As Durham’s planning staffers work on a slate of zoning changes designed to increase the city’s housing supply—and help mitigate the affordability crisis—they’re facing the same delicate balancing act that has bedeviled municipalities all over the country: trying to increase neighborhoods’ density without destroying their character; planning for future residents without alienating current ones; working toward the greater good while responding to individual reservations. 

The fragility of that balance was on display last week during the Durham Planning Commission’s public hearing on proposals known as the Expanding Housing Choices initiative. Of the thirty-three speakers, few would say whether they were for or against the EHC. Rather, they fell into two camps: one asking for more time so they could understand how the proposals would affect their neighborhoods, the other urging commissioners to reconsider a previous version of the initiative that sought to increase density more aggressively. 

In the end, the commission continued the hearing for sixty days, until its May 14 meeting. There, it could either delay a vote for another month or make a recommendation to pass along to the city council and county commissioners, who will have the final say. 

The original EHC proposals, released in November, would have allowed the owners of a typical parcel in the urban core’s most common zoning district to build up to seven housing units where one house sits today. 

Residents in the high-demand neighborhoods near downtown that planners were eyeing freaked out. They worried about accessory dwelling units towering over their backyards, additional traffic on their streets, and existing homes being replaced by new, more expensive units. They said they wanted evidence that the initiative would actually help Durham’s affordability problem, not make it worse. 

Over the next six months, planners tried to work with them without undermining the initiative’s goal—to allow more housing options for middle-income people as Durham grows. They crafted a new, more modest version of EHC, which was released just three weeks before the hearing. Among other things, it drops the maximum density for that typical lot down to three units.

Planning director Pat Young says the revised proposal represents an incremental approach, and planners can monitor the results: If it succeeds, they’ll ramp up; if not, they’ll scale back. 

Those who favor the original proposal, however, say this isn’t bold enough to change Durham’s housing landscape.

Durham needs to add about sixty-two thousand housing units by 2045 to keep up with population growth, which has outpaced construction for years. This shortage has led newcomers—who on average earn $10,000 more a year than Durham natives—to snap up housing that would have otherwise been affordable to others. 

The EHC initiative doesn’t aim to build affordable housing directly. Instead, the idea is to add to the city’s housing stock and give residents more options, as well as to reverse the dominance of single-family zoning near downtown, which was put in place in the sixties. 

It tries to make accessory dwelling units more attractive by capping their size at eight hundred square feet, rather than the existing limit of 30 percent of the size of the primary house. For people with small houses, this cap can make it impossible to recoup construction costs through rent. (The original version would have allowed ADUs to be built alongside duplexes, but that’s been scrapped.) The initiative would also permit duplexes to be built by right in 21 percent of the city, up from 10 percent now, and nearly everywhere in the urban core where single-family homes currently exist.  

“Single-family zoning is a cause of racial disparities, wealth disparities,” Young says. “It forecloses opportunities for different housing types that are more affordable and to create more mixed-income neighborhoods.”

The proposed changes won’t stop gentrification, and they might give developers an incentive to tear down existing homes, especially in transitioning neighborhoods, planners acknowledge. But the revised proposals lower the maximum development potential, Young says, which might keep developers’ bulldozers at bay. 

Still, planners can’t say for sure what’s going to happen when the new zoning rules go into effect, and it’s this kind of uncertainty that makes the EHC package a difficult sell. But as Young told commissioners last week, the only certainty is that doing nothing will lead to higher housing prices and more displacement.  

Young says the planning department is trying to address individuals’ concerns about what the added density would mean for their neighborhoods, and will spend the next several weeks answering questions and doing public outreach. Residents should have a say in how their neighborhoods look and feel, he says, but there are some zoning components that need to change for Durham to grow equitably. 

“We think there are some pieces of the urban form that are fundamental,” he says. “If you limit lots to having to have large lot frontages or large sizes, you’re really perpetuating the historical legacy of exclusion and segregation to only people who have very high wealth. Those are the kinds of things we think are fundamental to access and inclusion, and we should not allow neighborhoods to prohibit those. If we do, we are accelerating and suborning our legacy of exclusion.”

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets. 

One reply on “Durham’s Plan to Increase Density Pits Neighborhoods Against the Greater Good”

  1. It’s too bad when the debate becomes density vs character. Why not both?

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