Density in Durham and Keeping Housing Prices Reasonable

Recently, the Durham City Council approved the Compact Neighborhood Tier Affordable Housing Bonuses. So, what does that mean?

Basically, this means that developers who include at least 15% of their units as affordable (and meet a few other requirements) can build taller buildings with more units in a given space. In addition, they don't have to build city-mandated parking for their project. This is referred to as increased density.

The reason for this new policy starts with the fact that the state of North Carolina doesn't allow Durham much freedom when it comes to affordable housing policy. Durham isn't allowed to require developers to include affordable housing...ever. As a result, this is a pretty clever way of getting around state laws and incentivizing more affordable housing.

I recently read a great article on a site called Urbanophile that discussed density and it lead me to a hypothesis about Durham.

The Lofts at Southside, a building with a large number of affordable housing units.

More Density

Why focus only on density incentives for just one area of Durham? It might make even more sense to loosen the restrictions on density across the board. Imagine if developers were allowed to put more units in a given space and use land that normally would be reserved for parking to build even more units.

This would obviously means that more units could fit downtown. If there is a higher supply of housing, we could avoid the housing prices skyrocketing at such a crazy pace. There would be enough downtown apartments that fewer people would be fighting over each one, driving the price up.

In addition, Durham's tax revenue goes up, not because the city is attracting the wealthy elite and pricing everyone else out, but because more people can live within the city limits and that means more people paying taxes.

This isn't a new idea. It's not even new to Durham. YIMBY groups like YIMBY! Durham have been advocates for building more housing.

This all sounds great! Why aren't we doing this?

The Fear

Residents have reservations, of course. Developers are often labeled as the bad guy and can indeed overlook the aesthetic, identity, and soul of a community in order to make a buck. People are scared of packing in too many McRental* buildings that might take over the personality of Durham. Personally, I don't think allowing more density puts the city at greater risk. We should absolutely be looking at keeping historic buildings and making sure developers' projects fit the identity of Durham, but we should be doing that regardless of how many units per acre there are.

Durhamites might be afraid of what a growing city means for traffic patterns and parking. If these developers aren't required to have parking and are packing in a ton of new residents into a relatively small space, won't that cause driving and parking nightmares?

The answer to this may be yes. However, developers are interested in making money. If parking is important for their project to thrive, they will include parking. They just won't include too much parking. All it takes is a trip to Lakewood Shopping Center to understand that too much parking can create big, empty, ugly spaces (to be fair, I don't know if policy played any role in the creation of this parking lot, but it is easy to see that at least currently, there are far too many spots for the retail here).

Two views of the Lakewood Shopping Center parking lot, taken in the middle of the day on a weekend.

Good News: The Scrap Exchange is planning on reclaiming part of the north parking lot at the Lakewood Shopping Center and using it as park space, green space, and other community-enhancing space.

As for driving, especially in the downtown area, we have already talked about making the city more bike-friendly and walking-friendly. Slowing down vehicular traffic in favor of those other forms of transportation might improve the quality of life downtown even more. It might also encourage more people to take public transportation.

What About Affordable Housing?

Finally, back to affordable housing. By increasing caps on density, we can keep housing prices from skyrocketing, but that still doesn't help those who need low-income housing. If we raised density caps across the board and then raised caps for developers who include affordable housing even more, could that be the solution?

I imagine people who read this post will have strong opinions and I am certainly open to hearing them. Post your reaction down below and we can have a discussion!

*McRental is not a common term. I came up with it to describe rental buildings that look like they could exist in any city across the united states. This term is based off of the term for large cookie-cutter houses: McMansions.

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