With rent skyrocketing and the housing market in a crisis, city leaders in both Greensboro and Winston-Salem are looking at rules regarding alternative living spaces as well as short-term rental units like AirBnbs.

A little over a year ago, the city of Winston-Salem updated its code to make it a bit easier for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, to be built within city limits. Previously, each request for an ADU was required to come before city council for approval. The amendment removed this requirement, as well as others that posed barriers such as a $1,000 minimum fee and a 2-month approval process.

Councilmembers approved the amendment on Feb. 7, 2022, codifying the changes into the Unified Development Ordinances, or UDO.

An attached ADU could be a converted basement or an attic that expands the original structure, while a detached unit could be created from a detached garage. Attached and detached ADUs can also be purchased through sellers such as Home Depot or online through Amazon and other companies.

Now, ADUs require approval from zoning staff and are permitted if they meet certain conditions. One ADU is allowed on the same lot, and there are general building requirements for the structure, size and utilities of the structures. The changes were proposed in order to bring the city up to par with the practices of peer communities like Asheville and Wilmington. In the time since the change, the city has permitted 10 ADUs — three that are attached and seven that are detached. During an April 10 Community Development, Housing and General Government Committee meeting, principal planner Tiffany White gave councilmembers an update on the change.

White’s presentation provided a map showing the locations of the 10 newly permitted ADUs — revealing that the south, north and west wards each had one ADU, with five in the southwest Ward and two in the northeast Ward. Forty percent of the ADUs are located in urban neighborhoods, while 60 percent are in suburban neighborhoods.

“We’re pleased to see that the permitted ones to date have been scattered around various neighborhoods around the community, which I think shows that a lot of different neighborhoods are taking advantage of this,” White said.

Prior to the amendment’s approval, community members expressed concerns regarding parking, the infrastructure of older and newer neighborhoods, and the possibility that the ADUs may be used as short-term rentals. 

From a case study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “suburbs continued to be a prevalent form of housing development throughout the 1950s and 1960s.” The study said that the rapid growth of suburbs during this time reinforced the high demand for lower-density development, ultimately causing most local jurisdictions to prohibit ADU construction. However, in spite of zoning restrictions, the study reports that “illegal construction of ADUs continued in communities where the existing housing stock was not meeting demand.”

ADUs, also known as granny flats or in-law suites, have existed in Winston-Salem for more than a century. A January 2022 video by the city shows one homeowner, Judy Hunt, with their ADU in the form of a cottage. Built in 1912, the cottage was once a carriage house, housing residents on the floor above. Hunt said that the cottage has been a rental unit “for decades probably, it’s been in continuous use.”

Councilmember Jeff MacIntosh spoke in support of ADUs during the February 2022 city council meeting, mentioning that other cities that have “gone after this boldly have gotten results like 10 ADUs per year.” He added that he was “very comfortable” that the amendment would not cause neighborhoods to undergo radical change.

He said that while ADUs aren’t the solution to affordable housing, they can help.

“This bites around the edges…. any additional housing units we can get, we need to get,” he said.

MacIntosh, who will not seek re-election in 2024, told TCB in a January interview that he will remain passionate about issues like affordable housing after he leaves office. 

“I don’t think I’m just going to be able to step away from that entirely,” he said. “It’s a big arena and it needs an awful lot of attention. So I think I’ll be able to continue to be helpful with that.”

Short-term rental debate in Greensboro

In Greensboro, a section of the city’s code could be amended to regulate short-term rentals such as residences being used as AirBnBs and VRBOs. According to the city’s website, Greensboro’s Land Development Ordinance does not currently define “short-term rental”, and the proposed ordinance would provide a full definition of what a short-term rental is. The city now defines a short-term rental as a rental of a “portion or all of a residentially used property for a period of no more than 30 days.”

Short-term rentals can either be homestays in which renters stay in a portion of the homes of the hosts or whole-house rentals.  For homestays, the host of the rental must use the property as their primary residence and be on-site while renting a portion of the home. Under the proposed changes, property owners for whole-houserentals would be required to live within Guilford County or a directly adjacent county. According to the city, if the host of a whole-house rental does not use the property as their primary residence, “a local operator (with local contact) must be identified and contact information provided to the city’s planning department.” Short-term rentals will only be permissible in residential dwelling units, and hosts will be required to apply for and secure a zoning permit. The document also notes that properties “may include an onsite accessory dwelling unit as part of a short-term rental.” The city estimates that there are more than 600 short-term rentals being advertised in Greensboro.

the interior of a bedroom of a cabin
Some in Greensboro feel that AirBnbs take up rental stock in the city.
Photo by Goodlot Dupwa on Pexels.com

The amendments were recommended during a March 1 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, but the proposed changes have faced much scrutiny. At the March 1 meeting, many of those in opposition shared similar concerns to residents in Winston-Salem. Some argued that the amendments would make it easier for properties to be bought up for the sole purpose of being used as short-term rentals, driving up the cost of rent and potentially changing the fabric of their neighborhoods.

“This is a zoning issue hinging on an occupancy issue,” said speaker Cheryl Pratt. “A non-owner occupied short-term rental is no longer a residential home, and should not be considered as such if no one actually resides there. It is a structure being utilized as a mini-hotel — a business.”

However, some AirBnB hosts who spoke at the meeting said that the changes would place more restrictions on their businesses. One AirBnB operator, Joy Watson, said that many of the properties they’ve acquired used to be blighted.

“All of a sudden we have a lot of regulation coming in,” Watson said, adding that they have been working to bring these properties up to a liveable condition and remove blight from their neighborhood. A search of AirBnbs owned by Watson shows a range of properties in the area from College Hill to Latham Park to a house in Kernersville.

“I don’t think that anyone in my neighborhood would complain about that when they look at the value of their house that has just now increased because we have just taken two incredibly blighted houses out of the neighborhood,” Watson said. 

At the next Greensboro city council meeting on May 2, residents will have another opportunity to speak during a public hearing on the matter. The meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers of Melvin Municipal Office Building, which is located at 300 W. Washington St.

If the amendments are approved, all short-term rentals must comply with the updated standards within six months of the date of adoption.

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