Garage Apartments No Answer to Montgomery County’s Affordable Housing Crunch
By Mark Uncapher
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 their County Council’s latest lamentations over the affordable housing shortage?
Under Montgomery County’s strict land use policies, more than half of 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 in residential area roads, the number drops to about 25%. Therefore, the county’s million-plus population is restricted to living on about 120 square miles or about 13 people per acre.
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 costs also create 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.
The advocates of the land use policies that produce this situation are fond of calling it “Smart Growth.” A better name would be the “Very Expensive Housing Policy.”
Government’s response has been to impose additional layers of regulation to “solve” the problems caused by what they have created. 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.
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. Contrary to the Council’s rhetoric, these additional costs are not absorbed by the developer but are passed on to every new home buyer. By comparison, Howard County’s development impact fee works out to about $6,000 for each new unit.
In recognition of the affordable housing problem, Councilman Hans Riemer has begun to promote expanding the availability of accessory apartments. These include newly created apartments in existing houses, such as converted garages and basements. He reached these conclusions after reading the book, Backdoor Revolution: The Definitive Guide to ADU Development.[i]
The changes proposed by Riemer include 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.
Yet the evidence contradicts Riemer’s assumption 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]
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.
As part of his zoning reading, Riemer and other councilmen should expand their reading to include books such as Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: A COMPACT HISTORY[iii] and Wendell Cox’ War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.[iv]