Affordable housing concerns have renewed efforts to make it easier for the owners of single-family homes to create licensed rental apartments on their properties.
The Montgomery County Council will begin discussing in October a proposed zoning change allowing homeowners to create accessory apartments in certain zones without having to apply for approval from the Board of Appeals.
The proposal would give homeowners in certain zones the right to add an apartment, depending on the size and whether it is attached or detached from the existing home.
In addition to affordable housing, proponents have argued the apartments can provide extra income for homeowners.
Proposals to ease the process of getting permission to build an accessory apartment have been floated before. In 2004, then-County Executive Douglas M. Duncan’s plan failed to advance to a council vote. In 2008, an affordable housing task force asked County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) to call for zoning law changes.
Since the issue last emerged, a greater appreciation of the need for flexibility in housing types has evolved, Councilwoman Nancy Floreen said.
Housing markets plummeted while foreclosures rose in the years between the task force’s recommendation and the introduction of the current proposal this summer.
But as Ronit A. Dancis of Chevy Chase pointed out to the council during a public hearing on the amendment Sept. 11, “even after the economy tanked, rents in the county continue to go up.”
Montgomery’s need for affordable housing has continued, and allowing more accessory apartments, but with restrictions, is a fundamental element of progressive affordable housing policy, Barbara Goldberg Goldman, of the Affordable Housing Conference of Montgomery County, testified before the council.
Not only do the units allow older residents on fixed incomes to age in place by providing housing for a caregiver, but they allow homeowners of all ages to more easily afford housing in Montgomery County by having rental income toward a mortgage, she said. The units also offer rental housing for rates that are often below that of other apartments.
Proponents of the change share a belief that the current process discourages applications for accessory apartments, said Floreen, who chairs the Planning, Housing and Economic Development that is scheduled to discuss the proposed change starting on Oct. 8.
“Such apartments are ubiquitous in the county,” Goldberg Goldman testified. “They have been driven underground (often quite literally) by the high cost of compliance.”
“If I were a homeowner living next to people who were convinced that my basement apartment would turn our neighborhood into a ghetto, I’d take the illegal route too,” testified Dan Reed of Silver Spring.
Montgomery’s special exception process can take as long as eight months or more and allows neighbors to comment on an application.
While many of the same voices were heard previously, Floreen said a different set has come out in support of the current initiative.
“That is very telling,” she said. “We are hearing from a variety of folks who say why not give this housing type a chance.”
Many civic groups that opposed changes in the past remain concerned that relaxing the requirements could shift burdens to neighbors who fear more traffic and competition for parking and a lack of county enforcement.
As written, the new amendment makes the county’s older neighborhoods prime candidates for problems by requiring different amounts of off-street or on-site parking for different neighborhoods, said Marilyn Piety of Sligo-Branview Community Association in Silver Spring, at the public hearing.
While the Montgomery County Civic Federation believes the apartments may be worthy, it strongly supports the existing special exception process, because it allows neighbors to weigh in on possible negative effects from an apartment, Jim Humphrey testified.
In 2008, the federation raised concerns about the number of complaints the county receives about people living in illegal accessory apartments.
Rick Nelson, director of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, said the county receives about 150 complaints annually.
When investigated, about a third of those compliants are found to have no violation, he said.
Much of code enforcement is complaint driven, Nelson noted, so the county will not be able to determine if a structure is an illegal accessory apartment unless someone makes a complaint.