Raleigh Report

Raleigh’s Mordecai residents push for backyard cottages

When Kim Gazella decides to move out of her house someday, she doesn’t want to go far. She hopes to build a small, detached building behind her home in the Mordecai neighborhood.

“I would love to live in one of these,” she said. “Because I hate to clean and maintain a house.”

Raleigh currently prohibits residents from living in what the city refers to as accessory dwelling units, also known as backyard cottages, granny flats or mother-in-laws.

But residents of the Mordecai neighborhood north of downtown are asking city leaders to allow them to house renters, family members or friends in detached buildings behind their homes.

Some say the dwellings – typically less than 1,000 square feet – are ideal for aging parents or boomerang college graduates. Others say they are a simple way to provide affordable housing near downtown, where rent has been on the rise for years.

Critics, however, worry that having more than one residence on a single lot could lead to too much noise and traffic, parking shortages and unsightly neighborhoods.

More than 75 percent of Mordecai residents who responded to a recent city survey said they support backyard cottages.

City planners are scheduled to discuss the survey results at the Sept. 13 meeting of the Mordecai Citizens Advisory Council. They’re likely to then craft regulations that the City Council may consider as early as this year.

Three years ago, the council shot down a proposal by the Planning Commission to allow the use of backyard cottages, citing concerns about noise and traffic.

City leaders now seem willing to reconsider the issue. Mayor Nancy McFarlane recently said she’s open to using Mordecai as a testing ground.

“There are good arguments both ways, but it feels like there is growing support for them in the community,” McFarlane said. “It’s all about the parameters around them, how they fit contextually, and if single-family-home neighborhoods see them as an asset.”

Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said she’s eager to see a pilot program launched in Mordecai.

“It’s a tool that many cities such as Portland are using to create affordable housing,” Baldwin said.

The City Council this year raised the property tax rate one cent for an additional 125 affordable housing units.

Gazella, who co-leads the Mordecai CAC, said she thinks support for the cottages has risen as more people want to live near downtown but struggle to find affordable housing.

“Our area has exploded in popularity, particularly because of the rejuvenation of downtown. We felt like we are uniquely suited for that kind of thing,” Gazella said of the dwellings. “We’re an older, fairly well-established neighborhood, and many of our backyards are big enough to accommodate backyard cottages.”

The use of accessory dwellings could raise more questions about short-term rentals through online services like Airbnb and VRBO. Currently, renting out property through such services is prohibited in Raleigh, but the council has spent months debating whether to lift the ban.

Some Mordecai residents say it’s not just about renting out space.

A record 60.6 million Americans live in multi-generational households, the Pew Reserach Center reported earlier this month. Backyard cottages could help older adults live under some supervision while maintaining their independence.

That’s why Mordecai resident Philip Bernard says he supports backyard cottages. He likes the idea of aging in place.

“If I want to build a backyard cottage and rent out my house, I would be able to do it and stay in Mordecai,” Bernard said.

Possible regulations

Through the survey, which ended Aug. 1, the city got a feel for how it might regulate backyard cottages.

More than 68 percent of survey respondents said Raleigh should limit the number of unrelated people living on a property.

Residents also said Raleigh should limit backyard cottages based on the size of the property or the size of the property’s main building. More than 82 percent said the city should limit the height of cottages to two stories.

As for parking, 65 percent of respondents said Raleigh should allow backyard cottages so long as the property can accommodate another vehicle through a driveway, alleyway or on-street parking.

Mordecai residents were divided, however, over whether Raleigh should require property owners to build a buffer – a fence, trees or shrubs – between the main building and the cottage.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht