County Council Approves Housing Incentives for Disabled Tenants

County Council Approves Housing Incentives for Disabled Tenants

The legislation offers fee waivers for accessory dwelling units

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ADU

A backyard cottage accessory dwelling unit in Winchester, Va.

IMAGE VIA FLICKR: BEYONDDC (CC BY-SC 2.0)

The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a bill on Tuesday to incentivize housing options for people with disabilities.

Councilmember Andrew Friedson drafted language that eliminates the licensing fees for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) if they’re occupied by a person with disabilities. The fees include an initial $581 cost for registering an accessory dwelling unit as a rental property and an annual $111 fee for operating it.

“A few hundred dollars is not fundamentally going to change the cost of building a unit,” Friedson said. “But it’s just a small financial barrier we can lift, specifically for those in the community who have loved ones with disabilities.”

Housing needs for people with disabilities came up frequently as the council developed legislation to loosen restrictions on ADUs in Montgomery County, Friedson said.

The original bill, which passed in July, changed zoning regulations to allow the fully furnished supplementary units on properties as small as 0.13 acres.

The primary purpose was to increase affordable housing options in the county, Councilmember Hans Riemer said in an earlier interview. Chevy Chase and Potomac often rank among the nation’s most expensive places to live.

But ADUs are also an option for aging parents or adults with disabilities who might want to stay close to relatives while maintaining some independence. In that case, it doesn’t make sense to charge fees intended for rental properties, Friedson said.

When the council passed the original ADU legislation in July, it eliminated a former zoning category known as residential living units, which encompassed dwellings such as in-law suites or basement apartments. The change made ADUs more accessible for all property owners, but it essentially classified them all as rental properties, Friedson said.

His bill is an attempt to fix that issue for owners who intend to use the units as no-rent accommodations. In addition to waiving all fees for units occupied by people with disabilities, the legislation eliminates the annual $111 operating fee for ADUs for which no rent is being charged.

“The primary rationale is that if you’re building a unit for an aging parent or an adult child, you shouldn’t have to pay an annual licensing fee, assuming you’re not charging them rent,” Friedson said. 

The changes also apply to vacant units that aren’t being rented out by owners.

Advocacy groups applauded the new legislation, which still has a primary focus on expanding options for people with disabilities, Friedson said. Karen Morgret, a member of the county’s Commission on People with Disabilities, said the bill would make it more attractive for property owners to rent or build affordable ADUs for tenants with disabilities, who are often priced out of the rental market or have difficulties finding suitable accommodations.

Eliminating the licensing fees could also be a significant incentive for property owners intimidated by the ADU construction process, added Jane Lyons, the Maryland advocacy manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“An initial fee of more than $500 isn’t nothing,” she said. “We’re very supportive of ADUs in Montgomery County in general because they’re such a flexible housing option. And the disabled community are people who would especially benefit from having that housing option.”

To qualify for the waiver, the occupant of the ADU must receive disability benefits under the Social Security Act or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, have a doctor’s note certifying certain impairments, or have an ABLE account — a savings program for people with disabilities.

Friedson helped develop the Maryland ABLE program as the senior policy adviser to the Maryland comptroller, he said. That encouraged his interest in drafting the new Montgomery County legislation.

The bill is also designed so that ADUs are registered with the county even if their licensing fees are waived, Friedson added. The program will require property owners to fill out paperwork to qualify for the waivers, which will be updated annually.

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