Sprawl in Durham: Part Two - Expanding Housing Choices and Beyond

This post is part two of a two-part series on sprawl and housing affordability in Durham. If you missed part one on why sprawl is a problem, read it here first. Today, we will explore Durham's proposal to address sprawl and missing middle housing.

First, I wanted to say that it has officially been over a year since Building Bull City launched. Thanks to everyone who reads and participates! Now, on to the content.

As we saw in the last post, sprawl and low-density development have had some detrimental effects on cities across the country, including Durham. In part, it's what's responsible for the high housing prices. However, big wholesale changes are not politically feasible and may have other negative consequences including losing the identity of Durham. So, the city government has introduced an initiative called Expanding Housing Choices. Through this program, Durham hopes to make changes in the zoning code to allow for small increases in density in an effort to combat sprawl and ease the housing cost crisis that the city is facing.

Specifically, Durham wants to address "missing middle" housing. Durham has programs in place to address affordable housing and there are plenty of luxury condos and apartments being built in Durham (don't blame developers for this - it's the only type of housing that is feasible at a large scale right now in cities everywhere). That leaves out a BIG chunk of people in the middle. In the city's presentation, they have a graphic that captures this issue:

Durham recognizes the problem and now wants to change the rules to better serve the missing middle and housing affordability across the city. The proposal focuses on three types of housing:

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

A small apartment built above a garage
Homeowners who want to add another unit, either by converting part of their home or by building a detached cottage can already do so in Durham. However, the process is complicated, expensive, and difficult to get a loan to do. The city hopes to encourage more of these by increasing the maximum size to 800 square feet (previously it was capped at 30% of the primary dwelling), allowing ADUs to be built as additions to the primary house, and expanding he options for where the ADU can be built on the property. Unfortunately, Durham can't address the mortgage/financing issue, but they can make the permitting easier. I mentioned that ADUs are already legal in Durham, but not many have been built. If this plan is implemented, we will have to wait and see if it goes far enough to encourage ADUs.


If done right, duplexes can have great character as well.
Having two units on the same lot is a great way to double density. Durham wants to allow duplexes in a much larger area of Durham (currently, they are restricted to a small number of neighborhoods "by right", meaning without special permission). Also, there is currently a requirement that duplexes must be on a bigger plot of land than is required for single family homes. Durham wants to get rid of that restriction as well. Again, the big question is whether or not residents, builders, and investors will take advantage of this new option. Allowing it to happen is a good step, though.

Small Houses/Small House Communities

You would get to know your neighbors well in a "Cottage Court"
Durham, like many cities, requires a minimum house size. Under this proposal, tiny homes (under 400 sq ft) and homes that are not quite that small, but have a footprint under 800 sq ft would be allowed on lots that are as small as 12 feet across. In fact, if a lot is smaller than 20 feet across, owners could only build a small home (800 sq ft footprint or less). If lots are subdivided and small homes start popping up, Durham could really increase the density of homes. Meanwhile, Durham may also allow small or tiny home communities (they call these "Cottage Courts"). These are pocket neighborhoods that have shared parking and shared green space. Honestly, sounds like a fun community to be a part of!

There are other components of the Expanding Housing Choices Proposal. I encourage you to click through and look at the PDFs.

After reading through the proposal. I still had questions. These solutions are great, but what about small apartment complexes. Buildings with 8 to 20 units are a dying breed across the country. They used to be so common. There are creative developers like Center Studio Architecture that could potentially build a new generation of interesting, creative, and attractive missing middle housing. However, even with these changes, those apartment complexes would be restricted in the vast majority of neighborhoods in Durham.

I was able to talk to Scott Whiteman in the Durham Planning Department. We had a great conversation. We talked a lot about the challenges that developers have in financing missing middle housing. Those 8 to 20 unit buildings are difficult on the private side. The good news is that over the next three years, Durham will be working on a brand new Master Plan for the city. The last master plan was implemented in 2005, when growth was at about 1%, so there is a definite need for an updated plan.

The city plans to relax zoning around planned light rail stops. In other words, the growth that has been allowed to happen downtown, would be allowed in small pockets around the future light rail stops. They will also look to address missing middle housing even more in the next master plan. Unfortunately, Scott couldn't share any more details about the progress of the plan, but it is good to know that the Planning Department is working on solutions. In other parts of the country, cities have gotten rid of single family home zoning altogether. I'm not sure that is in the cards for Durham, but it should be a consideration.

Finally, Scott brought up another problem that the city hopes to address. There is a missing middle for businesses here in Durham as well. There is a serious lack of office space for businesses with 5 to 50 employees. This is a crucial issue. If the top companies that come out of American Underground don't have office space to move into as they grow, they will move away. Durham will lose out on those jobs and tax revenue. I will be looking for solutions to that problem in the next master plan as well!


  1. Great read! Durham is certainly not the only place experiencing the 'missing middle' and it seems like it'll be a very hard fight to win as long as that type of housing remains harder for builders to make money on than other projects.

    I wonder how such a large segment of the market can be chronically under-served and yet an enterprising developer not yet have come up with a solution. Why is it that the only feasible projects are single-family or luxury condos? It can't *only* be zoning, can it? Is it simply that the only actual profitable market for developers is the upper end? That explanation seems like it may fit. Construction on a new detached single-family house is quite expensive, as are the prices of these luxury condos (not compared to the mortgage on a new-build detached home, but in terms of renting). Maybe the luxury rentals, being less expensive than a mortgage, are so common because more and more people are being forced underneath the line of being able to afford that mortgage. Is there some new housing paradigm on the horizon? Inflation-adjusted wages have grown a bit in the past few years, but adjusted against the Consumer Price Index (cost of living) wages have actually remained flat despite other good indicators (good growth in GDP and stock value, and unemployment at ~3.9%), so I don't see the American middle class making a triumphant return anytime soon.

    Maybe these topics are a bit too macro-level for a local blog, but it's really started to feel like there is no (relatively) simple low-level solution just waiting for someone to pioneer, as these issues have been known, and getting worse, for decades. I hope these initiatives bear some fruit--I'm very interested to see the development along the light-rail stops in the future. Maybe Durham will also consider doing away with single-family zoning in large enough areas close enough to downtown to make a meaningful difference, though I imagine the people fortunate enough to currently live in relatively quiet neighborhoods relatively close to downtown would probably fight tooth-and-nail against a proposal like that.

  2. Thanks Mitch! Well said and incidentally, I have an upcoming post that I am working on where I come to a similar conclusion (that we are experiencing problems that don't currently have a solution, sadly).

    In terms of SOME positive thinking, I do wish in this post that while what the city is doing may not be enough, if a solution exists, it will probably consist of a BUNCH of small, incremental changes like this one. So, I am glad they are moving forward, but it is one piece of an immensely large puzzle.

  3. Good Article Dave and I generally agree with some of Mitch's conclusions.

    Though, I do think zoning is the main reason that we don't have duplexes and triplexes. From the street, those houses don't look any different from standard single family houses. And I can't imagine there is a significant cost different between building a 2,500 sq ft SFH and two 1,250 st duplexes, plus the price per square foot would probably be higher. Legalizing duplexes, at least, by right in as much of the city as possible would be a good start.

    1. Thanks Steven - absolutely a good start. I just wonder if the motivation is there. Basically, are the people who WOULD build a duplex or a granny unit the same people who could afford to do so in the first place?

      Even smaller investors typically buy existing inventory and spec builders don't want to cater to the relatively small investor market.

      Overall, I don't know for sure. There could be a boom of duplex development. If I were to guess, I would say that there would be some, but not an explosion of new housing of these types. But as you said, even some is a great first step!

    2. I think the immediate effects will be limited, but long-term, allowing to build duplexes by-right in the majority of the city would hopefully shift development patterns.

      The only way the market supports this activity is if the profit from one duplex (as in two units) is better than the profit from a SFH. I also wonder if many local developers have experience building duplexes and what role that plays. I think allowing smaller lots, removing parking minimums and allowing by-right development will be good, but the value still has to be there for the developers.

      Sometimes these incentives are good but don't do a lot. I know Boston tried a "density bonus" for developers but I don't think anyone has applied for it.


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