Support the Zoning Rewrite: Accessory Apartments

This Wednesday will be the hearing for the Zoning Rewrite section pertaining to accessory apartments, or accessory dwelling units. This will be the most contentious debates over the changes to the zoning code required to keep DC thriving in the 21st century.

Accessory units give homeowners flexibility in the use of what are often large properties. The extra income is nice to have for some people. For others, it’s a lifejacket. When my class at yale designed and built a house, the client required a rental unit specifically because it added financial stability for the low-income family that bought it. For renters, it could bring a large amount of housing stock to the market with marginal capital costs and a lower profit motive, keeping prices down.

For communities, the economic diversity added to the vast single-family family neighborhoods will bring vitality and justify transportation improvements that all can enjoy. By allowing the elderly to downsize in place, welcoming new families, neighborhood ties stay strong while adding new residents. In most of Northwest, parking remains ample, so  the addition of a few small households will have a very minor impact.

But I don’t want to overstate the effects. For the most part, making them “by right,” will only legalize already existing apartments. Rental units in R-1/2/3 zones are widespread already, despite being illegal. Furthermore, because the regulations were written in 1956, when domestic help was more common, if the renter picks up the paper or waters plants one weekend when the owner is on the Eastern Shore, the apartment is legal. That’s silly.

upper northwest zoning
This is what One-Size-Fits-All looks like.

Now, a significant amount of opposition to the accessory provision has come from Chevy Chase residents, who claim that the provision is forced on them as “once size fits all.” But, in fact, zoning hundreds of acres as single family homes without any community nodes is the essence of “one-sizing.” Permitting a little flexibility allows for fine-grained land use decisions. It’s important to remember that although regulations keep the city safe and clean, but they should be justified. Chevy Chase hasn’t shown why it’s special.

Learn how to testify in person or by mail. The zoning commission is independent of the council and take comments seriously. Your communication with them matters.

BONUS: To share the nature of this opposition, follow the break to read testimony from one of the most outspoken opponents, Linda Schmidt, to see how extreme you have to get to criticize the proposal. Learn why some world-weary advocates call detached accessory apartments “schmitthausen.” These comments are fairly typical from her.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak.  I’m a DC native, with family here since the 30’s.  I have four points:

A. ADUs are ripe for elder abuse

B. Demand fixes to the BZA to handle Special Exceptions

C. Continued lack of public awareness about the ZRR

D. Role of the Zoning Commission

A.   OP touts ADUs as “a great way for elders to age in place.” But if a home has a separate entrance for a rental unit, the unit falls under landlord/tenant laws. DC’s laws are notoriously favorable for the renter and the homeowner loses effective control of their own property.  From my own experience I can see ADUs are ripe for elder abuse. Many residents 75, 80 or 85 years old are not equipped to tackle the problems an ADU presents.

Three examples:

1. Renter in an elderly lady’s house refuses to move out even as lady is terminally ill, eventually dies, and renter still won’t move. Wants year’s free rent in new location.

2. Another elderly lady moves to her daughter’s and squatters took over her house through a tenant who ignored the “no sublet.”  No way to get them out “for a year.”

3. Basement apartment renters in elderly lady’s house demands “a deposit on a house” before they’ll move out.

In all these cases the rent’s unpaid and according to DC attorneys “it takes a year” to get people out. The legal process for eviction is impossible:  lengthy and expensive, with back-and-forth pleadings and hearings. There’s even a DC office that instructs tenants on how to avoid paying rent. These elderly are frail and heartbroken, unable to deal with the mess.  Any rent they got is eaten up by legal morass.

These are bad situations, and nobody helps. Politicians won’t touch the rental laws. Police won’t intervene unless there’s a crime going on. ANC is powerless. Before you jump the gun by making ADUs a matter of right, take a good look at what could happen to those homeowners. ADUs are not a panacea for the elderly.

ADUs are a sneaky way to double density. Don’t cram neighborhoods with ADUs. Kids shouldn’t grow up thinking grass is just what you smoke. The “Special Exception” process means good neighbors, clear expectations, smooth process, tranquil neighborhood. Questions like privacy, people and car traffic, and parking get addressed. Keep the SE process. Require certificates of occupancy, inspections and insurance.

B.   We hear that BZA says “it’s swamped” but that’s no reason to abandon oversight. OP’s answer is to make everything matter of right. The fix is not to make ADUs a matter of right to reduce the BZA caseload. The fix is to demand BZA expand capacity to handle Special Exceptions.

The BZA can be two or three panels, not just one. Use a coordinating mechanism to ensure panels use the same criteria for decisions. Be guided by the court system where  many judges apply the same law. We don’t just use “one judge” for all cases. The BZA should expand and ADUs be managed by Special Exception.

C. Ignorance of the ZRR.

The public continues to be ignorant of the ZRR. After badgering OP for a year, they finally held Ward meetings, in the middle of winter, poorly publicized, poorly attended, and poorly presented.  500 people attended across the entire city. I went to all but one and can’t forget Ward 8, where there was more OP staff and consultants than residents. People feel helpless.

In a city where we receive, delivered to our doors, a beautiful color brochure announcing the leaf pickup, we can’t bother to mail residents decent literature about proposed zoning changes? Only in the last month or so did OP complete their recommendations.  How is the public supposed to know, much less respond?

D. Role of the Zoning Commission

The ZC has to ask, when and how was the public informed? Don’t be satisfied with OP’s list of “these are all the things we did.” Ask instead for results: “how many residents did you actually contact, and how complete, accurate, up to date and reader-friendly was the information?”

May I recommend the ZC refrain from decisions until the public is fully informed about the changes and understand the proposed changes.  There’s nothing that says the ZRR “has to be” decided after one round of hearings. The ZC risks losing legitimacy by acting unilaterally on such sweeping changes.

The ZC is independent for a reason: we really need an adult in the room, to not be pressured, to take the long view, to make wise decisions that stand the test of time.  Please.

I agree with her last comment: we do need to take the long term view and legalize accessory apartments. Stop smoking grass and support #schmitthausen.

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