Raleigh leaders may finally have reached agreement on backyard cottages

A visit to a backyard cottage in Raleigh

Simon Atkinson talks about the cottage behind his home in Raleigh. Atkinson and his wife Robin Abrams believe there is a place for the small residences in Raleigh neighborhoods.
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Simon Atkinson talks about the cottage behind his home in Raleigh. Atkinson and his wife Robin Abrams believe there is a place for the small residences in Raleigh neighborhoods.

Should your neighbors have a say in whether you build a backyard cottage for grandma? Does it matter if you plan to rent it out first?

These are questions some Raleigh leaders will debate Wednesday as they try to find a way to allow and regulate backyard cottages within city limits.

"Doing nothing is not acceptable to me," said council member Russ Stephenson. "I am a proponent. I know there's a lot of people who want to spin me as not being an ADU proponent, but I am. I always have been."

Backyard cottages — also referred to as granny flats or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — are usually standalone, secondary buildings that are used as a place for guests or family to stay or rented out for extra income. They can also be rooms built over garages or in basements.

They've been heralded as an easy way to add affordable housing options in existing areas, but opponents worry about "doubling the density" in neighborhoods without going through the rezoning process.

The city's Growth and Natural Resources Committee will meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Raleigh Municipal Building to discuss a potential special district that allows backyard cottages, but only after a resident applies for it. The draft proposal not only regulates the size, height and how to access the structure, but it states that the district must be a minimum of 15 contiguous acres and that a majority of property owners have to agree to be within the district.

Backyard cottages haven't been allowed within the city since the 1970s, though there are several in various neighborhoods that were grandfathered in.

Stephenson, who has grandfathered accessory dwelling units on his property, said this could be the first step to build confidence in backyard cottages.

"I am wide open for great ideas on how to get five council votes," he said. "Because that is really what it comes down to. It's not whether anyone has the perfect ordinance for Raleigh. What really needs to happen to get anything going is to get five councilors to say, 'Yes we are willing to try this as first step.'"

Becky Hayes hopes the city will revisit the topic of backyard cottages- small, free-standing homes often used as guest houses or rental properties. She would like a cottage to use during retirement. Video by Mechelle Hankerson, mhankerson@newsobs

'Pain in the neck'

It was in 2012 and 2013 that the idea of allowing accessory dwelling units within the city gained traction. At least one neighborhood — the Mordecai area north of downtown — asked the city for a special pilot program to try allowing the buildings. But Raleigh leaders were consistently split on the issue.

Becky Hayes is one of those residents within Mordecai who would like to add a backyard cottage so she could rent it out for extra income before possibly moving into the building herself as she enters retirement age.

The waiting, she said, has been "a pain in the neck."

"You know I've just decided not to spend any money on it or a design until i know exactly what the stipulations are going to be," Hayes said. "I just don't know how restrictive it's going to be."

Kathleen Lowe bought her home in Cameron Park, which included a backyard cottage, in 2010. Because the building was grandfathered in, she was able to rebuild it and now rents it out.

"I think they are great and the city should move forward with them and make a decision on them citywide given the scarcity of affordable housing and the escalation in rent and home prices," she said. "Obviously they're not going to solve the affordable housing crisis, but they could be a small part of the solution."

Cameron Park, she said, isn't the most affordable neighborhood in Raleigh, and a backyard cottage gives someone a chance to live in an "amazing neighborhood" without the heavy cost.

Cottages 'could be detrimental'

Council member Stef Mendell said she thinks the board is getting close to a policy it can agree on — "something that balances the interest of people who want ADUs in their neighborhoods and people who don't want them in their neighborhoods."

Mendell said she'd like to discuss the 15-acre stipulation during Wednesday's meeting because she's not sure it needs to be that large.

Neighborhoods should have a say in how they develop, Mendell said, adding that there are concerns about stormwater runoff, traffic, parking, noise and light when adding greater density to areas.

Marsha Presnell-Jennette is one of those residents worried about "unintended consequences" of allowing backyard cottages into neighborhoods.

"There are a lot of things that could be detrimental," she said. "I like the idea that is being considered that neighborhoods could opt in and opt out."

Some neighborhoods may be more welcoming than others, but "people who have lived here for a long time or like their neighborhoods as they are" should have a say in how they change, Presnell-Jennette said.

Ten organizations — including Congregations for Social Justice, Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, North Carolina Housing Coalition, WakeUP Wake County and Raleigh YIMBY — signed a letter asking the City Council to use "every legal tool at its disposal to address affordable housing issues before" the city reaches a crisis.

Charlotte, Asheville and Durham are among the North Carolina cities that now allow the units.

"This is a use that we want to encourage here in Durham," said Patrick Young, the city-county planning director for Durham. "We think it's a big part of the solution for our affordable housing crisis, and we want to find ways get more utilization of our accessory dwelling unit provision. We're going to be working on that in the coming year."

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