In 2019 and 2020, while working as a high school teacher, I built an ADU in my backyard. An ADU is an accessory dwelling unit—a backyard small home. Some neighbors who were being displaced moved in, and that ADU has been a home to housing insecure folks for three years now.
But there were some deep wounds inflicted during that homebuilding exercise.
My family and I live in the West End of Durham. On our street, the houses are close. Neighbors can see the ADU.
While my fledgling homebuilder efforts were mostly well-received in the community, one neighbor hated it. She hated that she had to look at a small house in my backyard, from her backyard.
I bought her a tree and planted it for her in hopes of peace, but peace was not to come.
She was an older woman and had been in her West End home for eight years. She planted herself a beautiful garden, complete with fence art and statues of Catholic saints. She was used to sitting on her back porch and seeing plants, birds, squirrels, and art—not a tiny home, and not people.
Change is hard. It was hard for her. It was hard for my family. We were a teacher and birth doula with two young daughters, a combined income of $50K, which is more than some, trying to make ends meet, now encumbered by animosity from an angry neighbor.
From 2020 to 2022, she exercised that animosity in a number of ways.
As I was standing in the road teaching my daughters to bike—helping, pushing, guiding them—two cop cars came down my street and stopped at our home. I think that’s scary for anyone—but America’s long history of criminalizing the Black body meant I was terrified.
The officer said, “We received a call that someone was out blocking traffic?”
I said, “I’m sorry, sir. I was just having a little bike lesson with my daughters. We move whenever a car is coming.”
The cop laughs. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. Have fun with your girls,” and they drove off. As I turned my body, I saw my neighbor quickly shutting the blinds.
I often wonder what she hoped the outcome of that interaction was for me.
Our neighbor moved to Montana at the end of 2022. Her nearest neighbor is no longer visible. And I hope, with all my heart, that she’s at peace.
Peace is central to my mission. Particularly, peace across division. This sort of peace is the most difficult kind. There is a small vocal minority in Durham who fear the coming change and want to prevent it. This isn’t new. James Madison wrote in the Federalist papers, “[Land laws] should protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”
The hard truth is that it’s not easy to live together.
It’s not easy to live with ourselves. We all want to believe that we’re right, when truly, we’re all wounded. And we don’t even know why and know even less of what’s right.
There is so much I don’t know.
What I know is I built an ADU to look outside of my own comfort zone. I built it to better my family’s economic reality. I built it to share something with the neighborhood and with my neighbors, because much has been and continues to be shared with me.
I also know this act pushed a neighbor away. It took her peace.
There’s been much said about SCAD (Simplifying Code for Affordable Development) over the many months since its submission. Task forces, public engagement, private meetings, city council meetings, and much more. It truly makes me tired.
It is not lost on me that SCAD is an effort led largely by developers who stand to profit from these amendments. Not only that, the community engagement was done in ways that broke trust and instilled doubt. It’s also not lost on me, as the founder of a hopeful equitable housing company, that these changes could help me become successful and better pay my bills and my team. SCAD enables me to build more creative and equitable housing.
This is real bias and it ought to be acknowledged. I don’t want to stand on some moral high ground and pretend to be without bias.
The question I ask, though, is who does SCAD protect? Who does it help? Who does it open the door for? It doesn’t center the building, or builder, of million dollar condos and high rise luxury apartments. Those will get built either way.
It centers on the local developer, your neighbor, who wants to build smaller and denser in hopes of offering more affordable options.
I want to be clear: It won’t solve affordable housing, nor will it reverse the racial wealth gap. But it will be a small step in that direction.
Imagine a lot that has a 100-year-old mold infested house on it. SCAD would enable my neighbors and I to put four homes on that lot. We could sell each for under $150K, and there are no new energy efficient, health conscious homes in Durham for anywhere near that price.
My imagination has a church in mind, interested in creating low-income housing on their church property. Without SCAD, they can only build a couple homes for a very limited group. SCAD would enable us to build a 10-unit supportive housing community. And do so for thousands of dollars less in development costs that translate into monthly savings for the community stakeholders who would live there.
With both examples, we could do well financially while also doing good for folks needing housing.
That sort of incremental building is part of the counterweight to large corporate development that many in Durham dislike. Oversized apartments, suburban sprawl, gentrification, and displacement—that’s the status quo. SCAD does not end it, but lessens barriers for more creative housing.
SCAD creates more opportunities for community-built housing to happen. It is that simple.
It is also immensely complex.
SCAD is not some radical amendment that will change Durham, because only Durham can change Durham.
Only you, and me, and us, the community stakeholders, can build a Durham that is more inclusive, affordable, and loving—no code can do that. Only we can.
Community stakeholders—the teachers, community organizers, service workers, entrepreneurs, artists, day laborers—we are the conscious, thoughtful developers Durham needs. We desperately need more of us.
We need to understand how cities develop, who’s building what, and recognize that our voices and imaginations create the world. As I write this, looking out a window at my neighborhood, I see this place that was a creation of many someone’s shared imaginations. While I don’t know you, I know we share this city, we share humanity, we share a desire for a beautiful, loving Durham, and we can create it. It is up to us to create it.
We can do a lot of good with SCAD, we can create affordable housing opportunities and wealth-building opportunities that don’t currently exist today, and can’t exist with current code.
However, zoning reform is just one step. SCAD alone cannot create these opportunities I mentioned, but we the community stakeholders can. And we will.
Topher Thomas is the founder of Coram Houses.
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