On July 6,
the Raleigh City Council voted to update the city’s zoning code to allow the development of denser housing options, such as duplexes and apartments, where previously only single-family housing was allowed. 

The majority of council members say the change will encourage this much-needed missing middle housing—multi-unit, house-scale buildings in low-rise residential neighborhoods—and promote affordability in neighborhoods with few housing options. 

Councilmember David Cox, the sole dissenting vote against the change, disagreed. That night, in a blog post to community activist group Livable Raleigh, Cox vented his frustrations, characterizing the change as “the elimination of single-family zoning.” He called the ordinance a “trojan horse” that would “guarantee the sprawl of high priced density that will lead to more traffic congestion, gentrification, evictions, and loss of existing affordability.”

But the myth that the text change effectively bans single-family zoning is just that—a myth. 

“The word ‘ban’ implies that something is prohibited. Single-family housing is permitted everywhere and always has been,” says Ken Bowers, Raleigh’s city planner. “Has the city ‘banned’ retail zoning  because the districts that permit retail also permit other things?”

What the ordinance does, Bowers explained, is simply extend the options available in the majority of the city’s residential zones. Previously, you could build only attached housing types—duplexes, townhouses, or apartments—in two residential zones. 

Now only one district, R1, permits single-family to the exclusion of other housing types, and Bowers says that zone is very limited and surrounds watersheds with stricter development policies. The update will go into effect on August 3. Bowers says his department plans to track the impact over the next year and report back to the council. 

“This is definitely a change, the ordinance is changing the way the city is approaching single-family zoning, but it’s an evolution and it remains to be seen exactly what the market response is to this,” Bowers says. “The intent was incremental change over time.” 

Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin says the change will allow housing options throughout the city, mirroring many of Raleigh’s older neighborhoods, which were built before zoning laws became more restrictive. There, you can see duplexes and modest apartments alongside single-family homes. 

Opening the door to denser housing could also be the gateway to homeownership for many who cannot afford traditional single-family homes, Baldwin says.

“Before we approved [the ordinance] you could not build a townhouse in 80 percent of that city and that’s usually someone’s entry into homeownership,” Baldwin says. “Not everybody can afford a single-family home, but certainly we can reduce the cost of housing through townhomes, duplexes, whatnot—I want to be able to create those choices.”

For council member Nicole Stewart, who voted in favor of the ordinance, the move is just one of many things the council is doing to expand housing options and promote affordability throughout the city—including allowing accessory dwelling units by right and the passage of the affordable housing bond.

She characterized opposition to the change as “fear of the unknown.” Bucking change, however, won’t combat the city’s burgeoning affordability crisis.

“If we keep things the way we have them then the only people it stays affordable for are those who have them now, so things have to change. If we want sustainable and affordable housing, then we have to do things to get more of that,” Stewart told the INDY. “Keeping it the way it is isn’t going to solve anything.” 

During public comments on the change, former city council member Stef Mendell, one of the main figureheads behind Livable Raleigh, along with fellow ousted council member Russ Stephenson, was the first to speak against the change. 

“I just want to say one thing,” Mendell says. “Density does not equal affordable.”

David Knight, who beat Mendell in the 2019 District E race, says the change, with other initiatives the council has pursued, could create more affordable housing.

“What we’re trying to do is create more affordable housing opportunities in more parts of the city,” Knight says. “Denser housing can be more affordable housing. It not always will be, but it can be, and it goes along with the greater policies of trying to reduce sprawl as much as possible.” 

Livable Raleigh is also involved in an effort to recall Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin over concerns about the council meeting behind closed doors to discuss pushing back the election to 2022 due to pandemic-driven census delays. The legislature ultimately approved the council’s request, but the bill earned a rebuke from Governor Roy Cooper, who didn’t sign it into law. 

Cox said he has no statement regarding the recall effort. Stewart noted that recall attempts have happened to other Raleigh mayors, including Nancy McFarlane and Charles Meeker. 

“I don’t think this is anything new and exciting. I think this is just what happens when you have a democracy that’s working,” Stewart says. “Folks are allowed to express their opinions.”

Baldwin, who recalled the failed recall attempt against Meeker, which happened when she was first elected to the council a decade ago, says, “I’m taking all of this in stride.”

“Last week, we were named the No. 2 best place to live in the country,” Baldwin told the INDY. “Obviously, we’re doing something right.”

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Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to ltauss@indyweek.com.