All posts by David Lublin

County Executive Elrich Testifies Against ADU Bill

While County Executive Elrich is not opposed to accessory dwelling units (ADUs), he is opposed to this zoning text amendment (ZTA) for several reasons. You can read his testimony in full at the bottom of post.

Interestingly, Elrich points out that the changes made from the previous effort to encourage ADUs just went into effect in October of last year, so it is too early to see its effect and Councilmember Hans Riemer is jumping the gun in calling the previous legislation a failure.

Additionally, the ZTA does nothing to encourage more ADUs in areas near transit where we higher density and thus isn’t smart growth. Nor are there any tests or been any effort to make sure that existing streets and other infrastructure can accommodate them.

Most importantly to Elrich, a huge advocate for affordable housing, ADUs won’t serve the population that needs affordable housing. As the proposed ZTA eliminates the current cap on the maximum size of ADUs, the ZTA actually encourages the construction of larger ADUs with higher rents.

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Former Takoma Park Director of Housing Services Expresses Serious ADU Concerns

Sue Present, the former Director of Housing Services of Takoma Park, has submitted testimony to the County Council on the proposed zoning text amendment (ZTA) that would substantially relax requirements for accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

In particular, she suggests two amendments to the proposal: (1) buildings that are already out of compliance with code requirements or exist due to the granting of a special exception should not be eligible for conversion to ADUs, and (2) parking for ADU occupants must be independently accessible and the absence of sidewalks should disqualify a unit from off-street parking waivers.

Like myself, Present is distressed by the failure of either the Planning Board or the County Council to properly evaluate the impact on infrastructure, rents, and taxes. On infrastructure, Present raises concerns about the added burden on aging water and sewer lines, school capacity, and street capacity for parking and emergency vehicles. Similarly, she asks whether ADU rents near employment or transit would be affordable and whether they would reduce the property value of neighboring homes.

Read her testimony in full below:

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Former Takoma Park Director of Housing Services Expresses Serious ADU Concerns

Sue Present, the former Director of Housing Services of Takoma Park, has submitted testimony to the County Council on the proposed zoning text amendment (ZTA) that would substantially relax requirements for accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

In particular, she suggests two amendments to the proposal: (1) buildings that are already out of compliance with code requirements or exist due to the granting of a special exception should not be eligible for conversion to ADUs, and (2) parking for ADU occupants must be independently accessible and the absence of sidewalks should disqualify a unit from off-street parking waivers.

Like myself, Present is distressed by the failure of either the Planning Board or the County Council to properly evaluate the impact on infrastructure, rents, and taxes. On infrastructure, Present raises concerns about the added burden on aging water and sewer lines, school capacity, and street capacity for parking and emergency vehicles. Similarly, she asks whether ADU rents near employment or transit would be affordable and whether they would reduce the property value of neighboring homes.

Read her testimony in full below:


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House Delegation Kills Country Club Payments

Del. David Moon sponsored a bill to require country clubs to pay taxes. In an effort to compromise and move the bill forward, David agreed to a changes proposed by Del. Vaughn Stewart that would instead force only the four most valuable country clubs to pay $100,000 fee instead. Even that amount proved too much and the bill died on a vote of 11-13.

Here’s a breakdown by legislative district:

D15: 0-3.

D16: 0-3.

D17: 1-2.

D18: 3-0.

D19: 2-1.

D20: 3-0.

D39: 1-2.

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Riemer Issues Conflicting Statements on Development and ADUs

During the past month, Councilmember Hans Riemer (D-At Large) has sent out communications touting the real success of his legislation in promoting affordable housing and others decrying both the affordability crisis and lack of significant development. From a February 19th email blast:

Housing affordability is one of our County’s greatest challenges. We have a housing shortage, which drives up sale and rental prices and creates affordability problems particularly for those with moderate or low incomes.

