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NC House votes to allow more backyard cottages

Raleigh ADU
City of Raleigh
Courtesy of the City of Raleigh.
Raleigh already allows accessory dwelling units such as this one.

The North Carolina House wants to give builders another tool to create affordable housing.

They’re known as backyard cottages or granny flats, but the formal term is accessory dwelling units. A bill that passed the House this week would allow them on single-family lots in residential neighborhoods throughout the state.

Rep. Jeff Zenger, R-Forsyth, said the option could be helpful for aging adults who might want to live with family but have their own separate space.

“Some of us are getting older, and there's a greater and greater need for senior housing,” Zenger said. “And one of the things that we're seeing happen is garages converted into in-law apartments and that kind of stuff. That's where that's happening, kind of under the radar. This kind of says, ‘Hey, that's OK.’”

House Bill 409 has a bipartisan group of co-sponsors, including Reps. Vernetta Alston, D-Durham, and Matthew Winslow, R-Franklin. But a few Democrats and Republicans voted against the bill when it passed the House late Tuesday.

The change would kill some local regulations that limit where the small homes can be built. Opponents say that could backfire. Instead of encouraging affordable long-term housing, the measure could pave the way for homeowners to build Airbnb rentals in their backyards, critics say.

“As I contemplate this, I think about, ‘Boy, I really could upset my neighbors,’” said Rep. Jay Adams, R-Catawba. “’Boy, my neighbors could really upset me.’ But the other part of this is, this is a statewide ordinance. We're imposing this on every municipality. And I think the better way of doing this is to let municipalities choose to do this, because Hickory doesn't need it.”

The N.C. League of Municipalitiesalso is concerned that communities would see an explosion of new Airbnb units.

“Many of our cities and towns are already overrun with short-term rentals,” said Sa'Metria Jones, one of the group’s lobbyists. “So this not only decreases the housing stock that would be affordable for communities … but also creates additional safety concerns that cannot be addressed by this bill.”

The bill does have several exceptions for accessory dwelling unit regulations. Private covenants, such as homeowners' association rules, could still ban them, and they could be restricted in historic preservation districts. It also requires that the accessory dwelling units must be built at least 10 feet from property lines.

HB 409 is one of several bills this year addressing affordable housing shortages. It now heads to the Senate.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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