Can the in-law apartment make a comeback?
By at least one calculation, Maryland is at least 120,000 housing units short for its current population, which makes finding accommodations suitable for seniors even more challenging and costly than it typically is. Given the “graying” of the population — about 22.6% of Marylanders are age 60 or older — this is a potential crisis in the making.
One possible solution would be to give homeowners the right to create what is known as “accessory dwelling units” on their land. These can be in-law apartments that are attached to existing homes or small detached dwelling units such as a garage or carriage house. The point is that it enables older people to live independently while also providing nearby potential support. Such
ADUs can also serve an entirely different purpose: giving homeowners a source of income if they sublet to renters — a potential win-win for both owners and renters.
There was a time, perhaps, when such a project was regarded as a routine matter. No longer. As much as ADUs have been touted as sensible housing, they have been strongly opposed in some communities that fear higher density housing will reduce the value of traditional single family homes, the core of middle class and higher income communities. In Maryland, county zoning laws tend to severely restrict such arrangements, and even housing advocates offer lukewarm assessments. They are not a solution to the chronic shortage of public housing. Nor are they on the to-do list of the wealthy. Rather, they address what is called the “missing middle” of housing — safe, decent homes for people of average means, seniors and starters alike.
Even so, it was a little surprising to see that legislation to create a statewide task force to simply look at the potential for expanded use of accessory dwelling units drew significant opposition. At a hearing last month before the Senate Education, Energy and the Environment Committee, 15 people signed up as witnesses to express disapproval compared to 12 who supported it. And this was merely authorizing a task force, a routine step, at best. It’s clear opponents
fear that state government will come in and force localities to ease their zoning restrictions. That seems unlikely, and yet the mere possibility stirred a small crowd to journey to Annapolis to make their feelings known.
Recently, representatives of Maryland REALTORS, the association that lobbies in Annapolis on behalf of the real estate industry, sat down with The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board to express their growing concern that local opposition to even the most sensible of new housing proposals — especially higher-density proposals that are regarded as key to meeting environmental concerns of maintaining open space and reducing the carbon footprint — are getting the proverbial door shut in their faces. Existing homeowners fret over a drop in home values if transient renters appear on their street looking for parking spaces. And the broader rise of “Not In My Backyard,” or NIMBY, opposition has made counties fearful of new construction generally.
Yet might this be a misreading of public sentiment? A survey conducted by Maryland REALTORS found Marylanders are greatly concerned that housing has become unaffordable, and when asked specifically about accessory
dwelling units, 76% said they support making it easier for homeowners to build them on their property. That’s three out of four. So why aren’t elected officials responding to that? Likely, because people who support such policy in concept aren’t motivated to show up at public hearings over broad land use policies or even specific projects to which they have no direct involvement. Those conversations, like the hearing on Senate Bill 382, tend to be dominated by the NIMBYs.
We aren’t proposing developers be given free rein. Nor do we wish to deny localities the right to make important land use choices. But there is clearly a disconnect here. And so we hope that the Maryland General Assembly will approve the “Accessory Dwelling Unit Policy Task Force” and that members, along with representatives of the state Department of Planning, will better engage the public over the pros and cons of allowing property owners to create “granny flats” and similar improvements. There’s simply no question that Maryland needs more of this, that the public generally approves of it — and that the current system favors opposition to such projects, however misguided it may sometimes be.