The Durham city council voted on Monday to adopt parts of the controversial Simplified Code for Affordable Housing (SCAD) text amendments by a vote of 4-3.

After four hours of deliberation, and comments from nearly 50 members of the community, the council chose to move forward with items from the SCAD proposal that were recommended by the Planning Department during its most recent analysis of the privately-initiated text amendments.

“The staff has done the work to identify the text amendments that there is already wide support around. I’m prepared to move on tonight and bracket out those things that are more controversial,” said Councilor Mark-Anthony Middleton at the meeting.

Middleton joined council members Leonardo Williams, Javiera Caballero, and Jillian Johnson in voting to adopt most of SCAD.

Items that were not recommended for adoption on Monday, such as the controversial PATH program (Progressing Affordably Toward Housing) which sets rental term limits for affordable housing, were excluded from the vote to give the Planning Department more time to review the items during the rewrite of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).

Items that stand out from the approved list of amendments include: eliminating parking minimums, allowing places of worship to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their property, creating provisions that support the “15-minute neighborhood” concept featured in the Comprehensive Plan, eliminating the site plan review process for construction of 10 or fewer townhomes and 20 or fewer ADUs, and introducing the “detached row house” housing type.

The amendments also make changes to a series of dimensions around buffers between structures, ADU sizes, lot sizes, driveways, and more.

Inside Durham City Council chambers on Monday, November 20 Credit: Photo by Justin Laidlaw

Members on both sides of the discussion raised concerns about how the choice of whether to adopt SCAD would impact the community. Proponents say that the city needs more infill housing and small commercial development within the city center to provide more affordable housing and prevent urban sprawl. 

Ryan Hurley, owner of downtown clothing boutique Vert & Vogue, said small businesses are struggling to afford rents in a high-priced commercial market and that this type of development would not only make rents more affordable but give small business owners the opportunity to own the property their businesses operate in.

“I am a huge proponent of allowing our small-scale local developers to build small-scale commercial buildings especially because the corporate developers will not do this,” said Hurley.

Opponents say the amendments, which were submitted to planning staff by local developers who stand to gain from the more flexible rules, are an erosion of the few safeguards that neighbors have against gentrification.

“We are last to learn, and last to be consulted,” said Donna Frederick, a former business owner and resident of the Bragtown neighborhood.

Topher Thomas, owner of Coram Houses, a local development firm that specializes in building ADUs for residents facing housing displacement, echoed a point that others shared throughout the evening: don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. (Thomas also made the case in favor of zoning reform in an INDY op-ed this week.)

“SCAD gives us the opportunity to change the status quo,” Thomas said. “Things have been going in a certain direction and this gives us, gives me, the opportunity to do more creative housing that I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”

At the August 21 city council meeting, a community task force was created at the behest of Jim Anthony, the applicant representing SCAD, to provide more detailed input about the issues that concerned opponents of the amendments. Planning staff said that over the course of three meetings held by the task force, only one change was made: increasing the affordable rental term in the PATH program from five years to fifteen years. The PATH program was ultimately left out when the council voted on Monday.

The Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to take up the SCAD amendments during its meeting on December 11.

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