The Durham Planning Commission delayed a vote Tuesday night on a slate of changes to the zoning code intended to encourage more types of housing in Durham.

Planning commissioners voted unanimously to continue a public hearing on the Expanding Housing Choices initiative—as the proposals are known—until their May 14 meeting after none of three dozen people who showed up to speak expressed support for moving forward now. Speakers either asked for more time to unpack the impact of the proposed zoning changes or urged the commission to reconsider a previous version of the proposals that sought to increase density more aggressively in Durham.

Broadly speaking, Expanding Housing Choices seeks to allow more so-called “missing middle” housing—e.g., duplexes, triplexes, and accessory dwelling units—in zoning districts that have historically been dominated by single-family housing since the 1960s. While the changes wouldn’t result in much affordable housing being built (because all of the construction would be brand new), the idea is to provide more options for the dozens of people moving to Durham each week and alleviate competition for existing affordable units.

Currently, single-family homes comprise about 58 percent of Durham’s housing stock and can be built by right—meaning they don’t require special approval from local governments—in 77 percent of the county. Missing-middle housing, on the other hand, can only be built without such approval in about 8 percent of the county, according to the planning department.

The proposals come in response to a housing shortage in Durham, and the pressures wealthier newcomers are placing on the market.

Since 2010, population growth has outpaced construction of new housing units in Durham, and with 160,000 people expected to move here by 2045, planning staffers say Durham needs to add about 2,000 units per year to its housing stock to keep up. A housing shortage means a more competitive market, which means housing prices will keep rising.

What’s more, the average newcomer to Durham has a higher income than the average existing Durham resident. Because of the housing shortage, those people are “buying down the ladder” and snapping up homes that would be affordable to others of lower means.

After hearing from neighborhoods that would be affected by the zoning changes—including Trinity Park, Watts-Hillandale, and Tuscaloosa-Lakewood—planning staffers scaled back the proposals. The revised text was released on February 25, causing residents to ask for more time to understand their impact. Planning director Pat Young said the recent proposals would, on average, allow one to two more units per lot than currently permitted, and three to four if developers commit to including affordable housing.

While the original proposal allowed ADUs to be built in more zoning districts, the new version prohibits them alongside duplexes and on small lots less than two thousand square feet. The original version created a new “small house/small lot” housing type for lots of that size. The recent version restructures that as a bonus that developers can use to reduce maximum lot-size requirements. The new proposal also introduces a building-coverage cap that says no more than 40 percent of a lot can be covered by a building’s footprint.

Young said the new proposals represented an incremental approach that could be monitored before being expanded, or rolled back if it didn’t have the desired effect. He proposed tracking the results of the proposals over a year and then reassessing. Young said planning staffers were trying to strike a balance between increasing density in Durham and not destroying the character of existing residential neighborhoods. The thirty-three public hearing speakers largely split along those lines—although they weren’t squarely for or against the proposals.

Residents who said they preferred the old version said the new proposals would not make an appreciable difference in the housing landscape in Durham and might actually restrict some housing—like ADUs—even further. They said people of color and low-income people, who have been harmed the most by segregative zoning codes dominated by single-family housing, were noticeably absent from the conversation.

“This is what NIMBYism looks like,” said Durham architect Scott Harmon.

Others asked for more time to consider how the new proposals would play out in their own neighborhoods, and said they wanted more evidence the proposals wouldn’t spur additional gentrification by providing developers with incentives to tear down existing, more affordable homes and replace them with more, costlier units.

Young said that’s hard to guarantee—there’s no way to predict how the market would respond to the changes. The only certainty, he said, is that housing prices and displacement will increase if nothing changes.

Planning staffers acknowledge that the proposals wouldn’t stop gentrification or solve Durham’s affordable housing crisis, but they say those issues will worsen without a different approach to zoning than current rules that favor single-family homes and have regulated other types nearly out of existence. As literature pulled together by the planning staffers suggests, racial prejudice played a role in this history.

Some residents who favored a delay said they worried about ADUs towering over their own backyards or being rented out as Airbnbs rather than adding to the city’s housing stock, that the increased density would increase traffic and strain resources, and that the housing types created under the plan—like duplexes—would, in their view, bring more renters into their neighborhoods. Several speakers and commission members suggested that plans promote density countywide.

Young said the proposals, as currently written, would have a “modest” impact on traffic. He said planning staffers also worked across departments to incorporate provisions that would limit strain on stormwater infrastructure. The changes focus on the city’s urban and suburban tiers because that’s where the most demand for housing is and where housing prices have gone up the most. Further, much of the land outside those tiers has been developed with restrictive covenants that preempt changes like those being proposed, Young said, and pushing residents toward the county boundaries means they’d be farther from transit and downtown services.

Planning staffers have been working for a year on the proposed changes and held thirty-six meetings and events, solicited fifteen hundred survey replies, and exchanged six hundred emails. Commissioners said, however, that their outreach missed low-income communities that would be most affected if the proposals backfired and drove up housing costs. 

The crowd at Tuesday’s meeting was almost entirely white.

The planning commission is an advisory body that makes recommendations; the Durham City Council and county Board of County Commissioners will have the final say on the proposals.

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