Tag Archives: Hans Riemer

Improving the Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) Bill

Councilmember Hans Riemer’s proposal to greatly ease restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) has a lot of flaws, as I have detailed in previous posts. The presentation of inaccurate information also undermines confidence that it has been well thought out. The county’s very poor enforcement of existing housing law further reduces trust. Moreover, recent legislation designed to promote ADU construction is just now going into effect.

Fortunately, two easy fixes to Hans’s proposal can assure that it will better accomplish his stated goals of increasing smart-growth oriented affordable housing and minimize any negative effects on the county finances and residents.

Fix #1: Locate ADUs Near Transit

The county wants to promote transit-oriented growth so let’s limit ADUs to within a three-quarters mile radius of Metro, MARC, and future Purple Line stations. As one can rarely walk directly in a straight line to transit from a single-family neighborhood, a three-quarter mile radius is really greater in terms of travel distance and provides a very generous zone. (This would include my Metro-walkable single-family neighborhood.)

The bus network is also largely oriented towards these nodes, so people living in these areas will have maximal public transit access. Transit accessibility will also likely reduce the share of ADU residents who have cars, or at least a second car. This simple fix will assure that we continue to promote growth where smart growthers claim to want it—away from car dependent neighborhoods.

Fix #2: Reduce, Rather than Increase, ADU Size

Hans’s zoning text amendment (ZTA) proposes to allow ADUs larger than the current 1200 square foot maximum up to the one-half of the size of main home. This is a disastrous idea as it encourages the construction of larger, and therefore less affordable units. It also incentivizes the construction of bigger homes, which also runs counter to the idea of smart growth.

While Hans has repeatedly spoken about his ZTA in terms of promoting “cottages” and as part of the “tiny house movement,” the legislation runs directly counter to this idea. According to The Tiny Life, a publication promoting tiny homes, tiny homes have a maximum of 400 square feet, and the average tiny home has just 186 square feet.

At 1200 square feet, Montgomery’s current limit is already three times the maximum size for a tiny home and over six times the average tiny home size. (Scouring the web, the most generous maximum for a tiny home was 600 but this was on a builders’ website and is still only one-half of what the county already permits.)

Instead of increasing the size limit and encouraging the construction of less affordable ADUs, we should be reducing it to 750 square feet. This smaller size would assure that new ADUs would be truly fit within the affordable, smaller home ideal, instead of large second homes or apartments out of the range of people struggling to find housing.

Additionally, it will minimize any negative impacts on neighborhoods and the county. Smaller homes mean it’s less likely that schools will face as substantial an additional burden as if we amp up the home size instead. Fewer people also usually means fewer cars. Existing units larger than 750 square feet would be grandfathered.

The smaller size also reduces any additional hardscape, especially important since the chance of the county adopting more meaningful storm water control standards is about nil. Smaller homes cut down the added burden on existing aging infrastructure not to mention on dumping water into neighboring basements.

Bottom Line: Make this an Affordable Housing Bill

These changes to Hans’s ZTA would turn it from a bill that undermines affordable housing by incentivizing big into one that would encourage the building of smaller, more affordable units in transit-accessible areas. It would retain the proposed elimination on the construction of an ADU in close proximity to another one, allowing for substantially more construction in zones near transit.

As bill proponents claim loudly that they are promoting small development and favor smart growth, adopting these amendments to gather community support ought to be easy. A special exception process could be included to accommodate unusual circumstances that require more space or location away from transit. But any such process should require real scrutiny and difficulty in order to keep the focus on affordable.

The bottom line is that adopting these changes would turn the bill into one truly focused on transit-oriented affordable housing and a genuine win for Hans. On the other hand, if self-proclaimed proponents of affordable housing continue to argue for larger rather than smaller units, it will reveal plainly that they are simply interested in promoting development rather than affordable and that this is really an effort to undermine recently adopted zoning codes and Master Plans.

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Riemer Massively Understated Number of Existing ADUs

In his effort to push forward his zoning text amendment on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that would radically alter building conditions and Master Plans throughout single-family neighborhoods, Councilmember Riemer has lamented the lack of existing ADUs, claiming that only 133 exist throughout Montgomery County.

Except that figure is completely false. It greatly understates the number of existing ADUs by a factor of at least 3.5 and probably more. The information showing it’s untrue is readily available on Montgomery County websites. Indeed, memos provided to the Council in the past directly contradict the claims made by Hans in his publicly funded communications.

The county’s own website says that there are 473 existing ADUs – over three times more than advertised by Hans Riemer and other advocates of his ZTA.

Look at the teeny-tiny print on the bottom left for the total count

A look at requests for ADU approvals under existing rules reveals 257 applications in recent years with only a small minority withdrawn or denied. The number of applications refutes Hans’s claim that virtually no one can legally build them under existing rules in Montgomery County. And this is before rules adopted just a few years ago to make it easier to build them have gone into effect and had a chance to have an impact.

In devastating follow-up testimony sent to Council President Nancy Navarro, Andy Leon Harney, explained in more detail that even these higher figures sorely underestimate the number of existing legal ADUs:

The figure often quoted that there are only 133 ADUs for a county of 1 million is simply false. In 2012, when the Council was considering ZTA 12-11, the Board of Appeals, which approved special exception accessory apartments said that between 1983 and 2012, they had approved 605 accessory apartments. Mr. Zyontz in memos to the Council at the time (10/8/12 p. 7 and 10/22/12 page 10) reported there were either 413 or 431 (probably a typo). At the same time, there were also 698 Residential Living Units—that is rent free accessory apartments approved for use by a relative, elderly parent or caregiver which are still legal and over time may well have been converted to rental units.  That would mean there were at least 1,111 ADUs plus guest houses which are no longer allowed but were grandfathered in with the passage of ZTA 12-11. The 133 number so often quoted is not accurate, and in fact there are 157 ADUs that have been approved since 2012, making the total ADUs closer to 1268, with others in the pipeline. If the Council is data driven, these facts should matter. If the Council allows itself to be persuade by an inaccurate number of “only 133 ADUs in a County of 1 million”, they are being misled.

Andy Harney is the Village Manager of Chevy Chase Section 3.

As I’ve previously explained, Hans’s legislation is deeply flawed for a number of reasons. In a post later this week, I hope to present a couple of easy amendments that would shift the focus back to the creation of smart-growth affordable housing and virtually eliminate most of the likely harms stemming from the misguided approach in the proposed ZTA.

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It’s No Myth that AirBnBs arrive with ADUs

Supporters of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) claim that it’s a “myth” that they will be turned into AirBnBs or other short-term rentals.

Unfortunately, the law is not always a good guide to what happens.

Portlandia

Portland is often cited as the promised land by ADU supporters. Like Montgomery County, Portland’s ADU guidelines state that they are “designed for residential occupancy independent of the primary dwelling unit.”

But according to a survey prepared for a 2018 report prepared by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at Portland State University, 31% of ADUs are for short-term housing, defined as stays as less than one month. Only 56% are being used as someone’s primary residence. ISS is staunchly pro-ADU, so it’s hard to throw dirt on the statistics as part of a nefarious anti-ADU plot.

While intended as residential dwelling units, many are used as AirBnBs or the equivalent. The survey did not present statistics on what percentage were in compliance with Portland’s permitting requirements for short-term rentals.

Illegal AirBnBs

Councilmember Hans Riemer laudably wants to focus ADUs on housing rather than hotel space. In a recent email blast, he touted “the units could not be used for short-term rentals (i.e., Airbnb)” under his proposed legislation.

Unfortunately, illegal AirBnBs already exist with impunity in Montgomery County. Here is a photo of one operating in Bethesda:

A complaint was filed about this illegal AirBnB with the County last April. The complaint was “resolved” by kicking it over to the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA).

