County Executive Marc Elrich is wrong to oppose Accessory Dwelling Units

For the first time in many years, the County Executive of Montgomery County is arguably a self-admitted leftist. It was in part because of the hard work of socialists and leftists in Montgomery County that Marc Elrich narrowly won his 2018 Democratic Primary Nomination; he also relied on his progressive voter base to win the General Election.

But the left should and must call out politicians for wrongheaded policy positions. County Executive Elrich may be one of the left’s few outright allies in power, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be critical while maintaining overall support. In fact, that’s how people change politicians.

County Executive Marc Elrich submitted testimony last week in opposition to Zoning Text Amendment (ZTA) 19-01, a zoning amendment to facilitate further growth of Accessory Dwelling Units in the county submitted by At-large County Councilmember Hans Riemer.

Elrich should rethink his opposition and consider how this legislation would ease the housing shortage in Montgomery County while doing little to exacerbate displacement, sprawl or gentrification. Further, if Elrich seeks to grow the county through an “equity lens,” we cannot ignore that this legislation could lead to a wider discussion of the historic role suburban zoning has played in class and racial inequality in Montgomery County.

Just what is an ADU?

An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is a fully independent residence, including its own utilities and entrances, which sits on the same lot as a pre-existing residential unit. An ADU can be either attached to the primary structure on a lot, such as a basement unit, or detached, such as a converted garage or backyard cottage. An ADU is not a duplex; the accessory unit is subordinate to the primary house. It’s also important to note there are already many illegal ADUs in the county that are under the scrutiny of the County’s strict housing and rental codes.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 4.18.54 PM
From Montgomery County’s 2018 Accessory Apartment Report

Some important positive features of the ZTA 19-01 are that either the ADU or the primary residence must be owner-occupied (i.e., no corporate landlords), the units cannot be used for short-term rentals (i.e., no AirBnBs), and ADUs are limited to two adult occupants (and an unlimited number of children). The bill would reduce, but not eliminate, the parking requirements of ADUs.

Big developers aren’t the winners here

The county permit records and recent testimony in favor of ADUs show that it is primarily homeowners who build and benefit from this legislation. Rather than letting big developers control suburban development, amending zoning regulations to make ADU construction easier actually puts homeowners in charge of local development.

In passing, we’ll note there’s no firm evidence of strong backing for this bill from real estate developers like Donohue, EYA, Washington Property Co., the AOBA lobby, or Southern Management. If you find some, feel free to pass it on. Otherwise, it appears Hans Riemer got the idea from some urban planners in Portland.

Accessory dwelling units can’t simultaneously add density and exacerbate sprawl

In his testimony, County Executive Marc Elrich claims ADUs will simultaneously contribute to density and to sprawl. But detached ADUs are constructed on the same lots that currently exist, and therefore add only density to already sprawled suburbs. If anything, adding density to the suburbs may encourage more demand for expanding transit, walkability, and amenities — things generally viewed as positive by residents.

School crowding is more complicated than you think

Marc and other ADU-opponents far to his right object to ADUs on the basis that adding family units will increase school crowding. But enrollment statistics presented by Montgomery County Planning Department Chair Casey Anderson make a convincing case that over-development isn’t the sole cause of our current school crowding. There’s evidence that it is families with children buying and moving into homes previously occupied by families with no children which has had a larger effect on school crowding than new development.

Elrich’s claim that we are zoned for or already have enough units is misleading

Towards the end of his testimony, Marc makes a passing reference that our County zoning regulations already allow for enough housing units for the next 10 to 30 years.  However this does not tell the whole story.

Presumably, he is basing his claim on Montgomery County’s master sector plans, existing zoning, and the Montgomery County Planning Department Development Pipeline. But all three of these resources only show what structures are allowed, proposed, accepted, and eventually constructed. There is no assurance that all of the unapproved projects in the planning departments project pipeline will ever be approved.

