accessory apt

Converting Single Family Homes into Apartments Won’t Solve Montgomery County’s Affordable Housing Crunch

Abraham Lincoln famously defined a hypocrite as the man “who murdered his parents, and then pleaded for mercy on the grounds that he was an orphan.” What then are Montgomery County residents to make of its County Council’s latest lamentations over the affordable housing shortage?

Under Montgomery County’s strict land use policies, more than half our land area is reserved for open space uses, including agriculture and parkland.  53% to be precise. The county’s residentially zoned land is limited to just 33%.  Factoring roads in residential areas, the number drops to about 25%.   Consequently, the county’s million-plus population is confined to living in an area smaller than the county’s agricultural reserve.

To be honest, Montgomery County’s sky-high housing costs create significant beneficiaries, especially among those affluent enough to have bought houses.  Long-term owners benefit from the substantial appreciation of their homes.  Some “cash-out’ by selling and moving to less costly communities. Others “cash-in” by borrowing against their appreciation.

However, high housing prices also creates real burdens.  According to one study, more than half of Montgomery County renters are paying too much for housing, with costs often gobbling up more than 50% of their incomes.

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The advocates of the land use policies that produce this are fond of calling it “Smart Growth.”  A better name is “The Very Expensive Housing Policy.”

Government’s response has been to impose additional layers of regulation to “solve” these problems. Builders are expected to add non-market rate, affordable housing units to their plans.  While a few are lucky in affordable housing lotteries, the added expense further contributes to additional costs for new home buyers.

In search of a solution, Councilman Hans Riemer proposes allowing more single-family houses be carved up into multiple dwelling units.  These include newly created apartments in existing houses, such as converted garages and basements.  He reached these conclusions after reading a book, Backdoor Revolution: The Definitive Guide to ADU Development.[i]

Effectively Reimer wants to “de-gentrify” Montgomery County neighborhoods.  This reflects the time worn urban real estate phenomena under which aging houses in once, upscale neighborhoods are divided up into smaller, more affordable apartments.  Both Baltimore and Washington are filled with houses that were originally built for middle class home buyers.  Over time they were converted into multiple dwelling units. As resident homeowners were replaced by absentee landlords, these neighborhoods underwent economic decline.

Advocates of more accessory apartments apparently do not expect to collect an “impact fee” on these new units, even though the new tenants can also contribute to more crowded schools and more congested roads.  Indeed, cynics may question whether the move toward accessory apartments will create a zoning loop-hole through which some developers can game the zoning process to circumvent impact fees and other requirements.

New homes in the county must shoulder the tax burden of up to $45,000 in impact fees per unit, $23,000 for schools and $22,000 for transportation.  These costs are not absorbed by the developer but are passed on to the new home’s buyer.  By comparison, Howard County’s development impact fee works out to about $6,000 for each new unit.

Among the changes Riemer proposes includes reducing the required number of parking spaces. Currently at least one space is needed for each apartment and 2 spaces for units with 3 or more separate bedrooms.  The evidence contradicts Riemer’s contention that accessory apartment tenants can do with less parking.  Nationwide, the average number of vehicles per person has been increasing since 2012 to .75 vehicle per person and 1.95 per household.[ii]   Similarly, Metro’s sinking ridership suggests that more parking spaces would be needed. [iii]

As part of his housing reading, Riemer should expand his reading list to include books such as Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A COMPACT HISTORY[iv]  and Wendell Cox’ War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life. [v]  Their works chronicle the strong desire of families to move toward less, not more densely populated communities.




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