Durham County

Durham needs housing. So why do some seek a time out for this plan that adds density?

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance known as Expanding Housing Choices adopted Sept. 3 by the Durham City Council will take effect within the city limits beginning Oct. 1.

Residents in Durham will have another chance to weigh in on a policy change that could alter neighborhoods across the city.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the Expanding Housing Choices plan during a meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the old Durham County Courthouse, 200 E. Main St. downtown.

The county is considering amending the joint Unified Development Ordinance to allow more, and more varied, housing choices in Durham. The City Council adopted the amendments 6-1 this month, and they go into effect Oct. 1.

Critics say the process has moved too fast to give residents time to digest its potential impact.

Durham resident Mimi Kessler has asked the commissioners to take more time to consider Expanding Housing Choices.

“Why can’t Durham be different and slow down the feverish building?” Kessler wrote in a letter to the editor. “Other cities have learned once it is gone, it is gone forever and there is nothing you can do about it.”

The Planning Department has held multiple public forums during the last year. The City Council held a public hearing before approving the plan.

The county commissioners could vote on Expanding Housing Choices immediately after their public hearing.

What is Expanding Housing Choices?

Planning in Durham is shared in a joint agency between the city and the county.

Expanding Housing Choices was developed in response to new residents moving to Durham, planners say. Estimates of 15 to 20 newcomers per day are overblown, the plan’s critics say. But more people are moving to Durham, and they looking for places to live.

The plan updates zoning rules to allow more density. Single-family homes are the only residences allowed on most lots in the city now. The proposed changes would allow property owners to build additional housing options like duplexes and accessory dwelling units on their lots.

Planners expect most will be created in a context-sensitive manner within, but not completely limited to, the Urban Tier, generally within two miles of downtown, according to Planning Department documents.

The Urban Tier is one of five zoning districts in Durham. It contains many of the oldest and most historically significant neighborhoods — Cleveland-Holloway, Trinity Park, Old West Durham — in the city.

Critics of the UDO changes say they could lead to unwanted and unsightly development in single-family neighborhoods. The pace of teardowns could increase in neighborhoods already under pressure from developers, they say.

That’s a point that Durham Mayor Steve Schewel conceded. But he also said current teardowns are being replaced by larger single-family homes that most people can’t afford.

“The pace of teardowns is increasing,” he said. “Without EHC, only larger single-family homes can be build on these lots. EHC will provide some flexibility. We don’t really know all the exact consequences of a policy like this, but we know the growth of housing stock has lagged. There is no question our city is growing fast.”

The City Council did direct the Planning Department to report back on how many teardowns are permitted during the first six months after EHC is approved.

If the county commissioners adopt the plan in its current form, it will become part of the UDO. If the amendments are not adopted, then zoning rules will differ between the city and the county beginning Oct. 1.

Planning Director Patrick Young said it was not unprecedented for a city and county that share a UDO to have portions that differ.

“One of the reasons for having a UDO is to have a uniform set of rules,” he said. “But there have cases when some rules apply to the city only or to the county only.”

Population growth in the Triangle

City leaders say Durham faces an “affordability crisis” as rising demand pushes up home prices and rents.

Durham’s population, roughly 267,000 at the end of 2017, has grown by about 22,000 residents over the past four years, according to U.S. Census data.

Raleigh, which had about 465,000 residents at the end of 2017, has seen a similar trend line.

Part of the answer is to increase the supply of homes in Durham through Expanding Housing Choices, Schewel says.

“EHC will make it economically feasible to build middle-income homes in the Urban Tier,” he said. “I believe it will occur over the long term. It’s not going to be a quick process. I am satisfied with the staff’s ability to monitor the effect of EHC.”

Councilwoman DeDreana Freeman was the only vote against the plan three weeks ago. She opposed the changes until a new comprehensive development plan to guide growth is adopted, she said.

“I am for increasing density, but it has to be in the right places,” she said. “I think we should have waited until we have the new Comprehensive Plan.”

Durham’s Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2005.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.