Marc also implies ADUs are already allowed in most places in the County. This is technically true, but misleading as to the purpose of ZTA 19-01. ADUs were amended from “conditional” to the more relaxed “limited” use last year in a majority of residential zones, but not the zones most accessible to transit. In fact, currently only attached (ie: basement or loft) ADUs are allowed in the most transit-accessible zoning areas. Detached ADUs are illegal in 25% of the county as currently zoned, including the transit areas by Silver Spring and Bethesda.

ADU Zoning
Based on county zoning maps and fact sheets (image by author)

So while it is true that ADUs will likely not be as affordable as an apartment rental unit, they would potentially be more affordable options than the homes currently sitting in transit accessible zones outside urban cores.

Additionally, while ADUs may be already “limited-use” in many areas, they are prohibitively expensive to actually build. This is because of the same regulations Marc doesn’t want to see removed in the current law — strict parking and setback requirements — which account for large parts of construction and permitting costs. The expense of these regulations during construction carries over into the rent costs of units. In short, requiring more space for carbon-emitting cars means not just environmental destruction but higher rents too.

Opposing modest development reforms will hurt Elrich’s chances at re-election

Urban politics researchers point out that insurgent left movements which obtain political power at the local level often have a short lifespan. One reason is because they have trouble constructing governing coalitions that can enable them to retain power.

Marc faces such a scenario. The anti-growth coalitions that traditionally backed Marc as a county councilmember are losing influence. This past cycle saw many pro-growth candidates win positions on the County Council and Hans Riemer has done everything short of buying ad space in the Bethesda Beat to signal he plans to run for county executive when he is term-limited out of office in 2022.

Therefore, a broad policy of opposition to new development will only hurt Marc in the long term. The County Council has the numbers to override his veto, ensuring that Hans can accumulate a record of passing simple housing reform measures. Coupled with Hans’s outreach to local industries fetishized by the petty bourgeoisie (like the craft brewing industry) and the generally thin victory margin from the 2018 election, the strength of Marc’s voting base four years from now can be called into question.

Marc is out of step with DSA priorities

Sadly for the socialists in his base, Marc Elrich is continuing to display a disregard for Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) priorities. Prior to the election, he was already in hot water with the Metro DC chapter of the organization due to his endorsement by the Montgomery County Fraternal Order of the Police.

Now, facing budget constraints, he has called for cuts in funding to libraries, education, Health and Human Services, and the Housing Opportunities Commission, while re-allocating positions for Department of Corrections officers. He has only vaguely gestured towards a housing program for the homeless without providing any details at this point in time.

To contextualize Marc’s objection to ADU development reform, consider ADU reform is a policy endorsed by DSA Silicon Valley, DSA member and former Hawaii State House of Representatives Kaneila Ing, and other DSA-endorsed candidates like Tony Kelly in San Francisco. Fellow Montgomery County DSA member and candidate for County Council, Brandy Brooks, who was endorsed alongside Marc Elrich by Metro DC DSA in 2018, supported ADU reform in her housing platform.

Furthermore, regarding other housing policies, Marc has offered no indication of support for DSA member and District 19 Delegate Vaughn Stewart’s social housing bill. In a 2019 report for Data for Progress, socialist and socialist-adjacent housing activists argue a robust social housing program like Stewart’s must be paired with “[e]nding apartment bans to stop perpetuating the race and class separation that resulted from past land use wrongs.”

Apartment bans, or exclusionary zoning, restrict new home-building to the sort of single-family houses most commonly associated with suburbs and affluent neighborhoods. These bans are exactly what Elrich is perpetuating by opposing zoning changes to develop ADUs. If Marc does not have the political will to confront single-family homeowners (as a class, not individuals) and apartment bans, there will be no place to build the affordable social housing Del. Stewart proposes.

Socialists of Montgomery County, which side are you on?

