Wednesday, September 12, 2012

my testimony from last night's hearing on accessory apartments

Kent Square at Selby, Kentlands
An accessory apartment over a garage in Kentlands.
You might notice that the blog looks a little different today. I'm temporarily switching back from Blogger's Dynamic Views because even though it looked pretty, many readers said it was hard to use on certain platforms and difficult to comment on. It also allows me to embed the Storify thing below! Let me know what you think.

Last night, Montgomery County residents spoke out on a proposal that would make it easier for homeowners to add "accessory apartments" to their homes. I've written before that this would help homeowners and renters alike find housing they could afford. I live-tweeted the hearing along with the Action Committee for Transit and WeAreMoCo, Below are a selection of our tweets (and reactions) below, followed by my testimony:

My name is Dan Reed. I’m twenty-four, I recently earned a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and I live with my parents in Silver Spring. I’d like to testify in support of ZTA 12-11, Accessory Apartments.

When this proposal came before the Planning Board a few months ago, some said accessory apartments would “devastate” single-family neighborhoods and “lead to middle class flight.” And they’re right. If we ignore our housing needs to appease folks who want to pretend that all households here still look like Leave It To Beaver, our middle class won’t be able to afford to live here.

Montgomery County is growing, it’s a regional job center, but the median home value is nearly $500,000. Accessory apartments can bring homeowners extra income to help cover the mortgage and give renters a wider choice of housing options at prices they can afford. As homes get bigger while households get smaller, they allow us to house new residents almost invisibly. A childless couple in a four-bedroom house who carves out an apartment for an unrelated tenant isn’t “changing” a neighborhood – it’s bringing it back to the occupancy it was built for.

Given, there are legitimate concerns about illegal accessory units, which can be dangerous for tenants, blight on neighborhoods, and a burden for county service providers. But the current system forces homeowners to defend their financial or household situation to often-hostile neighbors. 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.

The solution isn’t to make it harder to add accessory units, but to create a streamlined approval process that incentivizes doing the right thing – building units that are safe, livable and attractive – through clear design guidelines, examples of which can be found in cities like Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. I’d even make it easier to build these units in or near transit stations like at Silver Spring or even Chevy Chase, where housing is already in demand. Accessory apartments in these places, as opposed to elsewhere, could allow tenants to drive less or not have a car at all, reducing their impact on traffic.

I honestly wonder what “devastation” opponents of this bill are expecting. I can’t vouch for all future tenants, but I bet many will look like me: twenty-four years old, with a degree and a career, with plenty of good references, who doesn’t throw wild parties and keeps a tidy home. So, for those of you who oppose this bill, I ask you: Wouldn’t you want me living in your neighborhood?

I urge the Council to pass ZTA 12-11. It’s time we give homeowners and renters alike the freedom to live where they want and within their means.


Gary said...

THANK YOU, for your re(verted) design, but also for your intelligent testimony.

Unknown said...

Woody Brosnan,

As an advocate for a compromise on this issue, I wanted to disagree with you on one point. I don't think we should try to concentrate accessory apartments near transit center.
Why not?
Because that would DECREASE their affordability.
Anyone who has looked at trends in home values over the last few years in the region knows that home prices have held up the most near transit centers. Foreclosure rates increase as you move away from transit centers. Thus, the homeowners in greatest distress and in greatest need of income are in neighborhoods NOT closest to transit centers. And since rents closely follow housing prices, owners of accessory apartments near transit centers will charge higher rents than those farther away. Perhaps this is why none of the witnesses from the Affordable Housing groups called for a concentration near transit centers. So while I generally favor smart growth strategies, I think you could overburden this little zoning text amendment if you try to make it heft two objectives instead of one.
Woody Brosnan

Dan Reed said...


Affordability is a function of transportation costs, too. An apartment in downtown Silver Spring is going to rent for more than one in Germantown, but it'll make up for it in reduced transportation costs, since residents in DTSS can get around without a car or without driving as much. Not to mention that there since homes in these areas are more expensive, accessory units are especially valuable to help cover the mortgage.

I agree that it's important to keep this amendment simple and hopefully expand on it later on, but it still stands that there's a lot of demand these days to live near transit or other amenities - and accessory apartments are one of the best ways to meet that demand.