With this in mind, last year I authored legislation that raises the requirement for affordable units in the County’s most expensive areas. The Council supported my plan and now we are already getting results in Bethesda, White Flint, and Rock Spring. Read the Council staff report and news coverage of the legislation.

From a February 4th email blast:

The projected slowdown of housing growth results in a massive reduction of tax revenues, even with our developer impact tax rates that are among the highest anywhere. With a much lower baseline of anticipated housing growth, not only will the housing crunch worsen (a huge issue in and of itself) but immediate infrastructure needs cannot be met.

Hans similarly lamented the lack of affordable housing and development at a public forum on January 19th:

We heard some very bad news this week. In all of 2018, there were only 800 housing units added to the tax rolls of Montgomery County. . . . That is how you get a housing crunch, my friends. That is how you get an affordability crisis.

These conflicting claims parallel diametrically opposed arguments regarding his proposal to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs). While Hans has repeatedly touted his proposal as part of the “tiny house” movement and designed to allow grandma units over the garage, his proposal removes the 1200 foot cap on the size of such units. If we want small and affordable, the cap promotes this goal and Hans’s legislation should be amended to maintain it.

Even more problematically, Hans has downplayed the number of units that would be constructed but proposal supporters also claim that this will be a major step in adding affordable units and that the increased supply should help depress housing prices more broadly. Of course, if the units aren’t small, they may not be very affordable.

The proposal similarly cuts parking requirements because many owners may take transit but doesn’t tie the reduced parking requirements to location near a Metro line or even frequent bus service let alone actual limits on the number of cars. If we’re trying to promote smart growth, tying the proposal to transit and transit use would seem, well, smart.

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Riemer’s Zoning Proposal Breaks Trust and Will Be Abused (Part III)

Councilmember Hans Riemer has proposed making much easier to build additional accessory dwelling units (ADUs) with the best of intentions. Yesterday’s post looked at why it will likely raise housing costs, even though it is intended to do the opposite, and burden county infrastructure. Today, I look at why the proposal breaks trust with residents and remains open to serious abuses.

Breaking Trust with Residents

The county literally just finished revising its entire zoning code in a pro-development direction. We also just revised the rules on ADUs only a few years ago. Yet here we are once again revising the code in a major way. And the changes are all uni-directional to allow more. Always.

In a single stroke, Hans’s legislation undermines all of the county master plans by drastically increasing the number of potential units in any area. In Bethesda, we just finished the process and already upped the existing density considerably. Is it any wonder so many county residents are mistrustful of planning processes and county government?

Homeowners value stability in neighborhoods. After all, buying a home is the single largest and more personally important investment most people will ever make. While some will welcome the changes, others will feel that they’ve just been cheated. As one resident articulated at the forum, not everyone wants to live on a congested street next to an AirBnB.

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

“Never assume a good motive when a bad motive will do” is not the most positive outlook on life but a very good approach when thinking about how some people will do their best to stretch and to misuse new rules.

While ADUs may help some achieve the positive goals emphasized by Hans, one can easily imagine how these rules will be abused despite Hans’s commendable attempt to build in protections. The law requires that ADUs can only be built by people on their principal home’s property. In theory, this should prevent a developer from buying a home, tearing it down and building either a duplex (in apartment or attached townhouse form) or two detached houses with one twice the size of the other.

Except that it won’t. Someone who flips houses can just buy it, say he plans to move into it, tear it down, build a duplex or two detached houses, sell, and repeat. Alternatively, I imagine developers could construct contracts with existing homeowners that pre-arrange the sale to maintain the fiction that the new duplex or second house is the idea of the existing homeowner. As often occurs in such situations, county planners will determine that it complies with the letter of the law and have no choice but to approve the plans.

I bet someone with more knowledge of housing law could come up with even more ways to accomplish the same goal without breaking a sweat. Heck, by the time that lawyers for developers are done, we’ll be thanking them for only building two units.

