Durham County

4 ways Durham may build its way to affordability. Hint: It’s more than tiny houses

Durham’s housing supply can’t keep up with demand from new people moving to the city. New residents have $13,000/year average higher annual income than current residents.
Durham’s housing supply can’t keep up with demand from new people moving to the city. New residents have $13,000/year average higher annual income than current residents. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Durham is growing faster than its housing supply, and leaders are looking for ways to meet the demand.

With 20 to 25 people moving to Durham every day from places likes Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, city and county planners want to loosen multi-family restrictions to create more, and potentially more affordable, housing choices.

Here are some ideas they’re thinking about:

Accessory dwelling units, aka granny flats or backyard cottages: They are smaller than the main house but on the same lot.

Durham has 253 ADUs, clustered in Old West Durham and Trinity Park just outside downtown. Planners recommend changing zoning regulations to allow more. They once required a special-use permit, but since 2006 they have been available to build without one. (Building permits are required.) Seventy-two ADUs have gotten permits since 2007. An owner-occupancy requirement was eliminated after a court decision in 2012. In 2017, the parking requirement was removed.

“ADUs have the potential to be a grass roots answer to the affordable housing challenge,” planners wrote in their report. “At their best, they can provide more affordable rental options and provide a rental revenue stream for middle income homeowners to help pay their mortgage or pay back their construction loan.” The current rules says the ADU’s heated floor space can’t exceed 30 percent of the main house’s space. The planners recommend allowing larger units.

Duplexes: Allow duplexes to be built in more places in Durham, especially in urban areas. Duplexes are two adjacent or connected houses.

Small houses: Planners want to create a new housing type and lot dimensions for small houses. The Planning Department suggests a new housing type that is 800 square feet or less and under 25 feet high. That “small house” is bigger than the trendy tiny houses that are typically 400 square feet or less. The city and county zoning doesn’t have a definition for a tiny house or minimum house size.

The smallest house that has gotten a permit in Durham is about 480 feet.

Cottage court: The Planning Department describes a cottage court — or “pocket neighborhood” — as a “group of small, detached homes clustered around a central outdoor common space.” The cottages can face the street or the space, and are usually less than 1,000 square feet.

Planners say while both small houses and cottage courts can be built under current zoning, the city and county could make it easier by developing cottage courts as a new housing type with rules about number, open space, size and parking. And they could be built by-right or with special approval.

The Durham Planning Department, which is a joint city and county department, surveyed more than 1,000 people this summer for its “Expanding Housing Choices” study.

Planning Director Pat Young wrote in the report that “fast-paced population growth, limited availability of developable tracts, and a renewed preference for in-town living has led to a housing availability and affordability challenge in Durham. Over time, zoning rules have restricted development in many neighborhoods almost exclusively to single family dwellings, eliminating many of the small scale and often more affordable multi-family options that once existed.”

Mayor Steve Schewel said earlier this year, “Either we build more houses or the price of housing is going to go through the roof, and we need more density.”

What’s next

The Planning Department will present its findings to the Durham City Council at its Thursday work session. But the council won’t make any decisions anytime soon.

This is phase one of “Expanding Housing Choices.” Proposed changes to the city and county Unified Development Ordinance, or zoning rules, will be presented this fall or winter for the council and the Durham County commissioners to consider.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan
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