Transit advocate (and Montgomery County resident) Benjamin Ross points out the left runs into a problem when progressive housing policy is reduced to only opposing displacement or supporting strictly affordable housing units. Ross comments on recent housing legislation in California:

”Zoning controversies have long made strange bedfellows. But the ease with which Beverly Hills and Marin County residents can adopt anticapitalist rhetoric points to an affinity that goes beyond mere electoral convenience. Whether out of ideological conviction, political opportunism, or love of the hip cachet of urban neighborhoods, left activists identify gentrification as the essence of the housing problem and resistance to new building as the cure. Progressive organizing thus evolves stealthily into a defense of the residential status quo.”

This is precisely the type of unholy alliance forming in Montgomery County right now in response to ZTA 19-01.

David Lublin, conservative Democratic former mayor of Chevy Chase (identified further below as one of the county’s wealthiest, whitest, and most exclusive areas), has been on a multi-week screed de-crying ADUs on his site TheSeventhState.com, covering almost every trope of traditional NIMBYism. Another opponent is perennial Republican candidate for County Council and conspiratorial-minded Robert Dyer. Finally there are residents like one gentleman who stated his opposition to ADUs at a January 23, 2019 public forum on the basis that, “there is no place to live in Montgomery County if you don’t want to live next to poor people,” and that more rental units would bring down home prices.

Preserving suburban property values is the unifying theme among opponents to ADUs. It is a curious position for Marc to take; if one did not know any better, they would think he was an old-fashioned conservative supporting John Locke’s view that the government is a “nightwatchman” responsible for protecting private property, not an ostensible member of the country’s largest socialist organization.

An “equity lens” for whom?

Marc Elrich’s objection to confronting the privileges of single-family homeowners is hidden behind the window dressing of an “equity lens.” Supposedly, this prioritizes the racial impacts of county policy and staffing decisions.

Critical geographers have long acknowledged capitalism’s historic tendency to invest and divest in communities along racial lines. But Marc’s equity lens is devoid of this retrospective perspective. Instead, it’s only focused on future development. This means leaving out the history behind how state and capital functioned together under white supremacy to mold the way the working class lives in suburbs like Montgomery County across the country.

Single-family homeownership as we know is an outgrowth of Jeffersonian “independent yeoman farmer” mythos. The zoning that protects single-family homes was explicitly created in the early 20th century to exclude non-white peoples from suburban development and pushed sprawl, in part, to decrease labor militancy. Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” shows racially discriminatory zoning and prohibitions on housing structures besides single-family housing shaped communities along class and race lines. It’s not any one or group of homeowners who are responsible for this but it is the history we live with today.

20th century Montgomery County embraced “restrictive covenants” that literally barred people of color from owning homes in the same areas that are now proposed for re-zoning to allow detached ADUs. The town of Chevy Chase demanded, and got, the demolition of low-rent housing to make room for green space in the 1970s; it is now one of the most fiercely anti-development centers of the county, and one of the wealthiest and whitest parts of the county,

A truly equitable outcome of future development would be to begin the process of breaking up these exclusionary areas. ADUs offer an innocuous way to start that difficult conversation by putting the burden of providing housing on homeowners who choose to build backyard cottages.

Fighting remnants of racist housing policy is a socialist goal

American socialists must accept the unique situation of the country’s history and geography when it comes to housing policy. Even the widely celebrated Green New Deal has glaring blind spots when it comes to addressing environmental, economic, and racial-justice issues of where we live.

And while many will claim Montgomery County has strong progressive communities and representatives who support increased wages, progressive taxation, improving schools and healthcare, these same groups resist letting people live in their neighborhoods.

Marc Elrich should reconsider his opposition and investigate the invisible barriers that preclude people living in otherwise accessible neighborhoods. The exclusionary policy regime is making it impossible to reside in the county otherwise.

By Erik O. Wright

*Commonwealth is an independent socialist blog. Nothing here is an official statement by the Montgomery County Democratic Socialists of America

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