Who could have a problem with something called a backyard cottage? Well, as it turns out, Raleigh could. The City Council voted to remove them from the 2013 Unified Development Ordinance.
And yet backyard cottages are a historical housing type enjoying a resurgence in North America. Also called elder cottage housing, in-law apartments, mother-daughter units, companion units, guesthouses and alley flats, they are second, small living units in the backyards of single-family homes. They are also called accessory dwelling units, but an ADU can be an apartment in an existing house, whereas backyard cottages, as their name suggests, are separate, significantly smaller units.
Backyard cottages used to be common but, beginning in the mid-20th century, were increasingly zoned out and became in many cities illegal. Raleigh used to allow them, and many examples can be found in its older, inner-city neighborhoods. However, in the 1970s, at the height of urban blight, suburban flight and absentee landlords, they were prohibited. That was over 40 years ago. Now the city is very different and attracting residents drawn to its cultural amenities and entrepreneurial spirit who are looking for housing options in central locations.
Opponents of backyard cottages worry they will negatively affect the character of their communities. Frequently cited concerns are that they will result in increased density, traffic and parking; increase loads on city services, infrastructure and schools; create absentee landlords; and be substandard or incompatible housing. All of these concerns deserve our critical attention.
Many cities, some of which we consider to be our cultural and economic peers, have legalized backyard cottages. Austin, Texas, for example, recently updated its zoning ordinance to make it even easier to create backyard cottages. Some cities, such as Santa Cruz, California, not only allow them but also promote them. Like Raleigh, it is a college town, and a number of years ago officials created a program to add affordable units within urban growth boundaries. Backyard cottages had been legal but restricted, so they loosened the regulations and then actively promoted them. Subsequently, the number of rental units dramatically increased, and vacancy rates plummeted.
Other cities – such as Seattle, San Antonio, Phoenix, San Diego, San Franciso and Boulder, Golden and Aspen, Colorado – have adopted backyard cottages into their development ordinances. In North Carolina Charlotte-Mecklenburg recently updated its legislation to allow them, and Asheville, where cottages were never taken off the books, has in recent years sensitively added them to their downtown neighborhoods.
Backyard cottages can provide stable housing as family needs change over time. They can provide a place for a parent or boomerang kid to live, or where homeowners can live as empty nesters (and rent the primary unit), or where a caregiver can live so the homeowner can age in place.
Backyard cottages can also be a low-impact way to add affordable units to a municipality’s housing stock. They can provide rental income to subsidize mortgage payments and, if they already exist on the property, may even help people qualify for a mortgage.
And they are sustainable. They use fewer materials and require less energy to heat and cool, thus reducing utility costs and carbon emissions. Additional housing units in inner-city neighborhoods can also mitigate sprawl and support public transportation. Backyard cottages can also bolster cultural sustainability by allowing people to age in place, increasing economic diversity and providing security and companionship for the elderly.
A sticking point when Raleigh considered backyard cottages was state legal precedents that make it difficult to require that owners occupy the main property. Some cities have this requirement, but some, such as Portland, Vancouver and Asheville, do not. And there are other means for ensuring inhabitants are good neighbors, such as requiring separate meters for each unit, registering each unit and rigorously enforcing tenant laws. Most cities specify minimum lot size, set backs, height limitations and maximum square footage. Some require off-street parking and that they match the style of the primary residence. Most important is good design, which can produce smaller, low-impact units that still offer generous living possibilities.
When backyard cottages came before the City Council, many councilors voiced support but thought the provisions had not been sufficiently vetted or potential impacts researched. Consequently, they retained the option of revisiting the issue.
There is plenty of dependable data regarding the effects of backyard cottages and plenty of support for them in Raleigh neighborhoods such as Mordecai. Some cities, such as Seattle, conducted pilot programs in designated neighborhoods, and some, such as Austin, restricted backyard cottages to certain neighborhoods.
Backyard cottages may not be right for every neighborhood and may not result in a lot of units, but they can provide housing options for a city that really needs them and align with goals identified in the city’s comprehensive plan and its scattered-site policy for affordable housing.
Thomas Barrie is a professor of architecture and director of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program at N.C. State.