This example of a detached accessory dwelling unit on the same lot as a larger home appears in the HoCo By Design plan. New detached ADUs are not currently allowed by zoning regulations in Howard County. (HoCo by Design)

If you ask central Maryland homeowners if they have an accessory dwelling unit — a separate residence either in their home or in its own structure — the answers can vary, based on different zoning rules across the state.

If they live in Anne Arundel County, they may already have an ADU on their property that’s being used by a family member or a renter; but if they live in Howard, it’s a big challenge to make such an addition.

While there’s no statewide law on this matter, which is viewed as one avenue of addressing Maryland’s workforce housing shortage, there is a state task force studying the need of 150,000 more affordable residences according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Its findings are slated to be released in mid-2024.

For rent

The discussion of the effectiveness of ADUs and how they may, or may not, provide one avenue to address what’s mushroomed into a large societal issue continues.

In Anne Arundel County, legislation that passed in early 2023 “added another tool to the toolbox toward solving the housing crisis,” said Erin Karpewicz, CEO of Arundel Community Development Services.

“It provides an opportunity for homeowners to create less expensive housing, whereas before they had to be attached to the homes,” said Karpewicz. “It will also create smaller housing types that tend to be more affordable than the larger houses in existing communities.”

Still, she doesn’t think ADUs are an end-all to the affordable housing crisis, but rather part of the solution.

“Also, the Pittman administration and the County Council have enacted some significant policies that are having an impact,” said Karpewicz, citing a dedicated affordable housing trust fund (with dedicated revenue) to support the development of ADUs; as well as modifications to the adequate public facilities for schools law.

She is “also hopeful that a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit legislation will eventually pass. This would provide inclusionary housing opportunities in future housing developments for households with moderate income.”

A struggle

While ADUs are technically allowed in Howard County, adding one is a struggle that’s “often not worth the effort,” said County Councilmember Christiana Rigby.

“They’re barely allowed in Howard County. If you go that route, you must have time, money and an impressive amount of fortitude to go through what will probably end up being a long, intensive hearing process,” said Rigby, “and it has to be in your house. It can’t be detached.”

Between 2015 and 2020, Howard County approved only 99 attached accessory apartments and one temporary accessory family dwelling, according to the HoCo By Design plan.

The other issue, she said, “is that most banks view ADUs in Howard County as restricted assets, so they’re less likely to make a loan that restricts its ability to manage it in the case of a default.”

Rigby added that during the county’s recent General Plan process, the Department of Planning & Zoning estimated that “even with a more open process, there would be less than 580 ADUs built here during the next 10 years.

“Today, most of our ADUs exist due to family aging and health issues,” she said, “so I don’t think people understand the severity of this situation and we’re out of easy options.”

Sarah Rayne, CEO of the Howard County Association of Realtors agreed that it’s difficult to build an ADU in the county.

“Our officials don’t seem to be open to it,” said Rayne, “due to the crowding, infrastructure and school capacity issues that are mainly in Columbia, plus the possibility that more Airbnbs popping up in our neighborhoods.”

But Rayne feels other areas of the county “could support an increased number of residences. We’re advocating that local officials examine our zoning to see where more affordable residential units could be built for the ‘missing middle,’ of our population.”

HCAR is among the organizations and jurisdictions pushing for statewide legislation and is anticipating seeing the results of the state task force, too; but she, like Karpewicz and Rigby, stressed that ADUs “are only part of the answer to this issue.

“They’re a great option for seniors,” Rayne said, “since the baby boomers are aging in place more than preceding generations.”

‘Rather timid’

That problem has not gone unnoticed at the Maryland Association of Realtors, which “absolutely sees” ADUs as part of the solution, said Director of Advocacy and Public Policy Lisa May.

“They can be added in places where building new housing is typically ‘very expensive,’” said May, adding that today’s patchwork “of whatever various counties decide to allow at the moment stifles innovation and industries. We took a bill to the state legislature two years ago, but it ran into considerable local opposition from the counties” because, given their territorial nature, “They want to make their own zoning rules.”

But while the state and some of its counties haven’t come on board, the issue worsens every day.

“When we started pushing the issue earlier this year, Maryland needed 122,000 more workforce homes,” she said. “However, today that number has shot up to 150,000.”

Help en route?

But help may come to Maryland this summer, especially since other states have been proactive in adding ADUs to their mix, including California, Oregon and Minnesota.

They have “provided more comprehensive laws to make ADUs more feasible,” said Ahmad Abu-Khalaf, senior research analyst with Columbia-based Enterprise Community Partners, “initially on the West Coast. Now, the movement is gaining traction back East.

“What’s needed,” said Abu-Khalaf, “is to tackle the crisis from different angles. That often depends on local context and what ADU builders are allowed to build.”

Lisa Rodvien agreed. The Anne Arundel County Councilmember sponsored the bill in Anne Arundel County and checked out best practices across the country while creating the legislation.

Calling ADUs “part of the tool kit,” Rodvien said Maryland’s report “will be a guide for legislators who are interested in this issue.

“And hopefully,” she said, “eventually a state bill will be passed.”