The county database shows no sign of an ongoing investigation. Apparently, they got a license after the complaint was filed but the current usage is not in compliance for these sorts of rentals. One also wonders if the county or the state is even capturing the appropriate tax from this usage since they don’t know it exists despite advertisements on AirBnB.

Increasing the burden on county enforcement authorities through the addition of hundreds of ADUs per year seems an unlikely way to solve the problem. As the County fails to keep on top of existing situations with complaints, it’s hard to have faith that a ban on AirBnBs in ADUs will be anything other than totally meaningless.

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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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Riemer Takes on Elrich

By Adam Pagnucco.

Council Member Hans Riemer has used Facebook to weigh in on his colleague, Marc Elrich, who is running for Executive.  Riemer and Elrich have cooperated on numerous progressive priorities like Elrich’s $15 minimum wage bill, Riemer’s bill to restore the county’s earned income tax credit, protecting Ten Mile Creek and instituting paid leave, but the two have occasionally disagreed on land use issues.  Other than Nancy Floreen, who has endorsed Rose Krasnow, the other incumbent Council Members who aren’t running for Executive themselves have been quiet on the Executive race.  We reprint Riemer’s Facebook post below.  (Disclosure: your author was Riemer’s Chief of Staff from 2010 through 2014.)

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Campaign Finance Reports: Council At-Large, June 2018

By Adam Pagnucco.

Let’s look at the June campaign finance reports for the Council At-Large candidates, the last ones available prior to the primary.  A note on methodology.  First, we calculate total raised and total spent across the entire cycle and not just over the course of one report period.  Second, we separate self-funding from funds raised from others.  Self-funding includes money from spouses.  Third, for publicly financed candidates, we include public matching fund distributions that have been requested but not deposited in raised money and in the column entitled “Cash Balance With Requested Public Contributions.”  That gives you a better idea of the true financial position of publicly financed campaigns.

Below is our fundraising summary for the Council At-Large candidates.  We are including only those who have qualified for matching funds in the public financing system or have raised at least $100,000 in traditional financing.  With a field this deep and talented, candidates who have not met either of these thresholds will struggle to compete.

Four candidates are bunched at the top: incumbent Hans Riemer and Will Jawando, Evan Glass and Bill Conway.  Two more – Hoan Dang and Gabe Albornoz – have raised enough money to compare with past candidates who have won.  Then there is MCPS teacher Chris Wilhelm, who is working as hard as anyone and has an entire side of the Apple Ballot to himself.  That has to be worth the equivalent of an extra mailer or two.  Finally, school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse is not a money leader, having entered the race very late, but she does have a base of loyalists who could be very useful in working the polls on Election Day.  Overall, our view is that Riemer will be reelected, Jawando and Glass are in good positions and one – maybe two – of the others named above will likely also be elected.

Here’s a question for the readers: why are the female candidates not raising more money?  Danielle Meitiv (who ranks 10th on the chart above), Marilyn Balcombe (11th), Brandy Brooks (12th) and Ortman-Fouse (14th) are all good candidates running in an electorate that is 60% female.  Not only do their totals lag the above men – they also lag the amounts raised by Beth Daly (2014), Becky Wagner (2010), Duchy Trachtenberg (2006 and 2010) and of course four-term incumbent Nancy Floreen.  Public financing was supposed to equalize the influence of small contributors, including women, with corporate interests that are overwhelmingly male dominated.  And yet the nine top fundraisers are men.

Let’s remember that the best-financed candidates don’t always win.  Exhibit A is the chronically underfunded Marc Elrich, who finished first in the last two at-large races and could be the next County Executive.  The at-large race also has produced surprises in the past, including the defeats of incumbents Blair Ewing (2002), Mike Subin (2006) and Trachtenberg (2010).  As soon as your author thinks he has the at-large race figured out – BAM! – something different happens!

This is probably the best at-large field in MoCo history.  It’s sad that only four of them will win.  But so it is.  On to Election Night.

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