Opinion

Limits on ‘granny flats’ are discriminatory

A small cottage behind the home of Robin Abrams and her husband Simon Atkinson on Forest Road in Raleigh. Current law makes it difficult for most homeowners to gain approval for such backyard structures known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or “granny flats.”
A small cottage behind the home of Robin Abrams and her husband Simon Atkinson on Forest Road in Raleigh. Current law makes it difficult for most homeowners to gain approval for such backyard structures known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or “granny flats.” 2015 News & Observer file photo

One year ago this newspaper published an op-ed regarding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) that my friend and colleague, the acclaimed architect Phil Freelon, co-wrote with me. Sadly, we lost Phil to a long struggle with ALS this past July, and I now write this follow-up alone, but with confidence that he would support it.

At the time of that writing Raleigh City Council was considering revising the Raleigh zoning code to require that homeowners create a specially designated zoning overlay district in order to build an ADU on their property. We objected to this requirement as it would be onerous and place a heavy burden on homeowners who want to build an ADU, also known as a “granny flat.” The creation of an overlay district is a daunting, time-consuming undertaking for individuals, especially just to build a modest structure in their back yard.

We objected even more strongly that this ordinance would allow neighborhoods to opt out of a significant element of a needed housing affordability and housing choice policy. We believed that creating these policies is the city’s responsibility, and that they must be applied evenly across all neighborhoods if they are to be effective and equitable.

Since that writing, council did in fact adopt these new rules, with only Mayor Nancy McFarlane, and councilors Nicole Stewart and Corey Branch voting in opposition. In our writing, in the spirit of being conciliatory, we refrained from saying that the overlay requirement would be discriminatory, but now it must be said: This ordinance perpetuates a pattern prevalent in North American cities over the past century, where land use policies, zoning ordinances, protective covenants and other measures were intentionally used to segregate neighborhoods, with widespread and enduring effects that persist to the present day.

This ordinance also effectively perpetuates the ban on ADUs in effect in Raleigh since the 1970s. As of this writing not a single application has been submitted to the city to create one of these overlay districts, and it is likely that few, if any, will ever be created.

Are ADUs the solution to our growing housing affordability problem? No, but they are part of the solution, and an easy and cost-free one for the city to adopt. Are they really that big of a deal? Maybe not, but this issue is symbolic of a council that struggled to craft practical and effective strategies to address issues such as this, and instead at times chose politically expedient policies that accomplished little, if anything meaningful.

Very soon we will seat Mayor-elect Mary-Ann Baldwin and a newly formed council; they should place a high priority on taking up this matter once again, removing the overlay requirement, and creating a simplified ordinance that allows ADUs to be built in all residential districts, city-wide, by right, as they once were and must be again. Phil would have wished for nothing less.

Michael Stevenson of Raleigh is an architect with the design firm Perkins+Will.
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