How much is too much? Plan to allow more housing in Durham neighborhoods delayed.

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.

If you want to live close to downtown Durham but can’t find a home there, changes in zoning could give you more options.

Facing a housing crisis declared last year by some City Council members, the Durham Planning Department has focused on increasing density in the city’s urban tier. Its recommendations are out now, and not everyone likes them.

About 50 neighbors attended a public hearing Tuesday night. But before they even talked, Planning Director Patrick Young said he wanted to continue the discussion at the next meeting, and Planning Commission Chair Brian Buzby said he didn’t plan on voting yet.

Residents disagree on whether the plan increases density too much — or not enough. And they wanted more time to study the proposal.

“We are all over the map about this,” said Linda Wilson, who lives in Watts Hospital, one of the neighborhoods that asked for more time.

Why planners want zoning change

Young said the influx of newcomers earn about $10,000 more a year than current residents, and those new Durhamites can better compete for housing.

The urban tier spreads out for roughly two miles in each direction from downtown.

A map shows the area impacted extends both north of U.S. 70 to Carver Street and south of the Durham Freeway to Cornwallis Road.

Young said “Expanding Housing Choices,” as the proposal is called, reflects the City Council’s goal of “shared economic prosperity.” But after hours of comments, he said planners may have missed the mark and could go back to the drawing board.

Single-family zoning has been the cause of racial disparities in home ownership, he said, and only 12 percent of the urban tier allows duplexes.

Before the late 1960s, almost every neighborhood in Durham allowed a variety of housing types, he said. But that changed to give single-family zoning the advantage, and that’s the case in the majority of neighborhoods affected by the proposed zoning changes.

Doing nothing would guarantee more gentrification in Durham as newcomers displace longer-term residents, Young said.

The zoning proposals

In most cases, Expanding Housing Choices would allow one more housing unit than what’s allowed under existing zoning.

For example, in places where existing zoning allows one single-family home on a 5,000-square-foot lot — or 7,500-square-foot lot in the urban tier — the proposed standard would allow for one duplex. Developers could also build more units if they provided affordable housing.

Neighborhood response

In February, the Trinity Park Neighborhood Association, Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association and others asked for a delay between the 45-page draft recommendations and the Planning Commission meeting Tuesday night to review the report.

Nancy Scott, a longtime Trinity Park resident, called it a sweeping rezoning proposal that could mean losing neighborhoods of character by “wholesale teardowns” or “a thousand cuts.”

But other Trinity Park residents disagreed.

Dan Bock said the revised proposal was watered down, and he supported the original one calling for more density.

For example, triplexes are no longer being considered, and cottage courts were also dropped along with allowing accessory dwelling units with duplexes.

Durham architect and urban developer Scott Harmon wrote “an open letter to my fellow white progressives in Durham” that was circulated on neighborhood list serves leading up to the meeting. Most of the residents who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting were white.

In Harmon’s letter, he said the current proposal had been “gutted by leaders in the white progressive neighborhoods that wield the most power in land use debates.”

On Tuesday night, Harmon told commissioners opposition looks like “NIMBYism.”

Tuscaloosa Lakewood neighborhood resident Susan Sewell said she’s concerned that Expanding Housing Choices would allow “flag lots” in her neighborhood. Her neighborhood’s protection overlay doesn’t allow such development. Flag lots allow another housing unit to be built behind an existing one, like a flagpole.

What’s next

Planning Commissioner Carmen Williams said she wants to see the city grow in the right direction for the right reasons. Durham has a lot of land, she said, and she doesn’t want to force growth on already developed land.

“It’s either about profit or quality of life,” Williams said. “Somehow we have to meet in the middle.”

The Planning Commission decided to delay its recommendation to its May 14 meeting, giving another 60 days to get more feedback and possibly revise the proposal. It will then be sent to the City Council and Board of County Commissioners, who will vote on Expanding Housing Choices at meetings later this year.

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