The Great Granny Flat Debate

Are granny flats a perfect way to add responsible development and affordable housing in Raleigh or are they just another way for irresponsible landlords to make some easy cash?

It's an ongoing debate between some residents and city officials after the new building type was added to the Unified Development Ordinance. The new rewrite of the city’s zoning code – commonly referred to as the UDO – is still being reviewed by the Raleigh Planning Commission. The Raleigh City Council will likely begin its review in the fall.

City planning staff added accessory dwelling units, aka backyard cottages, aka granny flats, to the list of allowable housing types.

“It was placed in the UDO as a way of gaining additional density without putting additional strain on the infrastructure system,” said Travis Crane, a senior planner for the city.

The Pros
Because backyard cottages are built on an existing piece of property, no new roads or utilities are needed.

Backyard cottages will have to be built according to Raleigh's housing code; staff recently increased the distance the structure must be from the side and rear property line from 5 to 10 feet.

Sidewalk Flying/Flickr CC

A backyard cottage aka granny flat. Photo by sidewalk flying.

Backyard cottages can be rented to people who want to live in a traditional neighborhood, but don't want or can’t afford a single-family house. Elderly landlords can rent their cottage to a college student in exchange for affordable rent and some help around the property.

Cottages can also provide housing for elderly parents or adult children who need to move back in with mom and dad after college.

WakeUp Wake County director Karen Rindge said the inclusion of backyard cottages will add to the diversity of Raleigh's housing stock, including the addition of more affordable housing.

The Debate
Not everyone likes the idea.

City Councilor Thomas Crowder said his main concern is that the city does not have the authority to require that the cottages only be built on owner-occupied property. In other words, the property owner doesn't have to live in the main house while renting out the cottage. Landlords who are already renting a single-family house could build a granny flat in the backyard and rent that out as well.

Crowder said he would have far less concerns with granny flats if the city had the authority to require the owner to live on the property. He added that if granny flats are considered the solution to the city's affordable housing problem, then the affordable-housing strategy needs to be looked at.

Granny flat opponents are concerned that absentee landlords would build unmaintained, substandard housing in areas that are already suffering, like Southeast and Southwest Raleigh.

Linda Watson, chair of the Glenwood Citizens Advisory Council, told Planning Commissioners last week such houses might be used by human traffickers and pimps. She said employers could also use the cottages as housing for low-wage employees such as farm workers.

“The public is woefully unprepared for what will happen with these backyard cottages,” she said. “Some of these things are going to happen and some of them won't happen.”

The Breakdown

Issue: Granny flats as part of the new UDO.
Questions: Parking, control over who lives in the main house.
What's Next: The Planning Commission is reviewing the UDO rules. City Councilors will review it this fall.
Learn more about UDO

Raleigh resident and state planner Betsy Kane spent about 20 years as a renter and part of that time she lived in a basement apartment owned by an elderly woman.

“I love the concept,” she said. “I've used the concept.”

But Kane added that what made the situation work was that the owner lived upstairs.

Not only is an owner-occupied property desired, Kane said it's also considered a best practice in her industry. But, she said, case law in North Carolina states cities and towns can't require property owners to live on the property if they have a backyard cottage.

Kane said she advises her clients, often small North Carolina towns, against allowing backyard cottages altogether.

“We're prevented from applying the main rule that would make these things most acceptable,” she said.

Kane said she has tried to work around the regulation, but can't seem to find a way to do so without running afoul of the law.

Anne S. Franklin said she grew up living next door to a house that had a backyard cottage. That cottage eventually became housing for her grandmother.

“Now that was a long time ago,” she said, “But I do think that they are a part of how we can create housing into the future.”

A former Raleigh city councilor, Franklin said she's been an owner, a renter and a landlord and that there is a lot of rental housing in Raleigh that works.

“I think that the Unified Development Ordinance is not the place to try and anticipate every possible thing that could ever happen wrong,” Franklin said. “It's the place to set out specific standards for what we think will work into the future. “

Franklin said she'd rather see stronger code enforcement of the existing laws.

But there will always be areas that are more prone to temporary living, like near NC State University where a lot of students find housing in the surrounding neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that have a lot of turnover, Franklin said, are vulnerable to properties that aren't well maintained and for having residents that don't have a vested interest in where they live.

Franklin said in her opinion, the hardest thing to figure out about granny flats is the parking, which she said has no simple solution. She said she sees a trend in people buying smaller cars and that the paved parking areas may be able to hold more cars in the future.

What's Next
After the planning commission finishes its review of the UDO, it will get kicked to the city council for final approval. Crowder said he plans to making the rest of the council aware of the potential problems with backyard cottages.

“It makes sense to have codes and regulations and to make sure that they're done well,” Rindge said. “I think that's what we're trying to do with the UDO.”

Rindge said she thinks that the backyard cottage debate will help strengthen the rules. She added that she doesn't want to see them eliminated from the code.

While city staff continues to believe that backyard cottages will be a good thing for Raleigh, Crane said staff will follow the recommendations of the council.

One thought on “The Great Granny Flat Debate

  1. Thanks for covering this important topic! We invite people to explore the possibilities, good and bad, at a special meeting of the Glenwood Citizens Advisory Council on Monday, August 27th from 6:30 to 9.

    Extreme Design Competition: How Far Can You Go with the UDO?
    · Why: to be thrilled, horrified, and amused by the creative possibilities allowed by the UDO. Insights gained will be used to revise the UDO draft as needed so it puts us on a path toward its most livable and desirable future.
    · What: show how far you can go with the UDO using 3-D models, illustrations, short videos, or even “for rent” and other business notices. Show how good or bad it can be in one of several categories: sardine, bunker, urban farmer, crime boss, extended family, party time, tiny house, and green.
    · Entries: Include at least one detached house or attached house on one or more lots within the Glenwood CAC boundaries using cottage courts, backyard cottages, and accessory apartments as your vision demands and the UDO allows.
    · More info: See chapter 2 of the UDO for most definitions. It’s a lot to get through, so also see this blog ( for illustrations that show several key sections of the code that you can use to make your own entry, plus an example entry in the contest: the student party place.o Bring your entry to the meeting. Bring digital entries on a USB memory stick.
    · Prizes from Quail Ridge Books, Cook for Good, and more!
    · When: Monday, August 27th from 6:30 to 9, with dessert, beverages and mingling from 6:30 to 7.
    · Where: Glen Eden Pilot Park, 1500 Glen Eden Drive, Raleigh NC
    · Facebook page: Glenwood-CAC