As the war continues in Syria and another pauses in Gaza, a battle of different proportions rages in Raleigh's downtown neighborhoods: People are fighting over tiny houses.
Regulating tiny houses, also known as backyard cottages, may epitomize just how boring the business of Raleigh City Hall can be. Yet it's a piece of business that has led the civically engaged to verbally spar in public meetings and on neighborhood listservs.
For decades, the construction of detached backyard cottages has been banned throughout Raleigh. City staffers have suggested that the prohibition be lifted, which has led to predictions that it will kill neighborhoods.
"I really didn't think it was going to be such a big issue until I walked into this meeting," says Councilor Bonner Gaylord. He was sitting in his office after a Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting Nov. 21, during which people used such terminology as "death sentence," "monstrosity" and "slumlords."
Gaylord is on the side of backyard cottages. He describes what he believes is driving opponents' fears: "People envision these monstrous chicken coops in their backyards that hold recently released prisoners. I don't see that as what typically happens on the ground."
On the other side is Councilor Thomas Crowder, who believes backyard cottages will lead to urban blight in downtown neighborhoods and a return to the middle-class flight of the 1970s. "If lower, moderate-income neighborhoods lose their appeal, single families will move out of the city," he says.
Raleigh planners studied the backyard-cottage model of progressive cities such as Portland, Seattle and Santa Cruz to develop the current proposal. It would allow detached dwellings citywide as long as they are built to code. The city studied several downtown neighborhoods and found that only 57 percent of properties would have a lot large enough to add a detached dwelling.
Like the cities that were studied, Raleigh has long sought to increase downtown density and affordable housing options. Backyard cottages don't put a big dent in either of those goals, but they do represent a small tool in the urban planning toolbox. The dwellings are also referred to as granny flats, because many families build them for older relatives.
Opponents believe the doorway to slumlord kingdoms is left open by one particular provision: The proposal doesn't require the property owner to live in one of the two dwellings. There can be no such requirement because a recent court decision outlawed owner-occupancy regulations statewide.
Raleigh city planners say that in Portland, where owner occupancy is also not required, slumlords have not invaded or blighted neighborhoods.
"Not to my knowledge has that happened anywhere in the country," says city planner Ken Bowers. "It is a fear people have and it is not my place to say whether it's unreasonable, but no one else has said this is a problem."
Moreover, attached dwelling units, often connected by no more than a breezeway, are allowed in Raleigh and also don't require owner occupancy.
"If renters want to do what these fearful sounding folks are saying, I think they'd slap a structure on to their existing slum rental property," said Josh Whiton, founder of an urban farm in downtown Raleigh, at the recent committee meeting. "They could share a wall, share the plumbing and reap the rewards. I don't think this backyard cottage thing is quite their M.O."
Mary Belle Pate is a retired teacher who has been a community advocate in southwest Raleigh for more than 30 years. "As the old houses change hands, the semi-slumlords will jump in and buy them, because they are more affordable," she argued at the meeting. "If these come to my neighborhood, my neighborhood will no longer exist and be a very unpleasant place to live."
Crowder has created what he calls the "compromise" position. He wants to allow neighborhoods to "opt-in" to allow backyard cottages. The details of the opt-in—whether it would be for individual properties or neighborhood-wide, and whether it would be accomplished by petition—haven't been finalized. Pate and others strongly favor this approach.
But proponents of detached dwellings consider the opt-in a "death sentence," as Raleigh designer Nicole Alvarez called it at the meeting. She believes it would make the process so onerous that backyard cottages couldn't flourish.
Gaylord's compromise would increase design standards on backyard cottages to discourage slumlords. "But if we add the opt-in, we might as well not do it at all."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A big fight over tiny houses."