‘Accessory Dwelling Units’ OKd By Montgomery County Council

Maryland’s Montgomery County Council approved a zoning change to allow accessory dwelling units, like the one above located in Washington, D.C., aimed at encouraging the development of a more affordable housing stock in the area. (Photo: Payton Chung / Flickr)

Will the Falls Church city leadership demonstrate the same moral fortitude that some of its neighbors are now exhibiting in addressing the housing crisis that is gripping the nation and this region? The action by the Montgomery County Council, just up the Beltway from Falls Church in Maryland, to adopt zoning changes to ease the ability of county residents to construct “accessory dwelling units” on existing residential property Tuesday was a bold step in that direction.

The Montgomery council wound up voting unanimously for the zoning changes despite months of protests and petitions from over 1,000 mostly single family homeowners in the county who howled that the changes would ruin their neighborhoods. The bottom line is that the changes are aimed at encouraging the development of a more affordable housing stock than what is trending throughout the region, and across the U.S. as a whole.
Falls Church Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly told the News-Press at a Falls Church Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday that she was following the Montgomery County development closely as the City Council here has begun its own discussions on how to alleviate the lack of affordable housing in Falls Church and some have stated publicly their plans to introduce measures into the coming year’s operating budget when that process begins later this year.

With similar zoning modifications already made in Washington, D.C. and Arlington, the Montgomery County move is expected to accelerate the advance of pro-affordable housing measures throughout the region and nation, and, of course, also the City of Falls Church.

The well-documented growing income discrepancy between the top one percent of the U.S. population and everybody else is translating into the need of many households to require two or more of the increasingly sub-par jobs to survive and growing inability of such households to find affordable housing near those jobs. Falls Church’s trends are no exception to that rule.

But as Montgomery councilmember Hans Riemer said to his colleagues before their unanimous vote Tuesday, extensive studies and deliberations on the subject found that encouraging “auxiliary dwelling units,” such as the conversion of a garage, trailer or other backyard space into a livable, rentable dwelling, “won’t fundamentally change the character of the county.”

It will not lead to more children, or to too many new cars, and on the other hand will enable families to stay nearer to each other, and is part of a “changing response to the high cost of housing.”

In an interview following the vote, he said that the county’s history advantaging single-family zoning was done “substantially to keep out communities of color,” adding, “But with this vote, we affirm that we’ve changed.”

The council stood up against the large and boisterous objections by hundreds of citizens over months to vote unanimously in favor of the changes Tuesday. One councilmember who had been on the fence, Gabe Albornoz, said that, simply, “the pros outweigh the cons” on the issue.
According to the county staff’s report, supporters of the changes “see reduced standards for permitting ADUs as an essential part of the answer for providing moderate cost housing. “A failure to approve the changes would, in their opinion, deprive aging homeowners of the only means of being able to afford to stay in their homes. Families wishing to provide some privacy to their aging relatives would be deprived of the opportunity for proximity to intergenerational relationships.”

On the other hand, the report noted, “The opponents see the destruction of their investment in quiet single-unit neighborhoods with the inability of the county to enforce any regulations. Opponents envisioned so many houses turned into two dwellings that parking would be impossible, emergency vehicles would be unable to navigate local streets, and schools would be overcrowded. The elimination of a limit on the maximum size of an ADU will create uncontrolled water runoff and more buildings than backyards.”
But, it noted, representatives from the Sierra Club, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Habitat for Humanity, the Housing Initiative Partnership and the Affordable Housing Conference all believe that the accessory units “offer a sustainable form of cheaper housing at no cost to the county” to “meet the needs of intergenerational families and homeowners who could use the extra income.”

It reported that the Maryland League of Women Voters added “many benefits of these units to both the homeowner and the ADU resident: the homeowner benefits through extra income and maybe, if both parties desire, assistance with chores and companionship.” And, they added, “a convenient, affordable place to live benefits the resident.”

It added that the Maryland Building Industry Association “believes the ordinance to support housing affordability, enhance opportunities for aging in place, encourage housing variety, and allow diverse and talented employees to live in the county in which they work.”

The Towne of Brookeville in Maryland, where the zoning authority is provided and many ADUs, weighed in supporting the Montgomery County zoning change by stating, “Speaking from our 20 years’ experience, the town has not experienced negative impacts from ADUs, such as parking shortages, vandalism, lowered property values or degradation to the historic village atmosphere.”

As to the allowable size of an ADU, the report cites the case of Portland, Oregon, which “has an extremely successful ADU program. There the maximum size of an ADU may be no more than 75 percent of the living area of the house or 800 square feet, whichever is less.” But the Montgomery County planning staff opined that restricting units to 50 percent of the gross floor area of the house is a sufficient limitation.