Wake County

Divisive housing votes herald a shift toward slower development in Raleigh

Council members, from left, David Cox, Russ Stephenson, Corey Branch, Kay Crowder, Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Bonner Gaylord, Dickie Thompson and Mary-Ann Baldwin watch a presentation at a 2015 meeting. Baldwin and Gaylord will be replaced by Stef Mendell and Nicole Stewart early next month.
Council members, from left, David Cox, Russ Stephenson, Corey Branch, Kay Crowder, Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Bonner Gaylord, Dickie Thompson and Mary-Ann Baldwin watch a presentation at a 2015 meeting. Baldwin and Gaylord will be replaced by Stef Mendell and Nicole Stewart early next month. cseward@newsobserver.com

Some city leaders campaigned on the idea that they could protect neighborhoods and help make Raleigh more affordable. But since the October election, they’ve struggled to find that balance.

Following a divisive election season that often focused on housing affordability, the Raleigh City Council this month has balked at a trio of ideas that advocates say would benefit residents struggling to find housing within their budget.

On Tuesday, the council opposed a change to city ordinances that would allow short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, to operate in Raleigh. Supporters said it would help some residents generate income they could use for rent.

Council members also shot down a proposal to convert two city-owned historic properties at the corner of Cabarrus and Bloodworth streets into a co-living development targeting lower-income workers downtown.

And on Nov. 8, the council declined to expedite a vote allowing residents to live in accessory dwelling units, commonly referred to as “granny flats” or “backyard cottages.”

These moves come a month before political newcomers replace two of the council’s more pro-growth members, meaning Raleigh’s governing body will soon be controlled by members who favor a more cautious approach to growth.

It’s common for residents of growing cities to elect protectionist candidates if they feel like new development has added too much traffic, noise or unwanted activity around their neighborhoods, said Mack Paul, a local development attorney.

“Candidates or elected officials who are running on a platform of neighborhoods’ concerns are going to resonate to a greater degree as cities grow and become denser,” Paul said.

But, as property values rise, Mayor Nancy McFarlane says her colleagues’ anti-growth sentiments are impeding progress that would make Raleigh more affordable. On Tuesday, for the second time in two weeks, she scolded her fellow council members.

The proposed co-living development, she said, “fits into exactly what we’ve been saying we want to do: save historic structures and provide more affordable options in an area with lots of service workers. We need to come through and do the things we say we want to do, or it’s just lip service.”

Co-living shot down

Four council members Tuesday voted in favor of a co-living development proposal that needed five votes to proceed. Matt Tomasulo, a member of Raleigh’s planning commission, wanted to convert two historic properties in southeast Raleigh into unconventional, low-cost housing. The project would lease small bedrooms and bathrooms to occupants, who would share larger common areas and kitchens.

“It would focus on this collaborative lifestyle, which has (grown) partly out of the shared workspace community,” Tomasulo said. “You have more resources shared among people using less personal space. It allows for a much lower cost of living.”

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Councilman Bonner Gaylord lost his District E seat to Stef Mendell, who campaigned against Gaylord’s pro-growth attitudes. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Some council members said they were concerned by the optics of approving the sale of city-owned land for a planning commissioner’s development. The properties would first be sold to nonprofit Preservation North Carolina, which would then sell the land to Tomasulo, meaning he would avoid the bidding process required when for-profit developers buy city land directly.

“It doesn’t pass the sniff test to me here,” councilman Dickie Thompson said. “You’re using a nonprofit as a conduit for someone to get it. It’s a pass-through, and it doesn’t seem proper to me.”

McFarlane and council members Mary-Ann Baldwin, Bonner Gaylord and Russ Stephenson voted to approve Tomasulo’s proposal, noting that planning commissioners aren’t paid for their services. But Thompson, Kay Crowder, David Cox voted against it. Councilman Corey Branch was absent from Tuesday’s meeting and did not vote.

Airbnb delayed again

Raleigh residents technically aren’t allowed to rent out their homes for 30 days or less, as many do through online services Airbnb and VRBO. But the city three years ago halted enforcement of its rules until council members crafted regulations for them.

Supporters say short-term rentals are good for tourism – they’re often a cheaper alternative to hotel rooms – as well as residents who want to make an extra buck. Critics worry the rental model adds more traffic, noise and unwanted strangers to their neighborhoods. Some also worry that someone could undercut the stock of housing for long-term renters.

The council last year was divided on whether to allow residents to rent out their entire home. Tuesday’s failed proposal would’ve allowed resident to rent up to four rooms.

Stephenson, who voted against the proposal, said “many cities in our country have concerns about the impacts on housing affordability and neighborhood preservation.”

The vote drew swift criticism from Brent Woodcox, a Raleigh resident who worked on the task force that crafted the proposal. He said opponents Cox, Crowder, Stephenson and Thompson don’t value citizen input.

“It is clear now that their claims about citizen engagement are nothing more than hollow rhetoric,” he said.

Mayor and council newly at odds

When McFarlane was first elected mayor in 2011, she joined a city council that could be described as growth-friendly.

When she takes the gavel for a fourth term next month, she’ll be surrounded by council members who view growth as one of the city’s biggest problems. Baldwin and Gaylord – the only council members who attended her election night celebration – will be gone.

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Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane, left, watches election returns while talking with four-term at large city counciler Mary Ann Baldwin, who did not seek re-election, in October at Brewery Bhavana in downtown Raleigh. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

The addition of political newcomer Stef Mendell in District E is expected to strengthen the growth-leery Cox-Crowder-Stephenson coalition. Mendell unexpectedly beat four-term incumbent Gaylord by campaigning on a pro-neighborhood platform and criticizing him for his connections to developers.

Environmental advocate Nicole Stewart, another first-time officeholder who will join the council next month, has said that she will closely examine new developments’ stormwater impacts but that she generally approves of using density near transit corridors to help residents find homes they can afford.

She declined to take a position on specific Airbnb rules, saying she’s most interested in getting something done after years of inaction.

“I’m really interested in the gray spaces between the pro-neighborhood side and the pro-development side,” Stewart said. “How do we get the two sides to communicate better with each other so we can find solutions.”

If McFarlane wants to tackle the city’s biggest issues, she’ll need to find a way to better communicate with her fellow council members, Crowder says. Public reprimands won’t cut it, she said.

“I don’t necessarily believe that shows leadership,” Crowder said of McFarlane’s Nov. 8 comments.

“Leadership shows collaborative vision,” Crowder said. “It’s hard and it requires the ability to communicate with people and make them feel like they have value.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Councilman Russ Stephenson’s vote on a project proposed for the corner of Cabarrus and Bloodworth streets. Stephenson voted for the project, not against it.

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan

Specht: 919-829-4870; @AndySpecht

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