Average newcomers to Durham bring with them $10,000 more a year in income than average Bull City residents. With the construction of new housing falling short of population growth since 2010, the effect is a competitive real estate market in which wealthier newcomers drive up prices and buy below their means, snapping up inventory that would have been affordable to others.
"You have to be fast and rich because even rich people can't buy a house in Durham right now," says Durham city council member Jillian Johnson.
City-county planning staffers are trying to stem that tide by proposing regulatory changes to encourage the development of so-called missing-middle housing—everything in between single-family homes and large apartment complexes. Senior planner Hannah Jacobson laid out phase one of the Expanding Housing Choices project for the city council last week.
To accommodate the approximately 160,000 people expected to move to Durham by 2045, the county needs to add about two thousand units per year to its housing stock, per Jacobson's presentation.
Right now, options are mostly limited to single-family homes, which make up about 58 percent of Durham's housing stock. While single-family homes can be built by right in 77 percent of the county—meaning they don't require special approval from local governments—missing-middle housing, such as duplexes, mother-in-law suites, and cottage courts that share a common outdoor space, can only be built without such approval in about 8 percent of the county.
Planning staffers hope that by relaxing regulations on lot size, where certain types of housing can be built, and how that housing can look, developers (and even homeowners) will start to fill the gap with missing-middle housing, giving buyers more options and adding density to existing neighborhoods without changing their character.
"We look at all of the data we've seen so far, it feels like the answer to the housing shortage is to build more, build more, build more," Jacobson told the council. "And I think that's true at a citywide level and a regional level—that we need more housing supply. But if you zoom into the neighborhood level, the block level, development has felt like more of the problem and not the answer because it has led to increased gentrification."
You don't need to look twenty-seven years into the future to see Durham's housing shortage play out.
Already about 120,000 people commute here every day from places like Johnston, Chatham, and Alamance counties, many because they can't afford to live in the city where they work or find the type of housing they want here. The amount of developable land left is limited, and increasing density in existing neighborhoods by building taller—while encouraged for areas close to mass transit—tends to draw intense opposition from residents who say it's not a good fit.
There are fewer homes on the market in Durham, and they're selling faster and for higher prices; the median sale price has gone from $168,000 to $258,000 in the past five years, according to real estate website Redfin. While there is more rental inventory, rents have also increased.
While missing-middle housing is more affordable than your standard single-family house, it won't be affordable for everyone. But officials hope that it could stave off gentrification anyway.
As council member Charlie Reece explained at last week's meeting: "The rationale for this project, in my view, is not necessarily that this puts a dent in affordability ... but that we build places for people to move into Durham and live in that are not currently bought by low-income folks."
To that end, planning staffers have proposed six concepts.
One is to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units, also called mother-in-law suites or granny flats, behind existing homes. Right now, ADUs are capped in size at 30 percent of the primary dwelling on a lot. They also must conform to height limits and setback requirements. As such, just seventy-two ADUs have been permitted in Durham since they were allowed in 2006, according to the planning department.
Planners want to increase ADUs' size limit while also reducing the height cap so that the units are less obtrusive. Jacobson said the department is also working to streamline the ADU process and connect homeowners with loans to build them.
Another proposal would allow duplexes in more parts of the county; currently, you can only build them in about 3 percent of Durham County, according to the planning department. In eleven years, only twenty-two duplexes have been permitted.
To reduce land costs, staffers also want to revisit requirements for how big a lot must be in order to build a single-family home on it, although they acknowledge this could lead developers to tear down existing homes so that they can subdivide properties. A similar proposal creates a new category of homes with smaller lot-size requirements. The small-house-small-lot type would include homes smaller than eight hundred square feet but bigger than tiny homes, considered to be under four hundred square feet. Another proposal creates a category for cottage courts, or clusters of small cottages around a central outdoor area.
The last concept is to rewrite standards for "infilling" certain vacant lots so that new homes are in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood—for example, by imposing height limits or requiring a tree canopy, as the city council recently did with the neighborhood protection overlay in Old West Durham.
"This is not the answer to affordable housing," Jacobson told the council. "We believe that these interventions need to be done as part of a wider strategy for affordability and that they need to be paired with preservation strategies and continued development in support of subsidized housing units that specifically try to protect vulnerable neighborhoods and households. However, I think if nothing is done to accommodate the additional growth, the current problems that we're experiencing will only continue and likely worsen."