Wake County

Wake County wants more ‘granny flats’ for affordable housing, but Raleigh is skeptical

Robin Abrams and her husband Simon Atkinson have a small cottage behind their home on Forest Road in Raleigh.
Robin Abrams and her husband Simon Atkinson have a small cottage behind their home on Forest Road in Raleigh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Wake County leaders say backyard cottages and above-garage apartments are an easy first step to address an affordable housing shortage, but they’re struggling to get Raleigh on board.

County commissioners passed a resolution last week urging all municipalities in Wake to allow accessory dwelling units, sometimes called “granny flats.” They say the units, which can include free-standing apartments, can become reasonably priced rental spaces.

“It’s just kind of the low-hanging fruit,” said Sig Hutchinson, vice chairman of the commissioners.

Raleigh leaders are more skeptical and have spent years debating whether to allow the units. It remains to be seen whether the county’s recent expression of enthusiasm will be a tipping point.

Supporters of accessory dwelling units say they provide a way for homeowners to generate additional income while giving renters more options, sometimes at lower rent prices. Opponents cite concerns about parking, stormwater runoff and decreased privacy.

Wake County changed its development rules in 2014 to allow for accessory dwelling units. But affordable housing is considered most useful when it’s near transit lines and employment hubs, not the more-rural swaths controlled by the county.

Raleigh City Council member Russ Stephenson said he was not opposed to accessory units, but he wanted the city to be careful. He was among the council members who voted last month against fast-tracking a proposal to allow the dwellings.

Proposed rules for a potential pilot program in the Mordecai neighborhood near downtown got mixed reviews.

“The ordinance came back and it’s two stories, it’s a two-car garage, the whole backyard is converted into parking and driveway,” Stephenson said. “The residents said that’s not what we signed up for.”

Some Wake County towns already allow accessory dwelling units. Apex approved them in 2000, and town planners say they were intended to help families accommodate aging parents and grandparents.

In Cary, a comprehensive plan encourages “a diversity of housing options,” but planners say there’s no urgency to address the units specifically.

Raleigh is the largest city in North Carolina to not allow the units. Charlotte approved them in 2012, and Asheville loosened its requirements in 2015. Durham approved them with little debate when it rewrote its development rules in 2006.

Charlotte leaders approved the units when the city’s housing market was still recovering from the recession, said Mary Newsom, director of urban policy initiatives at UNC-Charlotte’s Urban Institute. The idea didn’t face much opposition, she said, “because there wasn’t enough development to resist.”

Allowing residents to rent accessory units is likely more controversial in Raleigh now because the city is seeing such rapid growth, Newsom said.

Last month, outgoing City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin made an unsuccessful effort to extricate a draft ordinance on accessory units from a committee. The request’s denial and subsequent expressions of frustration from some council members, including Mayor Nancy McFarlane, highlighted how tense the debate has become.

Council member Kay Crowder said she didn’t want to move too quickly on the proposal before it had received a more thorough review.

Raleigh allowed accessory homes until the 1970s, when they were stricken from development ordinances “at the height of urban blight, flight and absentee landlords,” according to N.C. State University’s Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative.

Similar concerns are still present, Stephenson said, and the debate is linked to another divisive discussion about short-term rentals like Airbnb.

Stephenson says he regrets the debate about accessory dwelling units has become a proxy battle between those who favor a more permissive approach to new development and those who tend to view growth more cautiously.

“Since 2013, we’ve been stalled on this because the dominant voices have been the all-or-the nothing people,” Stephenson said. “We need to take the roundabout path through a pilot project, get some nice (units) on the ground, and get people to realize that this isn’t going to be the end of the world.”

Meanwhile, county commissioners are getting antsy.

“We understand they have to work through their own processes, but this is a crucial, crucial issue for the full county,” Commissioner John Burns said. “I hope municipalities will look at accessory dwelling units and fast-track a policy that allows them to be built in the best way possible.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan