Friday, August 22, 2008

the illegal apartment, or three families made homeless

Firefighters tackle a blaze at this home on Dennis Avenue in Wheaton, which caught fire yesterday morning. Photo by Chip Py.

All across East County, there are illegal apartments jerry-rigged out of basements and garages, turning ranchers into rooming houses and causing complaints about overcrowding, trash and crime. A house caught fire on Dennis Avenue in Wheaton yesterday, but there were three families left on the curb that morning, I was told. You wonder how they were living inside this little post-war cottage, built fifty years ago with three bedrooms, a bathroom, an attic and a basement. Is there running water in all parts of the building? Are there smoke detectors and sprinklers? Windows in every bedroom? Who's to say?

A block from my parents' house in Calverton is an illegal basement apartment that was rented for ten years before the homeowners' association finally acknowledged it and took the landlord to court. Ask my mother, who's working to shut down this basement rental, and she'll say it's wrong, it's illegal, and it goes against the zoning in our neighborhood.

But if the space was wrong, how did the owner rent it out for ten years with everyone on her street fully aware? And are these "accessory dwelling units," as they're known to lawyers and County Councilmembers alike, as much of a problem as the fact that most of them are built and maintained with no oversight whatsoever?

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

Additions like this one in White Oak, which neighbors accused of being a separate unit, create new homes without regulation or adequate planning.

Despite its good intentions, Montgomery County's affordable housing program can't house every family or individual in need. People living in these illegally-created spaces can't afford to continue staying in housing not built to code: it's literally a life or death situation. And the neighbors can't afford living next to them, either, because unregulated apartments encourage overcrowding and overuse of buildings and neighborhoods built for a totally different use.

But if made legal, ADUs could be a "benign yet potentially effective method for providing affordable housing," in the words of Washington Post columnist Roger K. Lewis. It forces building owners to maintain their properties, reducing blight and preventing incidents like yesterday's fire. By making residents legal occupants of a unit, it encourages them to become more involved in their community.

This "granny flat," or apartment over a garage, was sold as part of a new home at King Farm in Rockville. Planning for accessory units enables them to be incorporated into residential neighborhoods.

And most importantly, it can create a menu of potential housing solutions that both respect and enhance a single-family streetscape. They might include "granny flats," coach houses, basement apartments, or special financial arrangements with friends or family, many of which appear in a well-blogged-about article from Vancouver Magazine this week. It's increased density, yes, but it's a less intrusive form of density than knocking down homes to build apartments.

Accessory dwelling units aren't going anywhere so long as the average new home in Montgomery County tops a million dollars. Why is it acceptable to let people live in unsafe, unregulated housing in neighborhoods clearly unprepared for them? Making ADUs legal is a must - both for the people who rely on them, and for the neighbors as well.

For more information, check out this list of links about Accessory Dwelling Units via Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.


Thomas Hardman said...

Ah, "granny flats", what I used to refer to as the "dawdy house", garnering much derision and accusations of racism not to mention disdain for the housing code of Montgomery County as being out of step with the rest of the world.

Of course, I am somewhat surprised that anyone is willing to expose themselves to accusations of racism which inevitably are hurled at anyone mentioning overcrowded housing in east MoCo. You probably can't believe the outrageous hounding I received after I created the "For Shame!" section of the Aspen Hill website. That's full of pictures of oversize housing and rampant code violations in Aspen Hill.

About one house a year has

burned out the occupants
of various houses in Aspen Hill, and in all cases, the source of the problem can very easily be attributed to gross overcrowding of structures not intended for such abuse.

I should point out that there are in fact computationally-generated maps available. The fact that I wrote the code that produces the maps will in no way discredit the data, which of course is from both the State Department of Assessments and Taxation website combined with data from the County Department of Permitting Services which of course handles housing code enforcement.

This only covers the addresses within the bounds of the Aspen Hill Civic Association, Inc. ("AHCA") with which I am not affiliated. However, I do share the concerns of their board of directors and their constituency which have long complained, and complained bitterly and with no effective action, about people converting properties acquired with subprime (or "liar loan") mortgages into worker barracks or unlicensed rooming houses.

In some cases, permits to rent have been granted, but not at the level of renting out that actually happens. A permit to rent to a single-mom and her child does not legally entitle subdividing the basement into four parts and renting each space to a nuclear family, yet it's common practice here, and everyone knows it from the Council rep for the district down to the lowliest inspector with Permitting Services.

The reason I wrote that mapping application showing Non-primary residence of owner combined with history of code violations was to make a presentation to the late Marilyn Praisner and Linda Bird of Permitting Services. You'll notice if you follow the link that there's a long list with a well-populated map at the bottom of the page. Of course, neither I nor the board of directors of the AHCA need this map; we live here mostly in homes bought in the expectation that they would be single-family residential homes in a neighborhood exclusively of single-family residential homes.

One particularly egregious case at the corner of Aspen Hill Road and Oriental Street involved someone who built an out-of-code structure which had to be torn down and reconstructed. This came to our attention only when the neighbors started getting drop-in visitors inquiring about the rents for the boarding house they'd seen advertised in the paper. Eventually the case wound up in adjudication and the application for "accessory apartment" was denied... but the administrative law judge presiding told us that it probably would have been better for us if it had been granted, because then inspections could be held anytime. Absent that permit, the owner of course can -- without inspection -- operate the illegal boarding house as such, with no legal avenue to inspect occupancy, code-compliance, or living conditions.

We did eventually get our meeting with the late Ms Praisner and Ms Byrd, and they told us that "home overcrowding just isn't on our radar".

At the conclusion of the meeting -- at which everyone danced around the fact that the majority of such illegally overcrowded housing is owned and operated by immigrants (legal or otherwise) and is primarily used to house people who are not legally in the country -- I left muttering something to the effect that "the lunatics have taken over the asylum and are partying in the pharmacy". We had presented reams of data, piles of photos, maps galore except for anything that was generated by the code I spent weeks writing, and still the officials walked out more or less telling the people who were "boots on the ground" that they were hallucinating the engagements in the field, because the general staff back at HQ declared categorically that it was inconceivable (ideologically speaking, of course, comrade) that there could be a problem and anyone who thought otherwise could go pound sand.

Unfortunately that has been the thrust of the County government since that time.

And now that we've got all of these formerly nice neighborhoods turned into overcrowded slums characterized by illegal housing and even shanty-towns and bum-camps in the local parks, the County Council is considering legalizing it with a stroke of the pen and a revision of county housing code?

I say thee nay!

Absent a requirement to first remove code-violating illegally established outbuildings and "accessory apartments" before applying for a permit, all that happens is that violators and profiteers on the laxity of the Country code enforcement system will get a exonerated, creeping ghettoism will be rewarded, and the longtime residents will hang their heads at the shame of seeing the law defeated. It would be outright capitulation.

These outrageous overcrowded conditions are dangerous and intolerable in a civilized society.

And in the present economic climate, they only contribute to the downward and accelerating spiral of home prices and property values... which is the main source of the County's revenue.

Fail to enforce the code, and all that's happening is that the slide into pure slumminess is assured, and the longer they wait to do something about it, the less revenue they'll have to take action.

Thomas Hardman said...

To conclude, "granny flats" should be for "granny" or for immediate family such as elderly parents or perhaps for the kids coming home for college.

Turning single-family detached residential homes into worker barracks full of every distant relative who can "migrate" is utterly unacceptable, if only because of the risk to the lives of people who live outside of the sensible and reasonable housing and fire-safety codes.

Leaving people to live like that is practically "depraved indifference".

Sligo said...

Funny, when I lived in a condo in a DC neighborhood, we were required to spend extra to replace a window with one that was "historically accurate" (on a 1979 structure!), but clearly in some places anything goes.

There are some neighborhoods around MoCo that I feel are becoming permanently ugly, with unregulated monstrous additions and paved over front lawns.

retgroclk said...

I recall the woman that use to clean my aunts house and how she use to complain about the men who were renting her basement.

