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City planners warm to 'accessory apartments'

Local homes with extra apartments in Montgomery Country, Md.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story gave incorrect information about the number of children in the home where Greg Sanders lived. There were three kids.


Kai Ryssdal: Let's start this next story with a couple of stipulations. One, that local governments -- a lot of them, anyway, and especially those in expensive parts of the country -- want to create affordable housing. Stipulation number two is that those governments don't have a lot of money to create affordable housing. So some of them are getting creative -- encouraging homeowners to put their basements or garages or spare bedrooms to good use. They're called accessory apartments, and they're not universally popular.

Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports from Washington.


John Dimsdale: When Greg Sanders got out of grad school a few years back, he figured he'd move into an apartment. But he ended up finding a more appealing alternative -- the basement of a single family home on a leafy suburban street in Montgomery Country, Md.

Greg Sanders: The space was bigger. It was closer and more convenient to a lot of things. The cost was pretty low.

The landlords were the homeowners, a middle-aged couple with three kids.

Sanders: We used the same laundry machines. They dropped the mail off. It was a bit more friendly and intimate than your average straight apartment relationship. And that was fun.

Sanders has since married and moved out of the basement, but he's still the poster boy for a new push by planners in this Washington suburb for something called accessory apartments. Instead of putting up new buildings, they want to turn unused space in existing homes into affordable housing. Accessory apartments require a separate kitchen, bath and entrance. And they help not only renters looking for a cheaper deal. They bring in extra cash for homeowners with fixed or low incomes.

Dick Pavlin is a volunteer with Action in Montgomery, a church group that promotes affordable housing.

Dick Pavlin: This could be an important way of helping some of those people remain above water on their mortgage.

National studies have shown accessory apartments do result in affordable rents without subsidies or rent control. But the county's plan doesn't fit the neighborhood vision of many civic organizations here.

Meredith Wellington: Montgomery County, if you drive around, is a series of beautiful single-family neighborhoods all across the county.

Meredith Wellington is a former member of the county planning board. And she doesn't think the current board has thought through its push for in-home apartments.

Wellington: There's no assessment in the proposal as to how schools could be affected, garbage pickup, police and fire protection, parking. Parking is a big issue.

But current county planners say these concerns are overblown. They've proposed limits. One accessory apartment per lot. A maximum of three occupants. An extra parking space has to be provided. Greg Russ is the zoning coordinator for the county planning board.

Greg Russ: We don't believe we're setting up a situation where the impacts are that great. So we believe the numbers we have put in place, the conditions, the standards, will mitigate those situations.

Population pressures are forcing Montgomery County to urbanize quickly. But many neighborhood activists think county planners are sending newcomers to the wrong place. Lydia Sullivan is a founding member of a new community group fighting in-home apartments called, "We Are Mo Co."

Lydia Sullivan: If the county wants to get serious about affordable housing, they need to put more of a burden on those who can afford it the most. Commercial developers. And not place this burden on the backs of neighborhoods, schools, traffic and power infrastructure.

She thinks home-builders are backing the extra apartments in residential neighborhoods to get out from under affordable housing requirements on new developments. The county council takes up the proposal this fall. As for Greg Sanders, the 32 year old who rented an accessory apartment out of grad school, he's thinking the arrangement just might work for him in old age.

Sanders: I'll probably someday have some extra rooms that won't actually be that useful for me and I much rather be able to keep the house and have a tenant to check in on me on occasion.

But he's not ready to take on the duties of landlord just yet, even though the townhouse he owns with his wife has enough space for an extra tenant.

In Montgomery County, Md., I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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