Winston-Salem imposes application fee on accessory dwellings

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A Greensboro couple poses in front of a shipping container they plan to convert into an accessory dwelling.

Winston-Salem City Council imposes a $1,000 fee on homeowners who want to apply for a rezoning to put in a tiny house in their backyard.

Don’t look for a proliferation of tiny houses in Winston-Salem anytime soon.

Despite a unanimous vote by city council on Tuesday evening to revise the city’s ordinance on accessory dwellings, remarks by city officials and staff suggest that the changes are unlikely to spark a wave of affordable housing innovation across old-line residential areas like Ardmore and the West End.

The multi-year saga began in 2013 when a court ruling invalidated Winston-Salem’s previous ordinance, which allowed accessory dwellings — often referred to as garage apartments, coach houses or granny flats — if the occupant was a blood relative or employed as a servant. Based on the court’s judgment that cities don’t have the authority to regulate whom people lease their property to, the city stopped enforcing the ordinance. A propose revision went before the planning board in February 2016, but the measure remained stalled in the city council’s community development, housing and general government committee for 18 months. That lasted until Tuesday, when the council voted to allow property owners to add accessory dwellings through a special use rezoning hearing, provided they’re willing to pay a $1,000 application fee.

Councilmembers John Larson and DD Adams argued opposite sides of the issue, with Larson sounding a note of caution and Adams expressing enthusiasm, although they both landed in support of the same policy.

“What I fear is that we’re moving from a rent-free grandmother house, almost like a spare bedroom in the back of the yard, to a de facto subdivision of the lot without any public input,” said Larson, who represents the South Ward. “We are planting multi-family occupancy on traditional, single-family lots with rental units being placed in the rear yard, all installed without neighborhood awareness or input.

“If we are required by the new legal interpretation to remove previous safeguards, then it seems prudent to put in place a system of transparency and public review that allows construction of these buildings, but respects neighborhoods in which they are placed,” Larson added. “Thus, the special-use zoning option… seems the most efficient way to do that, and I will support that.”

Adams, who represents the North Ward, said she endorses “the tiny house concept” and a “small is better” philosophy.

“I also believe that as we age, the boomers, we cannot afford, all of us, to send our loved ones and even our best friends to an assisted home or establishment,” Adams said. “I believe that some of us are not lucky enough to have a great Social Security or pension or 401(K).”

But councilmembers Robert Clark and Jeff MacIntosh, who respectively represent the West and Northwest wards, warned that the application fee to obtain a rezoning is prohibitively expensive for most property owners.

“I think that if within a year or two we see no applications to put [accessory dwelling units] in, then we’re not managing change; we’re blocking change,” said MacIntosh, a neighborhood advocate, realtor and self-described “planning geek,” who added: “We’ll need to come and take a look at this again, because it’s a difficult process as it is. It’s not a slam-dunk from an economic standpoint. And if we get no people stepping up to say they want to do it, then I think that would be proof-positive that we were being overly restrictive.”

Kirk Ericson, the city’s principal planner, said that since the city stopped enforcing the ordinance, only 14 people have applied through building permit requests to build accessory dwellings. MacIntosh cited that number as evidence that unscrupulous landlords aren’t abusing the lack of regulation to convert single-family lots into multifamily housing. He also suggested that looking at the experience of other North Carolina cities would be instructive.

“Wilmington, Greensboro, Durham and Asheville have very little regulation around this, and their neighborhoods that are like our Ardmores and our Holly Avenues do not suffer from absentee-landlord invasion,” MacIntosh said.

Ericson said people who are attracted to the idea of accessory dwellings as a source of additional revenue may find they’re more expensive than they originally thought. The reason is that small dwellings are more expensive per square foot because a larger proportion of the structure is consumed by the kitchen and bathroom, in contrast to a conventional house where the cost per square foot is spread across large living rooms and bedrooms. The city’s building code requires that accessory dwellings be built on a permanent foundation with water and sewer hookups. In contrast, Ericson said, tiny houses tend to be built on wheels, allowing mobility.

“The places where accessory dwellings are really taking off are places with robust tourist or student populations,” Ericson said. “They’re very popular in places like Vancouver, Boulder and Portland, where you have high property values.”

From talking to builders, Ericson said he believes someone trying to supplement their income by adding housing would do better to build a duplex, and rent one side out while living in the other.

Carolyn Highsmith, president of the Konnoak Hills Neighborhood Association who ran unsuccessfully for the South Ward seat last election, asked city council to reduce the application fees to make rezoning for an accessory dwelling affordable to the typical homeowner. Planners noted that in addition to staff time, part of the fee covers the cost of advertising the rezoning so that neighbors have an opportunity to attend hearings and provide input.

Councilwoman Adams said she wants to look at the possibility of reducing fees to make the process more affordable to homeowners, but Mayor Allen Joines said he would like to tackle it as a separate issue at a later date.