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City of Durham wants denser housing. Some neighborhoods are saying slow down.

Durham proposing higher density to ease housing concerns

Durham housing is in demand, especially downtown, and city leaders are considering opening up the zoning to allow much more of it. Some neighborhoods want housing density vote delayed to allow further study.
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Durham housing is in demand, especially downtown, and city leaders are considering opening up the zoning to allow much more of it. Some neighborhoods want housing density vote delayed to allow further study.

Durham housing is in demand, especially downtown, and city leaders are considering opening up the zoning to allow much more of it.

That means more accessory dwelling units, also known as backyard cottages, and other new housing options that would increase the number of places to live in the heart of the city.

Two neighborhoods outside downtown have already come out against plans, wanting leaders to delay decisions by three months. Trinity Park and Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhoods have sent letters asking for a 90-day period between when a draft report is made public later this month, and when it first comes before the Durham Planning Commission a few weeks after that. The planning commission advises the City Council and Board of County Commissioners, which will then vote sometime late this spring on changing zoning regulations.

Trinity Park and Watts-Hillandale

Diane Amato, president of the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association, sent a letter to city and county leaders asking for a 90-day extension between the report and the planning commission meeting, which is scheduled for March 12, instead of the two weeks it would get after the report is made public on Feb. 25.

“Many neighbors expressed concern that the name of the initiative, “Expanding Housing Choices,” and early surveys and communications used careful language that did not make clear the nature of the recommendation,” Amato wrote.

Trinity Park is an affluent, historic neighborhood between Duke University’s East Campus and downtown Durham. Residents there received a presentation from the planning department this month.

“We are willing to work with any and all groups to make the initiative better,” Amato wrote. “If there is a committee of stakeholders developed, Trinity Park would like the opportunity to participate on this very important zoning change.”

The Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association also wrote a letter after their meeting with the planning department. Watts Hospital-Hillandale is also near Duke’s East Campus but farther from downtown than Trinity Park. The Watts-Hillandale neighbors also don’t think there is enough time to review the recommended zoning changes before planning commissioners vote in March.

“A change of this magnitude, the biggest zoning change in over a decade, requires more time to review and evaluate than the current timeline which provides only the legally required minimum notice period,” wrote Dot Doyle, president of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

The letter goes on to ask for the 90-day delay and for a stakeholder committee to be formed that includes homeowners in affected neighborhoods.

Supply and demand

Over the next 30 years, about 160,000 new people are expected to move to Durham.

Planning Director Pat Young has told city leaders the average new resident makes $13,000 more a year than current Durham residents. And those wealthier new Durhamites move into neighborhoods that ring downtown, or farther out into “stable middle class neighborhoods and start gentrification,” Young said.

To meet the expected growth, Durham will need 62,200 new houses, according to the planning department. As the Expanding Housing Choices project has progressed since it started in summer 2018, planners have focused on the city’s urban tier, which is downtown and the neighborhoods around it.

Accessory dwelling units have been allowed by right in Durham since 2006, but planners recommend changing zoning to encourage more of them. Expanding Housing Choices also calls for more duplexes, small houses on small lots, and flag lots, which are small homes built on lots directly behind another home.

The region is going to continue to draw new people, Young told the county commissioners in January. “If we don’t do it, we are really damming our successors to a lack of affordability,” he said.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
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