Call them backyard cottages, granny flats, or detached unitssmall, livable additions on the same lot as a first house, but unconnected. They’ve existed in some form or another in North Carolina since colonial times and were widespread by the 1800s. In zoning jargon, they’re known as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. Some Raleigh residents have been lobbying the city since at least 2011 to allow themfor themselves, for renters, or for family members in need of a place to live.
“We’ve gotten questions from people who are interested in building them,” says Charles Dillard, of Raleigh’s long-range planning division. “They’ll say, ‘My mother lives alone and is in her eighties. We want to see if we can build an ADU so she could live with us, but not in the same house.” There’s also room in ADU World for millennials, Dillard adds: “There are millennial children who can’t find jobs, or can find jobs but can’t afford their own dwelling.”
Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro, Asheville, and several other cities across the state and nation have long allowed backyard cottages. In Portland, Oregon, nearly 11 percent of all residential permits between 2009 and 2015 were for ADUs. In California, the legislature passed a law this year requiring cities to allow backyard cottages.
Raleigh is an outlier. And some people want to keep it that way.
Opponents say the units could crowd older neighborhoods and streets, leading to raucous renters, light pollution, and the loss of privacy. Though it’s difficult to put a number on it, some Raleigh houses have ADUs that are grandfathered in because they were built before the city banned the dwellings in the 1970s. The council is said to have passed that ban out of fear of boisterous tenantsincluding college students.
The issue last came before the city council four years ago. Opponents argued thensuccessfullymore about the specifics than the overall concept: the city’s proposal would allow too many people to cram into the cottages, wouldn’t ensure construction quality, and had setbacks that allowed the buildings to be too close to other residences. Neighbors also wanted to make sure the design of the new cottages aligned with nearby houses.
Last month, Wake County approved a plan designed to slow the annual loss of nine hundred affordable units to live and to help meet the estimated demand of thirty-seven hundred units. The county’s proposal says the introduction of backyard cottages across Wake could result in as many as five hundred new units a year. To boost affordable housing, the county says it wants to “encourage municipalities to change zoning to enable the construction of ADUs … in single-family or low-density neighborhoods.”
For that to happen, the Raleigh City Council would have to change the city’s unified development ordinance. Previous efforts to do so in 2011 in 2013 have gone nowhere. (In 2013, only city council member Bonner Gaylord voted for the change; last month, he lost his reelection bid.) Given council approval, residents would have to set up a district, or overlay, of at least fifteen acres and garner the support of a majority of residents.
“My concern is that I’m the one who’s going to have to go around and collect signatures,” says Philip Bernard, a member of the Mordecai Citizens Advisory Council. “As for me personally, I think there is a plethora of possible uses for it.”
ADUs’ relevance to affordability goes beyond simply building an affordable rental unit. Empty-nesters could live in a cottage on their own lot while renting out their former primary residence, Bernard points out, thus generating an additional source of retirement income.
Backyard cottages can cost from $50,000 on up and range from about five hundred to eight hundred square feet, according to Dillard. (They are not tiny houses, which are more typically about 250 square feet.) For proponents, they’re a means of increasing urban density and offsetting the fact that Raleigh, especially close to downtown, is running out of land for new development. Indeed, the success of Raleigh and Wake County’s long-planned mass transit program will rely on more transplants moving into dense urban areas.
The city’s latest proposal calls for ADUs to include a living room, sleeping area, kitchen, and bathroom, and a lockable entrance door; no more than one ADU per lot; and no more than two unrelated people per lot, among other restrictions. In July, the council held a public hearing and then parked the ordinance in its growth and natural resources committee, where it sits today.
Council member Kay Crowder, who chairs that committee, says members will eventually give the ordinance a hearing, but only after they discuss ordinances that affect projects set for construction in the near term.
“I’m not totally convinced that that’s an affordable housing piece,” she says. “Affordable housing is very complex, and there are a lot of elements that make it up. That’s not to say that in a complete comprehensive plan, ADUs couldn’t be part of the solution.”
The Mordecai neighborhood north of downtown Raleigh has become a testing ground for opinions on expanded cottages. If the city alters the UDO this year, Mordecai would likely become the first neighborhood to designate an overlay, or an area in which residents could vote on the units.
Mordecai Drive resident Sarah Roholt was part of a group of neighbors who worked with N.C. State design students and others to wrestle with questions of size, function, and design after the council rejected ADUs in 2013.
“I do support ADUs and the proposed ADU overlay,” Roholt told the council in July. “I think more restrictions need to be put on ADUs.”
She asked that the city limit ADUs to one story, impose restrictions on lighting, top out square footage at six hundred square feet, and include landscaping requirements. Those things aren’t currently included in the latest iteration of the ordinance. Neither is parking: backyard cottages would not be required to include a parking spot. Residents could park on the street and walk to their houses.
Whereas Roholt wants the city to keep a tight leash on ADUs, Stuart Cullinan, a Raleigh builder who lives on Heck Street near Oakwood Cemetery, thinks those rules could prevent people from building them altogether.
“I have two parents in their seventies. and thinking about senior care and aging in place are high things that are important to me,” Cullinan says. “I think as written [the ordinance] has taken a lot concerns into account. I’m concerned that it gets so overburdened with exceptions and rules [that] it winds up not being a viable choice for different folks.”
Tom Barrie, a professor of architecture at N.C. State, was also a member of the Mordecai project. He also favors the ordinance but says he understands “why we have ended up with somewhat divergent opinions regarding the ordinance.”
Barrie points out that the city’s planning commission passed the proposal unanimously, and 75 percent of 176 Mordecai residents surveyed liked the idea. In addition, he says, Raleigh’s ADU measure would align with other cities’ guidelines in terms of height limitations and the absence of landscaping requirements.
Six years after the first introduction of a backyard cottage measure to Raleigh City Council, there’s yet another potential snag. In Mordecai, at least, some residents want to be able to customize requirements instead of using one-size-fits-all guidelines.
“Mordecai may or may not decide to request this, and I would hope that they would be able to request changes that reflect the special conditions of their neighborhood,” Barrie says. “There is measurable evidence that ADUs work.”