By Dan Novak and Riin Aljas
ROCKVILLE, Md. — Montgomery County is considering passing a zoning amendment making it easier to rent out small housing units built separately from a primary home, also known as accessory dwelling units. The availability of accessory dwelling units, such as attached basement apartments or detached lofts above garages, are restricted by current zoning laws but are seen by advocates as an easy way to add more affordable housing options in a county that has become increasingly expensive.
“We are really at a crisis point in Montgomery County,” said Robert Goldman, president of the Montgomery Housing Partnership, a group that works to expand affordable housing in the county. “And it’s only gotten worse.”
According to a recent study by the county planning department, the average cost of a home in Montgomery County is $675,594, a 40 percent increase since 1997. Rent per square foot has also increased 50 percent since 2000. Meanwhile, the median household income has stayed mostly flat since 1989, at $99,763 after adjusting for inflation.
Additionally, renters in Montgomery County spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and for a quarter of residents, it’s even half of their income.
In January, County Councilmember At-Large Hans Riemer introduced zoning text amendment 19-01, which would substantially reduce the barriers facing homeowners wishing to build accessory dwelling units. If the amendment passes, it would lift several code restrictions on those units, including regulations that prohibit units built within 300 or 500 feet of each other depending on jurisdiction, and ban detached units on lots less than one acre.
Proponents of accessory dwelling units point out that they are positive for owners and renters alike: they create more affordable units for renters and more supplemental income for owners.
“You know what single family homes cost around here,” said Patti Mallin, licensing specialist for the Takoma Park Housing and Community Development Department, during a presentation outlining the amendment to city residents last month. “You may not be able to buy a house where you really want to live and where you want to bring your family unless you have another income stream.”
The same goes for renting, Goldman added.
“There are more folks moving into the area than houses being built, less people can afford to buy houses than back in the day, the incomes aren’t keeping up with the inflation. Older citizens cannot afford to move and younger cannot buy their homes either,” he said.
Although several new developments have been built into Silver Spring and Takoma Park area, for example, there’s a growing need for more. And this is where accessory dwelling units could help.
Following a public hearing and work sessions by the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee in March and April, ZTA 19-01 faces a vote this summer, according to a council press release.
“As we look to the future of how families and communities are living, ADUs are a positive solution desired by many,” Riemer said in the statement.
However, County Executive Marc Elrich, who was elected in November on an anti-development platform, issued a statement to the council in February that more accessory dwelling units “creates more problems than it solves” by increasing urban density, adding more traffic and potentially placing a burden on county schools. Moreover, he argued that the amendment does nothing to address affordability, as owners could charge high rents to offset the costs of constructing a unit.
But Jane Lyons, Maryland advocacy manager at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, who was hired by the council last year to research accessory dwelling unit policy around the country, found that most ADUs are leased out at below-market rents. By their very nature, accessory dwelling units are smaller, and therefore more affordable, she said.
“They’re helpful for affordability, they’re helpful for equity issues, they’re helpful for building homes closer to transit,” Lyons added. “ADU’s aren’t a silver bullet for any of these issues but they’re really an important tool in the county’s toolbox that’s really underutilized because of these onerous restrictions.”
Goldman said Elrich’s assertion that more accessory dwelling units will lead to overcrowding is a “technique to scare people.” Unlike other county legislation, the executive cannot veto zoning text amendments.
Goldman added that this issue has been debated on the council intermittently for the past 15 years and that opposition to easing the restrictions is rooted in unease about the changing character of neighborhoods.
“It’s fear of the unknown, fear that someone different will be in my community.”
In April, Elrich’s staff issued a report calling for more public money to be spent on county affordable housing programs like the Housing Initiative Fund. The report’s stated goal is to provide the fund with a minimum of $100 million annually, but just $40 million is planned for the fund in 2020.