by James A. Bacon
Let’s see… On the one hand, the economy is still in the tank, wages are stagnating and the cost of housing in desirable locations (near jobs) remains out of reach for many Americans. On the other, millions of homeowners, many of them childless, would love to monetize the spare square footage in their houses to help pay the mortgage.
Could there be an opportunity for homeowners knocking around their half-empty houses to lease a basement, a garage apartment or even a bedroom to singles looking for cheap rent? Yes, there is. But local governments often step between willing seller and willing buyer.
Why would they do that? Because homeowners in single-family subdivisions, terrified that rentals might lower property values, thwart any measure that might deviate from the one-house-per-household purity of neighborhoods zoned for single-family dwellings.
However, hard times spur people to re-think old practices. Montgomery County, Md., is investigating a set of changes to current policy that would make it easier for homeowners to rent out accessory apartments, widely called “granny flats,” and even backyard cottages. Writes Dan Reed in Greater Greater Washington:
The new policy would allow accessory units in most of the county’s single-family zones. Homeowners wouldn’t need a hearing, but they’d still need to get approval from building officials to create an apartment, register the unit with the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, apply for a rental license, and renew the license each year.
Planners say allowing accessory apartments will help financially strapped homeowners cover their mortgages while providing additional housing choices for renters, particularly young adults, who are priced out of many MoCo neighborhoods. Accessory dwellings are already allowed “by right” in a variety of communities, from cities like Portland to suburban Lexington, Massachusetts to rural Fauquier County, Virginia. …
Good for Montgomery County! Every city and county in Virginia should follow the lead of its neighbor across the Potomac by reviewing and updating its code. Foes worry that more residents will mean more congestion. But, as Reed points out, household sizes have shrunk over the past few decades. Carving out an apartment in a four-bedroom house isn’t changing the neighborhood but bringing it back to the occupancy level it was designed for.
NIMBYs also worry that rentals will drive down the value of neighborhood houses, including their own. But I question that premise. Properties that generate rental income should sell for more than comparable houses without. Furthermore, homeowners who pocket a rent check every month are in a better position to fend off foreclosures, which devastate nearby property values, and pay for maintenance and upkeep, which supports property values.
Finally, there’s a moral argument to make.
A couple in my neighborhood recently built a house with a granny flat for the wife’s parents. Grandpa and grandma provide built-in babysitters when mom and dad have to work late or want to go out. Likewise, the grandparents know they will have someone to look after them. Isn’t this kind of multi-generational family something our society should be encouraging as a welcome antidote to outsourcing child- and elder-care to strangers?
Or take the case of the elderly widow who wants to stay in the house where she lived most of her life? Why shouldn’t she be able to rent a room to a young single man or woman who, as part of the arrangement, can help with yard work, housekeeping or errands?
More freedom usually works better than less freedom. We should try it for a change.