Making it possible to build more will make the land more valuable, and thus less affordable. Existing residents who can’t afford the higher property taxes will have to sell. Others will leave because they thought they were living in a neighborhood but found themselves in a construction zone. Either way, the hiked prices render the Montgomery dream out of reach for many more more families–all in the name of affordable housing.

It could well result in tearing down entire neighborhoods to build pricey duplexes. Why not make a killing doing something its supporters have labelled building affordable housing? Some would undoubtedly cheer and call it “smart growth” but that’s not how it’s being sold. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the new homes won’t be placed far from transit.

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The Opposite of Intended: How Riemer’s Zoning Proposal Will Increase Housing Costs (Part II)

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.

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Riemer’s Proposed Zoning Changes Will Have Major Impact & Need Serious Work (Part I)

Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer, now in his third council term, thinks that not enough residential units are being built in the county and has been peppering his email list recipients with arguments about how we need to build more.

Interestingly, Hans has reached these conclusions not long after the previous council completely revised and simplified the zoning code in a sharply pro-development direction that gives developers increased flexibility to pursue their plans. Master Plan revisions have also added millions of developable square feet in areas such as Bethesda and White Flint.

Hans’s New Dream: Accessory Dwelling Units

Even after all of these changes, Hans now has offered a zoning text amendment (ZTA) that would increase development possibilities in single-family home neighborhoods around the county. He wants to make it easier to build separate apartments or buildings, known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on the same single-family home property. The core idea is that they are autonomous living units with their own entrances.

Hans sees this as a way of creating more affordable housing in Montgomery. New smaller units would be more affordable. Building a rental unit might allow people to buy into Montgomery and help make the mortgage payment. Under Riemer’s proposal, the units could be up to 50% of the size of the main home and he would reduce or eliminate requirements for additional off-street parking. Only two people No more than two adults but an unlimited number of children could live in them.

It would facilitate multigenerational living and aging in place by allowing parents and adult children to live on separate residences on the same property. (Alternatively, that possibility may discourage many parents and children.) Older residents could also supplement fixed incomes by renting out the unit or the original home.

Planning Board Chair Casey Anderson and Planner Lisa Govoni attended and provided supportive information and commentary at a forum organized by Hans that presented only positive information. Several attendees of the public also shared anecdotes about how the proposal might meaningfully help them. I should also mention that Hans was unfailingly polite to the few dissenting voices, though I disagree with his belief that county residents widely hold negative views about renters.

Serious Problems

But Hans’s proposal is not nearly ready for prime time. The proposal itself has serious problems in terms of its workability in terms of its own goals and lack of an iota of information on how it will impact the county budget or infrastructure. Tomorrow, I begin to explore why.

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Senator Smith Deploying to Afghanistan

Towards the end of the current legislative session, Sen. Will Smith (D-20) will deploy to Afghanistan. I am sure many join me in thanking him for his service to our country and wishing him a safe and speedy return to his loved ones and to the General Assembly.

The following is the press release from Smith’s office:

Senator Smith, an Officer in the Naval Reserve, will deploy to Afghanistan in March

Silver Spring, MD, February 6, 2019 – State Senator William “Will” C. Smith, Jr., an Officer in the United States Navy Reserve, has received orders from the Pentagon to deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation Resolute Support. Smith, who serves as the Vice Chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and is Chair of the Senate Veterans Caucus, will report for duty on March 29, 2019. The Senator’s deployment comes toward the end of Maryland’s 439th legislative session.

Senator Smith, who is an attorney in private practice with a focus on national security law and employment discrimination, commissioned to be an Intelligence Officer through the Navy Reserve’s Direct Commission Officer Program and has received the National Defense Service Medal; the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; two Joint Meritorious Unit Awards; and a Joint Service Achievement Medal.

Senator Smith’s office will remain operational in his absence and his staff will be actively engaged in handling constituent matters for the residents of District 20.

Senator William C. Smith, Jr.

District 20, Silver Spring/Takoma Park

410-841-3634/301-858-3634

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