Why Raleigh needs Accessory Dwelling Units

A backyard cottage in Raleigh’s Cameron Park neighborhood.
A backyard cottage in Raleigh’s Cameron Park neighborhood.

Raleigh routinely compares itself favorably with Austin, Seattle and Portland as a culturally rich city enlivened by growing populations of creatives and entrepreneurial businesses. But there is something important that we do not share: Austin, Seattle and Portland – and many of our peer cities – allow Accessory Dwelling Units, also known as granny flats or backyard cottages.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are smaller living units located in homes, above garages or in backyards. They are one of several ways to diversify housing stock and add more affordable units. ADUs also give homeowners flexibility as family needs change. They can be rented to help pay the mortgage. And they provide a way to downsize without moving out of one’s neighborhood.

By adding residents to existing neighborhoods, ADUs use fewer resources, support walkable, transit-oriented communities and are sustainable. Major cities across America allow ADUs. Indeed, ADUs are part of a national movement to fill the “missing middle” of flexible and neighborhood-scaled housing options. All major North Carolina cities allow them, including Charlotte, Asheville and Durham, and many are making them easier to build.

The recent Wake County Affordable Housing Plan documents the growing crisis of affordable housing in our area. It recommends that all municipalities in Wake County adopt ordinances to allow ADUs as an effective way to increase affordable housing without cost to taxpayers.

So why doesn’t Raleigh allow ADUs while other cities do? The Raleigh City Council has been debating ADUs since an ordinance allowing them city wide was struck from its Unified Development Ordinance in 2013. Following that, a group of residents petitioned the City Council and asked that their neighborhood be allowed to test a pilot program for ADUs. A draft ordinance was developed in 2017 but the Council has been unable to move forward.

The current ordinance, however, is flawed. It does include restrictions on size, height, and setbacks consistent with other cities. But, it also mandates that residents of each neighborhood must vote to approve ADUs within the boundaries of their neighborhood. More concerning is the fine line between being able to pick and choose the types of housing allowed in one’s community, and picking and choosing who gets to live there.

Granted, policy changes that may affect one’s home and neighborhood can often raise fears. ADUs are no exception. We have heard council members express concerns about privacy, traffic, parking, property values, and infrastructure loads. Because of legal precedents, North Carolina cities cannot require owner occupancy, raising fears of absentee landlords. Temporary rentals such as Airbnb are another concern. But studies by cities who have allowed ADUs for many years find no facts that support these fears, and often find high degrees of community acceptance. Planners in Charlotte, Asheville, and Durham report that they have not received any complaints about ADUs. Raleigh actually has existing ADUs in its older neighborhoods, allowed because they were built before they became illegal in the 1970s. Most residents don’t even know they are there.

The Raleigh City Council needs to approve an ordinance that allows ADUs throughout the city, just as our peer cities and major cities in North Carolina have. If we want to provide more housing choices for our residents, young and old, and create walkable neighborhoods that support transit, ADUs can help. It’s time for action on ADUs.

Thomas Barrie, AIA, is Professor of Architecture at NC State University. Tom Anhut is Chairman of the Triangle Community Coalition.