before a house can be divided into two units:
- The owner must live in the larger of the two apartments. If work takes you out of town for a year and you want to rent out your house, you have to evict your tenants first.
- The area of the smaller apartment must be less than 800 square feet.
- You can't rent to a family of more than three.
- There can't be another two-family house within 300 feet.
- Each apartment must have its own outside entrance. The door to the smaller of the two apartments has to be on the side or back of the house.
- You need at least three off-street parking spaces, covering at least 480 square feet of land. These parking spaces must be built without paving more than half of the front yard, even if the front yard is less than 960 square feet.
- And when you somehow manage to meet all these requirements, if 1000 other people split up their houses before you, you're out of luck.
Some of these petty restrictions are already included in the present zoning code, which in addition makes homeowners go through a 9- to 13-month review process that includes public hearings. Only about 10 houses a year have been able to pass the tests. The county today has about 180,000 one-family houses, and only a few hundred two-family buildings.
This is simply absurd. Montgomery has an acute shortage of affordable housing. The greatest need is for large rental apartments. Two-family houses save money for owners and renters alike. It's time to make them legal.
Skeptics of Montgomery County's proposal to allow homeowners to build accessory apartments more easily claim it will change or harm single-family neighborhoods. But recent trends in housing suggest that those neighborhoods will change anyway.
Slightly less than half of Montgomery households live in single-family homes today, and pretty soon they may no longer be the most common type of house in the county. According to the 2010 American Community Survey, just 49.9% of the county's 353,000 households live in single-family homes. Another 31% live in apartments or condominiums, while the remaining 19% live in townhomes or duplexes.
Demand for big suburban houses or "McMansions" has waned in recent years, due to their high cost and shrinking households. Young adults aren't interested in them, either. Even those who prefer single-family homes would take a smaller house or a townhouse to be closer to jobs and amenities.
As a result, newly built homes are more likely to be apartments or townhomes. Data from the MoCo Planning Department shows that of 29,000 homes approved for construction here in the coming years, just 7,900 or 27% of them will be single-family homes. Those houses are likely to be smaller as well.
Nonetheless, there are still plenty of McMansions in Montgomery County: the 2010 ACS says that one-fourth of MoCo homes have nine or more rooms. What will happen to them? These houses will have to adapt to living arrangements they were't built for, and the single-family neighborhood as we know it may have to change as well.
Some of these big houses might attract single adults, who find they can afford a nicer home if they share it with other people. Group houses aren't new to Montgomery County; in fact, they're legal if there's fewer than 5 unrelated adults in the same house. But they do present an opportunity to create small "intentional communities," where residents seek not only a common roof but a common purpose as well.
Take Rainbow Mansion, a 5,000-square-foot home in Silicon Valley home to a group of twentysomething tech workers. The home's founders describe themselves as "intentional community of driven, international, passionate, and socially conscious people trying to change the world":
It was more than just a luxury home full of brilliant young minds ... The Rainbow Mansion was an experiment in a new type of cohabitation. The house began hosting hackathons and salons in its library, inviting Silicon Valley's best and brightest to participate. "Right away it set itself in motion," [co-founder Jessy Kate] Schingler says. "It had this sort of accidental mystique about it."A house that was probably built for a nuclear family has instead become the nucleus of a larger community. Of course, Montgomery County isn't Silicon Valley. But it's easy for me to imagine something like Rainbow Mansion appearing in a house near the Great Seneca Science Corridor one day. After all, there are over 500,000 jobs in MoCo, and young adults who seek the city life but work in Gaithersburg will probably live nearby rather than commute from the District.
Other large homes may still draw families, but they'll be extended, multi-generational families, with grandparents, adult children, and other relatives and friends. They're living together to share expenses but may want some level of privacy and autonomy.
Today, MoCo's extended families can apply to build a "Registered Living Unit" in their home, basically an accessory apartment for a relative or home employee who lives there rent-free. There are only about 500 of these in the county today, but as multi-generational families become more common, we may see more of them.
Even home builders are picking up on the trend, adding apartments for extended family in new homes. Noting that nearly a third of American families have "doubled up" with relatives or friends, national builder Lennar Homes recently introduced a design called the "NextGen" home.
Floorplan of a NextGen home in South Carolina, with separate apartment highlighted in blue. Image from Lennar's website.
Called a "home within a home," the NextGen home looks like a typical single-family house on the outside, but inside is a separate apartment with its own private entrance, kitchen, and bathroom. Lennar hopes it'll be popular with immigrant families in which multiple generations live together.
While these homes are only being built in a handful of states like South Carolina and California, they have yet to make an appearance in the DC area. But Montgomery County's growing immigrant population suggests there may be a market for homes like this here.
For much of the 20th century, Montgomery County was known for big houses, great schools and affluent families. It's not surprising that civic groups call single-family neighborhoods the "backbone" of the county. While those neighborhoods may not be going away anytime soon, changing trends and changing demographics suggest they may look quite different in the future.
Citing increased housing costs, Montgomery County planners want to make it easier for homeowners to add accessory apartments or "granny flats" to their property and rent them out. While the new policy is a step in the right direction, balancing neighbors' concerns with the need to provide more housing in high-demand areas will be a challenge.
Last week, the Planning Board approved a set of changes to the current policy, which the County Council will review this fall. Today, homeowners who want to build an accessory dwelling have to get a special exception from the county's Board of Appeals, which requires a public hearing.
The new policy would allow accessory units in most of the county's single-family zones. Homeowners wouldn't need a hearing, but they'd still need to get approval from building officials to create an apartment, register the unit with the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, apply for a rental license, and renew the license each year.
Planners say allowing accessory apartments will help financially strapped homeowners cover their mortgages while providing additional housing choices for renters, particularly young adults, who are priced out of many MoCo neighborhoods. Accessory dwellings are already allowed "by right" in a variety of communities, from cities like Portland to suburban Lexington, Massachusetts to rural Fauquier County, Virginia.
Opponents fear "devastation"
Neighbors fear loosening restrictions will lead to more oversized additions like this one in White Oak. Photo by the author.
However, not everyone's on board. WeAreMoCo, a newly-created citizens' group, argues that not requiring a public hearing is undemocratic, while angry residents packed a meeting about the proposed change in May, claiming that it would threaten the character of single-family neighborhoods. In an e-mail to the Planning Board, Silver Spring resident Alice Gilson wrote that accessory apartments would "devastate our area" and eventually "lead to middle class flight."
Some opponents argue that allowing accessory units is a bad idea because the county already can't stop every illegal unit that exists. Many property owners do indeed choose to ignore the application process and rent out apartments without permission, and unknown to the county. Often, these units are poorly built or overcrowded, putting tenants in danger.
Others exist in a sort of legal limbo: the owner may get approval to build an addition with a bathroom but not a full kitchen, exempting them from the permitting process for apartments even as they rent the space out as one. Even legal units can earn the ire of neighbors for being oversized or unattractive, like this this 1,500 square foot "addition" to a house in White Oak.
On the other hand, how could you blame someone for building an illegal unit? The current system forces homeowners to defend their financial or household situation to wary neighbors, reducing the incentive to take the legal route. Residents may not want accessory apartments in their neighborhoods, but they probably prefer legal, vetted units to illegal ones with no regulation at all.
How can we ensure the creation of safe, context-sensitive accessory apartments? We need to streamline the approval process, making it less intimidating to property owners. But we also need to make the guidelines for what they can and cannot build clear and easy to follow, letting neighbors know what to expect when one gets built on their block.
What county planners propose
This accessory apartment in Kentlands (over the garage) is located on a 4,300 square foot lot, smaller than would be allowed elsewhere in Montgomery County under the new regulations. Photo by the author.
The proposed policy reduces the legal process required to build an accessory apartment, but it's somewhat more restrictive than the current regulations regarding the size, number, and location of units throughout the county.
Today, homeowners can apply to build a unit as large as 2,500 square feet, but the new proposal caps unit size at either 50% of the main house, 800 square feet or 1,200 square feet, depending on the size of the house or the lot. The new rules also specify that a house with an accessory apartment has to be at least 300 to 500 feet away from another house with one in order to prevent the "overconcentration" of units. There's also a limit of 3 residents per accessory unit, which didn't exist before.
So-called "backyard cottages," accessory dwellings in a separate structure from the main house, were only allowed on lots larger than 2 acres today. Planners were going to allow them on most lots in an earlier draft of the new rules, but they now suggest allowing backyard cottages only in rural zones with lots larger than one acre.
They also aren't considering giving amnesty to existing unlawful apartments. Those who have them would have to apply for a permit just like everyone else.
The new rules won't result in a flood of new apartments, as they would include a cap of 2000 accessory dwellings countywide. Today, there are just 380 legal accessory apartments and 548 "registered living units," built for relatives or household employees who live there rent-free. Planners estimate that 0.2 to 0.5 new accessory dwellings per 1000 homes will be added annually. With 163,000 owner-occupied single-family homes in the county, that comes out to between 30 and 80 new units each year, compared to 10 today.
A cap on accessory apartments might assuage the fears of residents who oppose changing the policy. But for those who could benefit from this new source of housing, the new policy doesn't do enough.
How could the rules be better?
Most existing accessory apartments are located downcounty. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.
The proposed regulations make it difficult to build accessory dwellings in the areas where they'll have the most impact, which hurts homeowners and renters. However, they should also offer more guidance as to how units are designed, addressing neighbors' concerns about privacy, crowding and aesthetics.
Potential accessory apartment dwellers may want to locate in desirable downcounty communities like Bethesda, Silver Spring and Takoma Park, where housing is often more expensive but close to jobs, shopping and public transit. Not surprisingly, most of the county's existing accessory dwellings are in these places. Encouraging more of them here would put these areas within reach of more homeowners and renters and ideally give them shorter commutes, reducing traffic congestion.
However, the proposed policy limits the number of units that can be created in these areas, by allowing only 2000 units in the entire county and requiring that they're at least 300 feet apart. And because there aren't any one-acre lots in these neighborhoods, the new policy won't allow backyard cottages there, either.
Why should it be easier to build an accessory apartment on an acre in Potomac, far from jobs or transit, than in a neighborhood like Woodside Park in Silver Spring, where homes sit on generous 1/3-acre lots less than a mile from the Metro? They already exist on much smaller lots in neighborhoods like Kentlands in Gaithersburg, which isn't under the jurisdiction of the county's planning department.
Seattle's Backyard Cottages Guide shows homeowners how to site an accessory dwelling on their property.
Opponents of the new policy might say that accessory dwellings will harm neighborhoods like Woodside Park, but clear, properly enforced guidelines can ensure that new units respect the existing context. Many places that allow accessory apartments offer clear directions on what homeowners can or cannot do. Vancouver, Canada has a "Laneway Housing How-to Guide," which provides examples of accessory units that have already been built. Seattle has a 54-page guide to building backyard cottages, including sample layouts and directions on how to provide parking or maximize privacy. And Portland walks homeowners through the approval process, ensuring that their unit meets all regulations before they apply.
These guidelines should be made with public input so neighbors can help set the rules, rather than fight them in a public hearing. As a result, homeowners get a template they can follow, saving them time and hassle; neighbors know what kinds of additions to expect in their community; and tenants get safe, functional, and attractive places to live.
Accessory apartments give residents freedom
Opponents say that accessory apartments will hurt their single-family neighborhoods. But as Washington Post columnist Roger K. Lewis points out, many of Montgomery County's single-family homes were built for large families. But as households shrink, many of these homes hold just one or two people today. A retired couple living in a four-bedroom house and carving out an apartment for their grandkids or an unrelated tenant isn't "changing" the neighborhood, but bringing it back to the occupancy level it was built for.
Let's face it: Montgomery County is an expensive place to live, and many households are struggling to make ends meet. Making it easier to build accessory dwelling units gives both homeowners and renters the freedom to live where they want and within their means. The county's current policy doesn't prevent accessory apartments from being built, but it does ensure that the creation of more illegal, unsafe, and unattractive apartments. That's a status quo our residents and our neighborhoods can't afford to keep.
While DC's zoning update discourse has bizarrely revolved thus far around a small group of opponents spreading false information, there are serious policy differences to genuinely debate. One is the proposal to allow accessory dwellings in single-family zones in DC and Montgomery County.
Planning departments in both jurisdictions want to follow many other places around the nation and allow homeowners to rent out a garage, basement, or other space. This would create more diverse housing choices, make aging in place more affordable, and help more customers for neighborhood businesses.
They have also attracted vociferous opposition. In Montgomery County, opponents packed some recent hearings to fight the proposal. In DC, hearings haven't come up yet, but posts on local listservs have been rallying residents to organize against the change.
Some residents have been meeting with DC councilmembers, including Michael Brown, who sent a letter opposing accessory dwellings after a meeting with "Neighbors for Neighborhoods."
Much of the opposition is driven by fears of neighborhoods become predominantly filled with renters. But there are protections against this. The homeowner still has to live in the house to create an accessory dwelling. They can't create an accessory unit and then rent out the main house at the same time while living elsewhere. There are also limits on how big such an accessory dwelling can be, and there can't be more than one on a property.
