Backyard cottages a simple step to aid affordable housing in Raleigh

An example of a backyard cottage in Cameron Park in Raleigh
An example of a backyard cottage in Cameron Park in Raleigh COURTESY OF MICHAEL STEVENSON

As property values and rents continue to rise in Raleigh and surrounding markets along with construction costs and fees, housing affordability is a growing concern in our community and especially for those on the lower end of the income spectrum.

Raleigh City Council members Corey Branch and Mary-Ann Baldwin have proposed looking at a dedicated revenue stream from property tax increases to support affordable housing initiatives. Mayor Nancy McFarlane has called for developers to shoulder more of the load and for private businesses to propose creative ideas to address this issue.

As design and real estate professionals and a former planning commissioner who are also Raleigh residents, we propose an idea that is by no means new for Raleigh but is a well-established practice that should be revived as one part of the solution. It would add to the affordable housing stock, help students and lower-income residents find housing close to where they work or study, and help elderly residents afford to remain in their homes after retirement and age in place. Best of all, it would not add a single dollar to the city’s budget. In fact, it would increase the city’s revenues and collections of property taxes, fees for water, sewer and other city services.

This idea is embedded in Raleigh’s history and can be seen in many of its older and very desirable neighborhoods such as Boylan Heights, Cameron Park, Mordecai and Oakwood where the residents have benefited from it since those neighborhoods were first established. This idea is not a new housing or design innovation but an old approach to providing affordable housing options in established neighborhoods.

Backyard cottages – also known as garage apartments or granny flats – were on the way to becoming part of Raleigh’s zoning code in 2014. A provision was included in the Planning Commission’s final draft of the UDO in 2014, but it was subsequently stricken by the Raleigh City Council. A significant influence in its deletion was a small but vocal minority of neighborhood representatives who raised concerns about the potential negative effects such structures might have on their neighborhoods.

Experience and history have shown, however, that the benefits of this housing option far outweigh the potential negative effects and suggest that these fears were greatly exaggerated. Further, changing demographics as well as the changing nature of our economy locally demand the kind of housing options that backyard cottages provide.

As the discussion around housing affordability evolves, this simple idea should be put back on the table, and the City Council should seriously reconsider amending the UDO to again include backyard cottages as an option for property owners building new or renovating existing homes. To be clear, this will not solve our affordable housing crisis, but it is an easy and doable step in the right direction that could be implemented immediately with no negative effect to the city’s budget. It is environmentally and fiscally responsible, and it’s responsive to the city’s changing population and workforce dynamics.

In a city that loves its neighborhoods and wants to stay connected to its past, Raleigh’s leaders should take a page from our history and recognize the valuable contribution that backyard cottages have made, and must once again make, in helping Raleigh to be a great and affordable place to live, work and play.

Michael Stevenson is an architect and J.B. Buxton is a former member of the planning commission in Raleigh. Jim Anthony, CEO of Colliers International, also contributed.