Council Looks To Remove Barriers to Creating Accessory Apartments in the County

These dwellings can provide low-cost housing options even in expensive neighborhoods

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Montgomery County Planning Department

Montgomery County leaders in 2013 took action to make it easier for people to add accessory apartments to their homes in hopes that doing so would help address the area’s need for affordable housing.

Despite the changes, the production of accessory dwellings—often known as in-law apartments—has stayed sluggish in the county, yielding an average of about 40 to 50 new units each year, according to officials.

Now, County Council members are considering another proposal aimed at removing barriers to creating accessory apartments that could provide housing for young couples, millennials and seniors who want to age in place. The proposed zoning changes would eliminate the need for property owners in certain cases to go before a hearing examiner to win approval for building an accessory apartment. The adjustments would also allow for waivers of parking standards and standards regulating the minimum distance between accessory apartments.

Getting rid of some bureaucratic hurdles would make adding an accessory apartment a more viable option for people who might otherwise be discouraged by a drawn-out process, said speakers at a council meeting last week.

“I don’t want to have to hire a lawyer or consultant for my in-laws to live with me,” said Sebastian Smoot, who wants to create an accessory apartment at his Cloverly home.

Still, the zoning changes suggested by the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee would leave neighbors an avenue for raising objections to a proposal for an accessory apartment.

Accessory apartment licenses are issued by the Department of Housing and Community Affairs. But if someone from the neighborhood believes a particular proposal would cause on-street parking problems, the parking situation would be reviewed by a hearing examiner, according to a council legislative analyst.

However, with the proposed changes, the hearing examiner would only consider specific issues rather than initiating a comprehensive project review that would bog down the process.

Housing advocates expressed support for the proposal during last week’s public hearing on the measure. John Paukstis, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity Metro Maryland, said accessory dwellings tend to be built in neighborhoods where residents can walk, bike or use public transit.

Moreover, accessory dwelling units “provide more affordable housing options in residential neighborhoods without dramatically changing the neighborhood’s character.”

Cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Canada, have seen an explosion of accessory dwellings as residents seek affordable housing solutions. Portland issued 615 accessory apartment permits in 2016, and more than 2,000 of these dwelling units have sprung up in Vancouver over the past decade, according to The Atlantic magazine.

Council President Hans Riemer said he recently read the book Backdoor Revolution: The Definitive Guide to ADU Development, written by a Portland expert on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and came away with the opinion that the county needs to overhaul its laws on accessory apartments. While he supports the measure currently under consideration by the council, he said he’s also preparing a separate proposal that will make broader changes to the county’s framework for regulating accessory dwelling units.

Riemer said the existing zoning code seems aimed at restricting the number of ADUs in neighborhoods, and he’s looking for reforms designed to encourage them.

“What has happened in so many communities in our neighborhoods is that the price of entry is so high that people just can’t get in unless they’re wealthy,” Riemer said in a phone interview. “If you’re a young person starting out, or if you’re a senior, the closer-in neighborhoods are really out of reach. And that is a social problem, that is an equity problem, it’s an economic problem.”

The proposed measure is tentatively scheduled to come before the PHED committee Sept. 24.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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