Durham says bring on backyard cottages. Raleigh says let’s take it slow.

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.

While Raleigh is slowly opening the door to backyard cottages for the first time in decades, Durham is about to take the door off the hinges.

As demand rises, housing costs are rising too. Not all new residents, or those already here, can afford to live in single-family homes.

In response to Durham’s housing crisis, the Planning Department is working on ways to increase housing density in the city’s urban tier: downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

One way to increase the number of places to live is to add accessory dwelling units, smaller homes built on the same lot as a bigger house.

Accessory dwelling units, also called backyard cottages and granny flats, have been allowed by right in Durham since 2006. But only 70 to 80 have been built since then.

“It’s a nice number, but it’s not that great. What regulations can be removed to allow more lots to allow ADUs?” Planning Director Pat Young asked the county commissioners Monday night.

“We find that ADUs provide a great continuum of care opportunity, to keep a variety of ages in the neighborhood,” Young explained. “Maybe you rent out the ADU, then [years later] move into it and rent out the house.”

Durham planners think there are opportunities to add housing options without damaging or destroying quality of life, Young said.

Not everyone agrees.

Debate continues in Raleigh

Backyard cottages haven’t been allowed in Raleigh since the 1970s, though there are several in some older neighborhoods.

The debate over whether to legalize backyard cottages has raged for years, with Raleigh slowly inching forward with new rules.

Some have championed them as a way to add affordable housing in existing neighborhoods while others worry about “doubling the density” in areas without going through a rezoning process.

Backyard cottages would not be allowed automatically or “by right” under Raleigh’s proposed rules.

Instead, they would only be allowed in a special 10-acre zoning area, called an ADU Overlay District. Property owners would vote whether they want to be in the district, which would regulate the size, height and access the structure. The rules originally said a majority of property owners would have to agree to be in a district, but that was removed during the council’s Jan. 8 meeting.

‘Neighborhood fabric’ in Durham

Adding more ADUs is not all Durham planners want to do.

Their yearlong project, Expanding Housing Choices, is also pitching flag lots, which are home lots behind other homes, and small houses on small lots. Zoning rules also could be changed to allow more duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes in either new or existing buildings.

Planners dropped cottage courts from the idea list, Young said, because they work best in suburbs where cottages are built around a common green space.

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said her daughter and her family are renting half a house in an older neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an area with high housing costs.

“I really do like that concept of duplexes, and definitely allowing conversion of some of our bigger houses into duplexes,” Reckhow said.

But Reckhow also noted that Expanding Housing Choices conflicts with neighborhood protection overlays that add a layer of rules to protect neighborhood character. Durham has just two overlay districts — in Tuscaloosa-Lakewood and Old West Durham, which was passed in 2018. Raleigh has more than a dozen. Young said if Durham passes the new zoning rules, some would trump the overlays.

Reckhow said dividing a block into several lots beside an existing house could be “a tear to some degree in the fabric of the neighborhood.”

Young said protection overlays in Raleigh and Chapel Hill dramatically restrict housing options.

“I’m not criticizing them; it’s a policy choice. But we really need to act now,” Young said. “Over time you’re going to have dramatically less housing choice and dramatically increased housing cost.”

Commissioner Heidi Carter is ready to push ahead.

“I am most interested in being aggressive at looking at the ability of future residents to live here versus protecting necessarily the current neighborhood with overlays, that whole idea of protecting neighborhood fabric,” Carter said.

“I can understand that issue and desire, but we can’t ignore that effect on future affordability and future housing here,” she said.

The region is going to continue to draw new people, Young said.

“If we don’t do it, we are really damming our successors to a lack of affordability,” he said.

What’s next

In Durham, planners are meeting with different neighborhoods over the next few weeks. The Planning Commission will vote on the final Expanding Housing Choices plan Feb. 12. The plan will then go to the City Council and county commissioners, who will vote after public hearings this spring.

In Raleigh, the council postponed setting a public hearing on backyard cottage rules to make final tweaks to the document and learn about two other proposals some planning commission members suggested. A public hearing for Raleigh’s proposed rules will likely be held in late February or early March. The City Council will vote on the rules sometime after the public hearing or refer them back to a committee.

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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