Young and old alike need accessory dwellings
Accessory dwelling rules address twin challenges we face today that stem from 20th century suburbanization: Homes that are unaffordable for the young and impractical for the aging.
Metropolitan areas have ballooned in diameter as the population has grown, while at the same time older suburban areas have lost population compared to the mid-20th century. While most single-family homes were built for large families, today families have fewer children and couples are waiting longer to have children.
In addition, empty nesters are living longer in the large houses where they raised families, unlike previous eras where grandparents often lived with children and grandchildren. Thanks to all of these factors, rather than accommodating some growth, many inner-ring suburbs are gradually growing emptier.
That means that young professionals increasingly can't find a place to live. There are not enough units smaller than full houses in desirable areas to meet the demand and often people have to buy more house than they need. Meanwhile, seniors face challenges "aging in place" such as dealing with stairs or the cost of maintaining a large house.
The solution is simple: Let property owners rent out garages or basements. A homeowner who doesn't have children at home can rent a room over a garage to someone else's adult child who needs a place. A senior can make some extra money or even move into the accessory unit and earn money from renting out the whole house. Housing can get more affordable for many people while also increasing property values.
Why would people oppose this? Here are a few potential reasons:
Neighborhood busybody-ism. Look at some of these quotes from the Patch article:
"If they take away our voice by allowing accessory apartments by right, we don't have a say," said Kim Persaud, president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association. ... Said Howard Nussbaum, president of the Kensington Heights Civic Association, "With the special exception, I know what's going on next door and I can put my two cents in."There's an understandable impulse to want to have a say over what every neighbor does all the time, but that doesn't mean the government should cater to it. In many neighborhoods, people rent out their basements all the time and the world doesn't come to an end.
Race and class. David Moon at Maryland Juice suggests that people are scared of "poor people moving into their neighborhood" and that there is a racial element to this fear. To some people, a rental unit conjures up images of a Latino family or someone else "different."
Many zoning regulations in the mid-20th century promoted de facto segregation by making certain neighborhoods unattainable to a large segment of the population. Neighbors for Neighborhoods has been actively trying to recruit members and start chapters east of Rock Creek Park, but residents in these areas may want to think carefully before signing onto any anti-accessory dwelling campaign.
Traffic and parking. More people could mean more traffic and more difficulty parking. Regionally, having more people live in established neighborhoods creates less commuting traffic along long routes in and out of the core, but it could mean slightly more cars in residential areas.
As Kaid Benfield thoughtfully explains in the Atlantic, these types concerns are real. Benfield writes that smart growth "manages impacts by concentrating them." We get less overall traffic and pollution, but more in one specific place from an individual development project.
Making accessory dwellings legal across the District and in Montgomery County is actually better for impact-averse residents than any specific development because it will bring only slow and small change spread out over a wide area.
Much of the impact of this policy would be positive. Restaurants and local stores will be more likely to thrive or at least survive with more potential customers. More eyes on the street will make neighborhoods safer for children. A larger tax base will allow the District to tax each resident less.
Pro-DC will be pushing the DC Council and Zoning Commission to support accessory dwellings. Join the list below to stay informed about ways to weigh in as the process proceeds.
Rents in Alexandria are skyrocketing. Virginia's state laws don't make it easy to create affordable housing for people earning less than the area median income, so the city has to think outside the box.
True sustainability means that we provide housing options that mirror our workforce. This reduces people's commute times, and cuts down on regional congestion. Forcing people to live farther out consumes farmland, increases food costs, and harms air quality. Jurisdictions closer to DC have an obligation to help address the rental housing shortage.
For Alexandria, this work also strives toward the mixed-income and mixed-culture vision that we have long held on to. But rising rents are making this vision harder and harder to achieve.
Unlike other states, Virginia does not allow its cities to mandate that developers replace every unit of affordable housing lost to redevelopment, or to require a fixed percentage of affordable units. But affordable housing is a priority for Alexandria, so the City Council and Planning Commission are working together with staff, developers, and residents to find innovative ways to provide it.
Over the course of the next year, the City Council should adopt a new Affordable Housing Master plan. We just completed a plan for senior services that specifically called for new, affordable retirement living options. Soon our public housing authority should complete its own master plan. And the city should finish work on the Beauregard small area plan. All of these will have a significant impact on the future of affordability in Alexandria.
The Beauregard planning study demonstrates the limits of our power. Without a new plan, current rentals, which are barely affordable to people earning under $50,000, would become luxury rentals or townhouses. Thousands of currently affordable units would vanish. The city may be able to gain a small number of units out of these conversions, but it would be limited. We can do better.
