Durham County

Durham votes for urban density, but will more housing change the city’s neighborhoods?

Durham proposing higher density to ease housing concerns

Durham housing is in demand, especially downtown, and city leaders are considering opening up the zoning to allow much more of it. Some neighborhoods want housing density vote delayed to allow further study.
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Durham housing is in demand, especially downtown, and city leaders are considering opening up the zoning to allow much more of it. Some neighborhoods want housing density vote delayed to allow further study.

The City Council agreed Tuesday night to allow more, and more varied, housing in neighborhoods near downtown Durham.

The council approved the Expanded Housing Choices plan by a 6-1 vote after roughly 30 people spoke during a public hearing.

More than half of the speakers supported the changes, but some residents fear a building boom could drastically change the character and feel of their neighborhoods if older homes are replaced. The changes mostly affect Durham’s Urban Tier, generally within two miles of downtown.

Duke Street resident and Bike Durham board member Allison Shauger called on the council to support the changes.

“By allowing increased quiet density to be built, we hope to see more and a wider variety of people living within walking and biking distance of transit and jobs,” Shauger said. “If we wait for a perfect solution for every complex issue then we do nothing while the problem of affordability only gets worse.”

Susan Sewell spoke for the Tuscaloosa-Lakewood Neighbor Association, which opposed the amendments.

“We agree with Durham’s goals of equitable growth, affordable housing, increased density in the Urban Tier,” she said. “However, we doubt Expanded Housing Choices alone will lead to any growth toward these goals.”

Sewell suggested the council slow down until the changes could be implemented as part of a comprehensive plan.

“EHC provides no relief from the market forces that will continue to push large single-family homes,” she said. “Our growth would be at the expense of the most vulnerable people and some of our oldest neighborhoods.”

Affordable housing

The changes are the first steps the city is taking to overhaul Durham’s master plan, which last was amended in 2005.

They will allow duplexes, create a new small-lot option, and align duplexes and attached single-family housing with detached single-family standards. They also will increase opportunities for accessory dwelling units and modify residential infill standards, according to planners.

“This is a way to incrementally increase affordable housing in Durham,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “We had a great discussion. Durham has a robust democracy, which is one of the best things about our city. That’s what we had tonight.”

Councilwoman DeDreana Freeman cast the lone vote against the changes.

“I think that the folks in Durham are optimistic that this will work,” she said. “We need to be paying attention. We need to be very diligent. I know that the most vulnerable folks are the ones on a fixed income, but I don’t want developers to win at the expense of those folks.”

An estimated 160,000 additional residents are expected by 2045, requiring 2,000 new dwellings county-wide every year to keep up, according to a memo that planners sent to City Manager Tom Bonfield.

Some people disputed that estimate, and Schewel said Tuesday night that U.S. Census data from 2014-18 showed more than 23,000 people had moved to Durham, an increase of about 5,800 per year. If Durham continued to grow at that pace, it would add nearly 145,000 new residents during the next quarter century.

The Planning Department has worked on the changes for about 15 months, says Planning Director Patrick Young.

As part of a year-long project focused on the issue of gentrification in Durham, the Herald-Sun newsroom brought together a community advisory panel. The panel met for the first time at the Herald-Sun office on Tuesday, August 28, 2018.

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.