Yesterday, I introduced Councilmember Hans Riemer’s proposal to make it much easier to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single-family home neighborhoods around the county. Today, I being to explore why the current proposal may well exacerbate the problem it is designed to solve while further burdening county infrastructure.
Affordable or More Expensive Housing?
While sold as a means of advancing affordable housing, Hans’s proposal to make it much easier to build ADUs could have precisely the opposite effect. As Hans pointed out at his forum on the idea, over 30% of Montgomeryites already are house poor and devote a disproportionate share of their incomes to housing. Will banks be willing to lend to people who already have trouble making ends meet to construct new units?
Even worse, housing values on properties amenable to additional units will rise. After all, property becomes more expensive the more income you can generate. This is why developers always press for more density. Instead of making MoCo affordable, Hans’s legislation will contribute to the problem it aims to solve by making existing homes more expensive.
Property taxes will go up with rising land values. While incomes have been stagnating, taxes continue to rise—not least because the county hiked them by 9% before the last election. Increasing values further will result in higher taxes that many residents, even those not house poor, will not find it easy fit into their budgets. Again, banks are unlikely to lend even more money for the construction of ADUs to the already financially stretched.
Poor Housing Code Enforcement
As several forum attendees highlighted, county housing law enforcement is a joke. One woman explained how she has tried fruitlessly to get rules enforced on her block for over 15 years, including by contacting Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Nancy Navarro.
Hans didn’t disagree but touted that the county wanted to address the issue, citing repeatedly an additional $1 million allocated to housing code enforcement and the keenness of the new county executive to fix this problem.
But enforcement is often not systematic let alone muscular. Riemer’s bill limits ADU occupancy to two adults. If the county isn’t even enforcing rules people support regarding overcrowding and parking that protect both tenants and neighbors, does anyone think that the county is going to kick out a kid when she turns 18 or needs to come home at an older age? What about other relatives or friends who needs a place to stay for more than just a few days?
No Idea of Infrastructure Cost
Speaking of those kids, how many additional entrants will the public schools need to accommodate and how much will it cost? Hans opened his forum by lamenting that young families can’t afford MoCo. Presumably, if his proposal works, MCPS will get more students.
I asked Hans if he had any idea of the impact on the county budget due to the need for not just schools but more police and so forth, and he doesn’t know but “doesn’t think it will have a big impact.” I can’t say I will have much faith in any belated estimates generated by people already squarely behind the idea. My head is still spinning from the idea that lack of knowledge of the cost or the impact was apparently no barrier to county planners expressing so much support at the forum.
Hans suggested, however, that the impact would be minimal. He imagines that the number built here will fall between the 40-50 per year built now and the over 500 per year built in Portland, Oregon. Except that is almost surely an under-guesstimate. The City of Portland has only two-thirds the population of MoCo and more live in apartment buildings, so it has a lot fewer homes where you could construct an ADU.
Moreover, Portland is a terrific city, but it’s not exactly a model for affordable housing. Prices have risen rapidly in recent years and there is no sign that ADUs have altered that trend. Ironically, Montgomery and Portland share a major driver of high housing costs: green belts off limits to new construction that export sprawl and raise prices inside the belt.
Next Up: Breaking Trust with Residents
Tomorrow’s post looks at why Hans’s proposed zoning change breaks trust with residents and how it is open to abuses that the county won’t be able to stop despite Hans’s laudable efforts to prevent them.