The proposed Beauregard plan saves about 700 units of affordable housing. The Council has asked that this number be raised and that we find a way to provide housing to a broader range of incomes, especially those earning under $40,000 per year.
To maximize the number of units saved, the city will need to create a more flexible approach to housing. We need to increase the contributions from developers and use those funds to preserve existing units whenever we can because it is often much less expensive to preserve an existing housing unit than to build a new one. This helps us spread the value further.
We need to ensure that the structure of developer contributions makes it easy to combine with private and non-profit money to build new mixed-income projects over the 30 years it will take for the Beauregard plan to get fully built. Over that time, over $90 million in payments could go towards affordable housing. The scale those funds creates an opportunity to attract other investment.
We need better incentives for developers to create and preserve affordable housing and mixed-use development. The city should look at every new development as a chance to add affordable housing.
Alexandria should update its home ownership and rental assistance programs, to bring them up to date with national best practices. The city should revisit its zoning to allow "granny flats," so that families can rent out affordable spaces in their home and give seniors and others living options. The city should also encourage housing on top of retail strips.
The master plan won't solve all of these issues. There isn't a silver bullet, and no one jurisdiction can solve this problem on its own. Alexandria also needs help from regional partners to build more rental housing. The federal government should also step up. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been too silent on our national rental housing problems for too long.
Alexandria's problems are not unique. Rental rates are consuming more of people's monthly income than can be sustained all over the country. But hopefully, Alexandria's work in the coming months can provide a model for our region and state to follow.
Accessory apartments, corner stores, alley dwellings, and less parking, all of which were legal when DC's historic neighborhoods grew into their current form, could become more prevalent under a proposed new zoning code. The first third of the code is now out as a public draft, and residents will debate these and other changes in the coming months.
Formal Zoning Commission hearings to approve or reject the zoning code will come later this year, but there is a sort of preseason exhibition hearing tomorrow. The DC Council's annual oversight hearing for the Office of Planning will bring sparks as advocates on various sides push their cases, though the council doesn't actually decide these issues.
The Office of Planning has been working for 4 years to rewrite the District's zoning code. Now, after hundreds of public meetings and many rewrites, OP's draft of the actual new zoning text clocks in at 458 pages, and that's just for the first third of the text, covering general issues as well as low- and moderate-density residential zones.
The vast majority of the work just updates, streamlines, and simplifies the text. Today, under the zoning code approved in 1958, rules and restrictions appear in general chapters that cover zone types or other, neighborhood-specific sets of rules called "overlays." Many rules use terms that aren't defined anywhere, like "building façade line," which seems very simple until you start thinking about buildings with rounded turrets.
There are also a few significant policy changes. In particular:
- More homeowners will be able to create accessory dwellings, like garage or basement apartments.
- A limited number of small art studios, corner groceries, shoe repair shops, hardware stores and the like will be able to open in residential areas when there aren't any commercial areas nearby.
- Fewer buildings will be forced to provide parking, or will not be forced to provide as much.
- More alley lots will be able to have houses.
- Green Area Ratio will require landscaping and other stormwater-managing features in projects, though not the low- and moderate-density residential buildings covered in the chapters released so far.
With the exception of the Green Area Ratio, a very 21st-century sustainability idea, the other changes acually harken more back to a past era than to the future. They correct some of the most egregious problems from the 1958 code, where it imposed social engineering ideas in vogue at the time that ended up eliminating local corner stores, pushed people out of urban neighborhoods, and forced new buildings to take a suburban form incompatible with the walkable communities that previously existed.
If Georgetown, Capitol Hill, or Petworth didn't exist today, they couldn't be legally built as they are. Even many single-family neighborhoods of detached houses like AU Park, Brookland, and Hillcrest are mostly illegal as well under current zoning. Where the new zoning code makes changes, it's to legalize the kind of development patterns that formed the neighborhoods residents treasure today, rather than forcing radically different forms which characterize much of the mistakes of the mid-to-late 20th century.
Therefore, fewer people live in DC's existing houses than they did at the time. Allowing accessory dwellings is a way to let those buildings serve their historic population levels in the modern day. An accessory dwelling is a separate legal unit either in the same building as a larger, main residence or in an accessory building like a garage or carriage house.
