September 20, 2019 Elizabeth Ward

Durham Leads the Way for Housing Choice and Zoning Reform

The mayor of Durham acts on his promises and paves the way for city leadership.

“Zoning reform isn’t magical, but it’s crucial.” So said Mayor Steve Schewel of Durham, NC in a stirring speech given earlier this month before he voted to support Durham’s landmark zoning reform, Expanding Housing Choices (EHC). After a two-year long community process, the city has voted to approve updates to their Unified Development Ordinance that will enable more housing choices in their most walkable neighborhoods.

The EHC initiative is aimed at increasing housing diversity and affordability across the city, but most significantly in the city’s urban core – where infrastructure for density and walkability already exist. The mayor’s remark was aimed at opponents of the update, largely wealthy homeowners in the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, who have loudly voiced many classic NIMBY (not in my backyard) concerns: historic preservation, neighborhood character, parking and traffic, stormwater, tree loss, and Airbnb.. These concerns are valid and important issues, and were given much consideration by city staff; strategies to address these concerns are baked into the zoning updates.

What the mayor very admirably made clear is that none of these reasons should preclude changing antiquated and exclusionary zoning laws that prevent housing choices and exacerbate long-standing systemic inequities. The city is committed to closely monitoring results, but does not believe that the possible negatives of zoning reform outweigh the potential benefits. Zoning reform is not a silver bullet for all city problems. But reforming outdated zoning laws that are rooted in discrimination and exclusion is one way to help stymy growing affordability and displacement issues that so many cities around the country are experiencing, and to begin to address decades of legalized injustice.

The Amendment leads “Whereas, it is recognized that zoning has had a historical role in the perpetuation of economic exclusion and the disparity of outcomes for multiple generations of Durham residents…the UDO is hereby amended.”  It is a statement that is revolutionary, and probably unprecedented, for a city to proclaim. The Durham city council voted 6-1 to support these changes. We congratulate Durham and praise their city leadership for supporting inclusive policies and for providing inspiration and courage for the many other places around the country attempting similar endeavors. Cities that are serious about affordability will require bold and visionary leaders who aren’t afraid to stand up to those who stand in the way of progress and equity.

The EHC reform recognizes the trend of “buying down the ladder:” if housing does not exist at all price points and supply is limited, higher income buyers will purchase  “down the ladder,” leaving the fewest options for those with the lowest incomes. And when certain desirable neighborhoods lack housing options at middle income levels, those middle-income earners will buy in lower income neighborhoods, causing displacement and gentrification. EHC seeks to reverse these trends by allowing smaller lots, more housing types, and more flexibility with accessory units. The city is also thinking through logical next steps to bolster the reform, including an affordable housing bond, a simplified approvals process, and increasing access to finance.

Key components of the reform are summarized here, and some of our favorite updates are outlined below:

  • 2,000 SF Small Lot:
    • Minimum lot size amended to 2,000 SF
    • Allows a Single Family home or Duplex and an ADU
  • Narrow Pole Flag Lot:
    • Allows for subdividing larger lots into front and rear lots (the parent lot must maintain 35’)
    • Allows homeowners an option to sell part of their property to help finance their mortgage and creates smaller, more affordable lots
    • Allows a 1,200 SF maximum home and an ADU
  • Duplexes
    • Allowed in all residential categories, with same minimum lot size requirements as Single Family
  • Accessory Dwelling Units
    • Allowed in all residential categories, and on non-conforming lots by right

We were happy to be invited to Durham during this process to speak alongside Planning Director Patrick Young about Housing Choice. Our presentation can be found here.

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