Lane said...

1. Traffic will increase. Simple math shows if you put more people in the same amount of space, there will be more cars on the road. You can do this smart and only allow accessory apartments in transit oriented areas (TOA's) IF there are plans to increase TOA's (i.e. BRT). Most single family homes in MoCo that have room to add on are not in a TOA and thus more cars will be on the road and crowding (while parked) residential streets.
2. Property values will be hurt. I’m not necessarily saying they will plummet or even go down. But this will hinder the ability for properties to increase the way they did in the early to mid 2000’s for the next real-estate boom. I’m saying this not from a supply vs. demand view but from the perspective of potential buyers who will inherit a rental property without wanting one or perceive a neighborhood with several accessory apartments as being overcrowded, especially in a suburban setting. Maybe this is by design but good luck getting buy-in from property owners who actually live in their SFH. Ultimately the neighborhoods with the least amount of accessory apartments will be the big property value winners (maybe another metric for realty agents/websites?). Obviously, there is a reason why neighbors will fight tooth and nail to prevent a fellow neighbor from having an accessory apartment as this will affect property value, in result affecting someone’s ability to sell or retire.
3. Lastly, this will decrease development in certain areas. I view this as a bad thing. If dense areas only become denser, retail and jobs will stay where they are. If new mixed use communities are built with office space, jobs will come closer to those out in the burbs, which will alleviate traffic to some extent. Eventually the entire county will be dense for the most part. Isn’t it better to build an infrastructure now to accommodate the future (i.e. transit) before communities are established to avoid issues such as the purple line (cost and schedule)?

Dan Reed said...


Your comments only make sense if we assume that everyone thinks density is undesirable, which we know isn't true - otherwise home values wouldn't be so high in or near places like downtown Bethesda or downtown Silver Spring. These places are successful because they have lots of people living and working there, supporting public transit and patronizing local businesses. If we spread out development (as you're implying) we won't have successful downtowns and we won't have successful transit. Decades ago, Montgomery County cordoned off a third of its land to be used for agriculture or in a natural state forever. Since the county is still growing, that means we have to build in existing communities - the places people already enjoy and want to live in - and one way to do that discreetly is with accessory apartments.

Tblack said...


You work fot a councilman.

You should know that there is nothing on the books preventing a family of 50 people from living in a single family home now. I lived next to a family that crowed anywhere from 15 -20 family members in their house plus guests for 6 years. They ruined out neighborhood and despite community efforts the county did little to nothing to stop everything from 24 hours noise to public drinking and urination.

There are not enough Police officer in Montgomery for the people living here now yet you think it's a good idea to add more people into neighborhoods where home owners have sold every room in a single family home to a family of 4. Each room Dan. Sometimes 1 toilet. I highly suggest you buy a home in this county THEN see what you're willing to let move in next to your investment. Code enforcement is outgunned schools are over crowded yet you seem to think the county can handle more of what it's currently failing miserably at. This WAS one of the safest and richest counties in the country when you were born. It's a shell of it'self now and Ike wonders why it's tax base is shrinking. It's because of things like accessory apartments and a refusal to stop public loitering and overcrowding. In the East County where you live IDA sector frequently CANNOT make arrests because they don't have enough officers to patrol AND book at Seven Locks.
The last thing on earth they need is more people stacked on top on one another leading to more crime, litter and social problems that are already out of control.

Dan Reed said...


For starters, I worked for Councilmember Leventhal from 2009 to 2010. I haven't been there for two years. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been allowed to testify at a County Council public hearing.

Second of all, do you think that people want to live in conditions like the ones you're describing? Of course not! But they do it because they often have no other choice, legal or illegal. Montgomery County is still one of the nation's wealthiest counties, and one of its most expensive places to live as well. This proposed legislation is about providing more LEGAL housing options so that people can actually have a safe, dignified place to live. Not doing anything won't solve the problems you're describing.

I don't own a home, but at the hearing last week I saw renters and homeowners alike who spoke in favor of this legislation. You don't have to be a homeowner to have a valid opinion or a good citizen. Renters aren't the issue here - it's ensuring that everyone has the ability to find a safe, affordable home in Montgomery County.