Row house neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights, and Bloomingdale already allow these units because they are R-4 districts, which allow 2 apartments per building. But in the few R-3 row house neighborhoods, like Georgetown, the northern half of Petworth, Anacostia, and a few small others, these units are illegal except in those unusual buildings which are completely detached, and then only with a "special exception" from the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
There are many neighborhoods with semi-detached houses, where houses are connected in pairs (the orange areas in the above graphic), and accessory dwellings are also illegal in these buildings. Fully detached single-family homes (the yellow areas) can have accessory dwellings, but only by special exception (except to create housing for domestic employees in the 2nd story of a garage), and only in a main building, not a standalone garage or carriage house.
This is bad policy. These houses used to hold more people. Today, many owners are empty nesters who used to have kids in the house but no longer do. Retirees on fixed incomes find it harder to afford to keep up their homes. The simple solution is to let people rent out separate units to get some extra income, or even live in those small units and rent out the main house.
OP proposes a policy change to let people create accessory dwellings by right in the detached and semi-detached residential areas. In the R-3 row house areas, owners could create them as well, but would still need special exceptions.
This is a good change, but there's no reason to impose such burdens just on people in these row house districts, especially when only slightly denser row house districts allow far more by right. OP should amend its proposal to permit accessory dwellings by right in R-3 zones (which will be called R-14 in the new code) as well as in lower density ones.
Corner stores in residential areas
The local shops of today might be different than those of the past, like yoga studios rather than general stores, but the principle remains. Under current zoning, however, no commercial use can locate in a residential zone.
OP's proposal would allow some limited retail in residential areas, but with a great number of restrictions:
- Only "Arts Design and Creation" (arts studio, furtniture making, radio broadcast station), "Food and Alcohol Service" (deli, ice cream parlor), "Retail" (drugstore, grocery, jewelry store, but not auto shop or firearm sales), and "Service" (bank, travel agency, tailor, but not daycare, animal boarding, health clinic, or sexually based business) uses are allowed.
- They can't be in any building within 500 feet of a commercial or mixed-use zone, so this doesn't let existing retail corridors expand (though, arguably, some of that might be a good idea).
- There can't be more than 3 other arts, retail or service uses within 500 feet, or more than 1 other food establishment, to prevent too much of a concentration of these non-residential uses in one area.
- It can't be above the ground floor of any building, except for artist live-work spaces. This prevents a building from becoming entirely commercial.
- It can't be larger than 2,000 square feet.
- It can't be open after 7 pm or before 8 am.
- There can't be more than 4 employees at the business at any time.
- It can't have more than 1 sign, a lighted side, or a sign sticking out from the building.
- All of the trash and materials have to be stored inside; there can't be a dumpster, for instance.
- Any alcohol sold has to be for consuming elsewhere, not at the business, and can't take up more than 15% of the business's floor area. That means a small grocery could offer some beer and wine, but there can't be a wine bar or liquor store.
- Food sales can't involve cooking food on-site, but reheating pre-cooked food is okay. Grease traps (a part of kitchens that do frying or other cooking with grease) aren't allowed.
- There can't be dry cleaning chemicals, so a dry cleaner in a residential district has to be the kind that sends its clothes out to be cleaned rather than doing the work in the building.
Despite these regulations, a number of people are nervous about allowing any commercial use in a residential area. They understandably worry about noise, traffic, and other effects of commercial activity. OP seems to have tried to set rules that cut off the problematic impacts, like late night activity.
Maybe there need to be additional restrictions, or maybe some of the proposed uses are just too risky for neighbors to be comfortable. If so, we should amend this section rather than scrap it entirely.
Minimum parking requirements
It turned out, however, that many of the parking requirements were far too high, forcing buildings to dedicate precious space to parking lots. That makes construction more expensive and creates gaping holes in the urban fabric. It also pushes architects to design buildings around cars rather than people, making them less pedestrian-friendly and forcing residents to drive more and walk less.
In the low- and moderate-density residential areas covered by the zoning rules OP just released, buildings of 9 or fewer units don't have to build any parking. That's great, but many buildings still do. Nobody can build larger residential buildings in these zones, but existing ones become nonconforming.
All non-residential uses in these districts also have to build parking. That includes churches, schools, daycares, rec centers, chanceries, and retail. These are the very kinds of buildings that shouldn't be car-oriented in residential neighborhoods. A daycare in a residential area ought to be serving the neighbors, not attracting people from far away. If it has no parking, that's more likely.
Many neighborhoods have fought with churches which want to tear down historic row houses just to create parking lots for parishioners who don't live in the city. Minimum parking requirements only exacerbate this problem instead of solving it. Neighbors have fought with embassies about converting grassy yards to parking lots. Why make this mandatory in the zoning code?
