New Councilor Faces First Test in Commitment to Affordable Housing

By Brent Woodcox

Stef Mendell, elected to her first Raleigh City Council in October, won't have much time to get comfortable before facing her first big challenge to accessibility to affordable housing in District E.

For years, residents of Raleigh’s older neighborhoods have gotten McMansion shock when small houses were scraped off to be replaced by towering edifices.

Now, residents of a North Hills neighborhood want the city to do something about it by requiring larger lot sizes and wider frontages for new homes. On Tuesday, City Council members set a February 6 public hearing on the change. City planners say it would preserve the area’s look and feel, but could drive up housing costs.

”I am new to the neighborhood. I want to preserve what we have,” said a speaker quoted in minutes of the Nov. 27 Midtown CAC meeting. “I love to walk on the street and look at the trees. We need to keep it.”

Members of the neighborhood group voted thirty-nine to six in favor of the North Hills neighborhood conservation overlay district, or NCOD. Northbrook Drive, Tyrell Road, Yadkin Drive, I-440, Lassiter Mill Road, and Gates Street form the borders to an affected area of about 175 acres.

Under the plan, technically a text change to city ordinance, minimum lot size would rise to roughly three per acre instead of the four allowed by the current R-4 zoning. Minimum width of lots would rise from 65 to 90 feet, and from 80 to 110 feet for a corner lot.

”Tear-downs would be discouraged by the request because proposed standards reduce the ability to further subdivide existing lots,” city planners say in information presented to council. ...

It might seem odd to make an entire neighborhood less dense, and likely more expensive, at a time when city and county leaders are emphasizing affordable housing and increased density to support mass transit.

”The current development pattern is not especially transit-supportive, and the request would decrease potential ridership on nearby transit routes,” planners said in their analysis.

In addition, the planning department’s presentation said, the move to push out infill would increase development on “greenfield” sites or rural, undeveloped land. And the increased lot size could “have the impact of inducing construction of larger, more expensive homes that are less accessible to residents with a mix of incomes. ...”
— Thomas Goldsmith - Indy Week

As almost all candidates for city council did during their fall campaigns last year, Ms. Mendell touted her commitment to creating more access to affordable housing as one of her top priorities if elected to a term on city council. Now she'll have the chance to prove it.

Additional land use regulations and more zoning restrictions have repeatedly been shown by research to dampen the supply of affordable housing and make it harder for families who are at middle to lower income levels to find access to housing in a city.

Moreover, advocates and leaders who support building affordable housing have championed smaller lot sizes and less restrictions that artificially limit density as a way to create a pathway for private sector developers to have the opportunity to build affordable units in a way that is economically feasible both for potential buyers and developers.

Recently, the city's planning staff even presented an idea to Raleigh City Council that dramatically reducing the minimum lot size is one of the best ways to make projects like tiny houses make sense logistically.

It's not secret that larger lot sizes incentivize larger homes being built on them, particularly in popular areas like North Hills where land values are quickly rising. The only way it makes sense economically to spend so much on a large tract of land is if you plan to use that space to build a 3,000 to 5,000 square foot home that will likely cost between $500,000 and $1 million. Of course, though there is an abundance of supply of that type of housing proliferating throughout the city, many middle income to lower income residents still find that price point far out of reach for their families.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the instinct for homeowners who see rapid change coming to their neighborhoods in ways that they feel aren't within the vision they had for the neighborhood to push back on change. In fact, there is likely a place for Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts within the code, particularly in those areas that have a concentration of historic homes that have defined Raleigh's character for many decades. But should these also be an Affordable Housing Overlay District? Should there be a Density Overlay District? Who will advocate for balancing these competing interests in a way that can protect and preserve our neighborhoods for those who are less than rich within our city?

We also need to acknowledge the fact that North Hills IS changing. It may not have always been the most desirable place in the city to live. But now it is a vibrant and rapidly growing area with increasing density and a live/work/play aspect that rivals any area in Raleigh. The place has even been rebranded as "Midtown" as a way to reflect the changing character of the community and its growing centrality in the landscape of Raleigh's geography. By the way, these changes have resulted in skyrocketing property values and been very lucrative for the same folks who have lived in the surrounding neighborhoods and are now pushing back on change. Midtown isn't returning to the mid century modern era. Nor should we want it to.

But the choice the city council faces as a whole, and Ms. Mendell in particular since she represents much of the area, is one of priority. Do we prioritize protecting and preserving our neighborhoods so that city residents and those moving here have a chance to find housing they can afford if they are living at or below the median income? Or do we put invisible walls around neighborhoods through exclusionary zoning and land use regulations that will only serve to drive the market for McMansions rather than what is in the best interest of the city?

Also, if tear downs are something that the new city council wants to fight tooth and nail, where is that fight in places like Southeast Raleigh where residents are clamoring for policymakers to preserve the character of their neighborhood as it is changing more rapidly than any other area in Raleigh? Why is there no urgency there?

At the dawn of this new council's term, there are far more questions than answers about what the agenda for the city will be over the next two years. For at least one councilor, there will be an early test on whether support for affordable housing can overcome a push from those who want to fight change and growth in Raleigh's neighborhoods.

Brent Woodcox