My aunt asked her how many men- her reply- I have ten cots lined up with a lamp and night stand.

I charge each man $200 per month.

Wow-- how many more neighborhoods have deals such as this womans??

Thomas Hardman said...

Montgomery County Code allows for as many as 7 unrelated adults to live in a single-family detached residential zoned home.

There is a rather minimalistic limit on the numbers of "related" individuals, about 150 square feet per person. That's still a 10x15 foot area, which somehow I don't think these guys in question would have. And how does the County define "related"? They mostly don't, nor are there means to compel presentation of documentation or identification. And if you think about it, that's how most honest Americans want it to be.

There are people who are rather more paranoid than myself -- not sure or not if it's because they have been active in MoCo politics longer than I, or perhaps that's just how they are -- who would suggest that this is all some sort of cynical political ploy to get the average citizen to demand the loss of their own accepted and ancient rights, just to deal with problems that should have been dealt with long before now, by entirely other means.

Scenic Wheaton said...

Nice blog.
Adele, Wheaton.

Scenic Wheaton said...

I just recently bought a house in Wheaton and while I love the area, I was really surprised by how many houses I looked at that had no living room or dining room and instead just had a big kitchen and eight bedrooms. One house had five "bedrooms" in the basement with a free standing communal shower in the middle. Another one, in every room, was a different woman with a baby - including the attic and basement. It was really sad.

Thomas Hardman said...

I guess that five families in a basement is better than this scene from Aspen Hill Local Park.

But it's not just sad, it's outside of code for fire safety. And I can just imagine what could happen if a case of measles or chickenpox got started up in such a house.

I live in a single-family detached residential home in Aspen Hill, the sort that was sold with an unfinished basement with a half-bathroom, beneath a 3-BR/2-bath upstairs with a kitchen separate from the dining room and living room.

A comparable house down the street was offered for sale, with the upstairs master bedroom divided into two bedrooms. The wall between the two other bedrooms had been knocked out, and five bedrooms had been created. Downstairs, 8 living quarters had been divided though one of them was really a tiny laundry room, and all were expected to share the tiny half-bathroom.

So, let's see, 7 bedrooms upstairs, 7 downstairs, that could be 14 small families in one house intended for no more than perhaps two adults plus five young children, or perhaps two adults plus three or four teens.

Near that 14-family deetached residential home, another was offered for sale, and the realtor advised the prospective buyer that probably the best thing to do was to just knock out the basement walls and refit it as a 7-BR basement, saying (and I quote) "you can flip it to some spanish really quick if you do that, that's what they're going to do anyway".

I seem to think that this owuld be that house, here. As if a 7-unit basement wasn't enough, they had to add a whole new additional story on top. I wonder how many units that has.

Thomas Hardman said...

A few days later:

I should point out, in the interests of fairness, that at present the issues of home-overcrowding, excess occupancy, code and permitting violations appertaining thereto, are on the radar of the County Council and related agencies.

Apparently there is ongoing research preparatory to legislative action.

And in fairness to the Praisners, the issue of small-lot single-family detached residential neighborhoods falling by the wayside, with rampant overcrowding, code violations, and sketchy realtor activity advertising 3-BR houses as 8-BR homes... all of that was on Mr Praisner's short list of campaign positions.

So, it's not as if "I stand corrected"; but I do stand to clarify any remarks I made which might be easily misconstrued. Evidently at the time the raft of complaints was on Ms Praisner's radar, and on that of Linda Byrd (sp?), but not so much on the radar of the rest of the Council.

Hearsay indicates that Mr Knapp may have some concerns in this subject, and certainly the poor overworked Code Enforcement people have been tracking this for some time.

I have reason to believe that in the forseeable future -- perhaps not exactly the day after tomorrow but perhaps in the next legislative session -- something comprehensive and sufficient may fall into place.

And of course, it's up to us all to politely-but-firmly help fill in any informational gaps, in such a way as to promote legislation and funding of any programs, that can move us forward to resolution in a way that works for all of the stakeholders concerned.