The rationale for these requirements is that curbside space is limited, and neighbors don't want the patrons of these other uses to take up curbside parking. But the proper way to solve this problem is by pricing or restricting curbside parking, not to force such buildings to devote a lot of their space to parking which makes traffic even worse. If DCPS builds a new school in a residential neighborhood, building less parking, not more, lets kids have more space to play and encourages as many teachers as possible to take the train or bus.
The higher-density residential, mixed-use, and other areas of the city will distinguish between transit-oriented areas, near Metro, high-frequency bus or streetcar lines, and areas without good transit access. While it's probably unnecessary to require it in zoning, there's some argument that a store in a commercial area far from transit might need some parking.
But these parking minimums for non-residential uses in low- and moderate-density residential areas even will apply right next door to a Metro stop. A potential school just a block or two from Takoma, Potomac Ave, or Deanwood Metro will nonetheless need to build considerable parking. That's wrong.
Current rules allow alley dwellings as long as the alley lot is 400 square feet or greater, it has adequate plumbing and so on, and the alleys serving it are particularly wide, at least 30 feet. The new code removes the 30-foot alley rule, but any alley unit will still have to get a special exception and satisfy DC agencies on fire safety, traffic, waste and more.
If the fire department doesn't think it can put out a fire in an alley dwelling, it shouldn't go in, but if one satisfies them, DDOT, DPW and the others, an arbitrary alley width shouldn't be the obstacle.
A 21st-century change creates a new "Green Area Ratio" for large buildings. Projects which have a GAR requirement must include a certain as a percentage of the lot area. Grassy space, green roofs, water features, trees, and other sustainability elements each give a certain number of points based on their size, and the sum of all of those must equal a set fraction of the lot's size.
Parking lots, in particular, also have landscaping requirements, mandating a certain number and size of trees and grassy areas to ensure that parking lots have shade, don't form urban heat islands, and can handle some stormwater runoff.
This version is still just a draft. OP will make changes from comments by residents including a citizen task force, hold more public meetings, make more changes, and finally move to formal public hearings before the Zoning Commission. You can send OP your comments here.
Opponents of these changes are organizing groups to attend tomorrow's oversight hearing, which starts at 10 am. If you want to speak, email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up, or you can watch the fireworks online.
It's not only a new year, it is also a decennial Census year. But more urban areas face dangers of undercounting not just from minority areas but from "transformed housing" like basement apartments.
As part of a constitutional mandate, every ten years the Census Bureau conducts a population count. The initial purpose of the census was to determine the appropriation of state representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives. However, the once a decade population count provides critical demographic and housing data that federal and local officials use to determine the distribution of federal money.
To count the population, the Census Bureau mails questionnaires to every residence in the United States beginning in March in preparation for Census Day on April 1st. Households fill out the form, using April 1st as a point of reference, and mail it back in the pre-addressed stamped envelope.
Unlike past Census years, the 2010 Census form contains just 10 short questions, including name, age, date of birth, sex, race, Hispanic origin, and housing type. For every Census form that is not mailed back, the Census Bureau sends a field interviewer to follow up with household and to collect the missing information. This is a costly operation and could be avoided if people would just mail back their forms. In 2000, the national mail-back response rate was 67%. The mail-back response rate for the District of Columbia was 60%.
There are several challenges to getting an accurate count of area residents. Past decennial counts undercounted racial/ethnic minorities. Blacks make up approximately 53% of the District's population, for example. The Wards with the largest black populations also had some of the lowest mail-back rates for the 2000 Census. Ward 8 had the lowest mail-back response rate in the District (45%). Local community organizations have stepped up efforts to help lessen the accuracy gap in the count of minority groups, but more out reach is needed to ensure an accurate count.
Another obstacle the District faces is getting 2010 Census forms to those who live in what the Census calls "transformed housing". Homes that have been subdivided into multiple units often only have one mailing address. A number of homes, especially in more urban communities, have basement apartments that are rented out separately from the rest of the house, but there is only one mailbox. Since the Census Bureau uses mailing addresses to send out forms, this means that a house that has multiple units but only one official mailing address will only get one form. Each unit/household should get their own questionnaire to make sure all persons are counted correctly.
If you do not get a 2010 questionnaire because you live in a transformed housing structure or have questions about how the fill the form out, you can contact your local Questionnaire Assistance Center (QAC). The Census Bureau expects to open 30,000 QACs across the county between March 19th and April 19th. The Census Bureau is still determining the potential sites, but all locations should be finalized by February 2010 and posted on the 2010 Census website. It will take a little effort on your part to get a form if you live somewhere with multiple units, but one mailing address, but being counted is priceless.
The 2010 Census form is one of shortest ever sent out, yet the information collected is just as important as ever for your immediate neighborhood and for the District. To keep up with the latest developments, check out the Census' 2010 Blog.
Montgomery County allows accessory dwellings, but homeowners must first obtain a "special exception" from zoning authorities. That's a time-consuming and burdensome process. It's no surprise, therefore, that in a county of about a million people, there are only 162 accessory apartments, most in Takoma Park and Silver Spring.
Affordable housing advocates are pushing for a change, according to the Gazette, to make it easier to establish accessory apartments. Former County Executive Douglas Duncan proposed such a change, but the plan went nowhere at the time.
Accessory dwellings are necessary because U.S. households have gotten a lot smaller over time. In 1900, when Takoma Park was already an incorporated town, the average household comprised 4.6 people. In the 1950s, when the postwar boom dramatically expanded suburbs, households averaged 3.68 people. By 2000, this declined to 2.59. By 2025, only 28% of households will include children, down from 48% in 1960.
We could respond to shrinking households by building smaller, more densely spaced houses, but that would destroy historic neighborhoods and local activists would decry changing neighborhood character. Or, we could allow more unrelated people to share a house, so that in place of a family of four, two younger and childless unrelated couples could split a house, or an aging widow share with a one-child family.
Inevitably, as the Gazettte article shows, there's some local opposition from neighbors and groups like the Montgomery County Civic Federation. Some cite fears over parking, but there's clearly also an undercurrent of concern about the type of people that might live in accessory apartments.
"Often if you ask 'what about Mrs. Jones, who is getting old, having an accessory apartment?'" neighbors will say "OK" but they'll say they are against loosening the rules, [expert Patrick] Hare said. He said evidence shows accessory apartments don't run down neighborhoods.The article doesn't get any county Councilmembers on the record with positions for or against the idea, though Councilmember Nancy Floreen is quoted suggesting the county emulate DC's program allowing units in higher density areas. That's not a bad start, as long as there are enough high-density areas to provide more housing (after all, it's better to concentrate more population in the higher density areas closer to shops and transit). But with a lot of suburban, single-family neighborhoods very close to DC and to regional job centers, Montgomery shouldn't push the entire problem onto a small number of dense areas. All neighborhoods, at least downcounty, should chip in for more affordable housing for households of all sizes.
claims one project consultant. I'd guess it's really about the young and the female, and talking about looks generates articles and mentions on blogs but really has less to do with it. (Minneapolis Star-Tribune via The Overhead Wire)
Bus riders opposing LA rail expansion: A proposed Los Angeles sales tax to pay for transit will mostly go toward subway extensions through the Westside and to LAX, causing anti-taxers in the San Fernando Valley to join with low-income advocates of the Bus Riders' Union to oppose the plan. But wouldn't reducing vehicle traffic in those central areas make transportation easier for farther-out drivers, too? (LA Weekly)
San Jose plans density along light-rail: The city wants to transform a low-density area of mostly office parks, with a fairly underutilized light rail line, into a denser, more urban, mixed-use community. If there's a place where a new city would make some sense and not rile up too much NIMBYism, this is probably the spot. (SF Chronicle)
Creative living arrangements in Vancouver: With sky-high housing prices, Vancouver residents are breaking the traditional single-family home mold: buying houses in groups, moving in next to friends to share backyards, and raising families in small, urban spaces. (Vancouver Magazine)
Many of these links via Planetizen.
After hearing numerous arguments by residents against legalizing accessory dwellings, the Arlington County Board passed the proposal, but not without first watering it down further. According to the Sun Gazette, the Board amended the proposal to only allow 28 accessory permits per year (the number planners had estimated people would apply for) and to require an owner to live in the house for a full year before adding an accessory unit.
The plan had already taken many steps to preserve the single-family character of neighborhoods, including requiring owners to live in their houses (so investors would not buy houses to subdivide) and limiting the number of people in a unit to two (in effect keeping lower-income families away from neighbors that don't want them).
Nonetheless, this very limited accessory dwelling law is a big step in the right direction. "It will benefit the elderly, students and young professionals - it's going to be good for everyone, I believe," said supporter Sharon Williams. (Everyone without children, that is.) Opponents, of course, still hate the plan.
Via Ryan Avent.
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