The Raleigh City Council is about to take another look at Cottage Courts. Discussion to change the regulations around them has been in the Healthy Neighborhoods Committee and Councilman Russ Stephenson wrote up a short summary of next steps on facebook here. The topic was discussed at the city council meeting on Tuesday, March 5th as well so councilors are working to move this issue forward.
So what is a Cottage Court? In general they are a grouping of smaller homes that face an in ward, centralized court instead of the street. There may also be a central parking area that everyone uses. This court could be green space or more of a general courtyard. They are known for providing more of a community feel than “normal” single family homes facing a street and have the opportunity to provide additional density while including more green space and pervious surface. That’s a great win!
There has been a lot of discussion in Raleigh about how to get smaller, more affordable houses built and Cottage Courts are a great way to encourage that. Opticos Design Inc. uses the term Bungalow Court and describes them as a:
“Building type consists of a series of small, detached structures, providing multiple units arranged to define a shared court that is typically perpendicular to the street. The shared court takes the place of a private rear yard and is an important community-enhancing element.”
Cottage Courts have technically been legal for a number of years, but only a few have been attempted so far. If we want cottage courts to be a feasible option, then our current regulations around them need to change. You can find details on the current regulations for them on page 2-28 of the Raleigh Unified Development Ordinance (UDO).
Without getting into too much detail, the big problem with Raleigh’s current cottage court zoning is that the cottage court comes with a number of restrictions, like a minimum lot width, minimum width of the court area, maximum size for the cottage homes, and a minimum of 5 units to do one, but at present, does not present enough advantage to lure a developer. There may be some very special situations where a developer could fit more homes with this set up, but as we have seen there have been very limited uptake of this instance in 5 years. If we are serious as a city about supporting smaller units over large McMansion style homes then cottage courts need our help!
What can be done to encourage this type of housing? Optico’s Design created an Idealized layout which could be an excellent template for Raleigh. It contains 8 units on 0.4 acres with an average unit size of 840 sq. ft. Smaller homes would organically be more affordable, and would help fill a need that Raleigh has for additional housing.
The proposed changes would add a bonus for having smaller homes which is a good start, but we should encourage the City Council to really make a difference with new legislation and make the added unit number an amount that would encourage these to actually be built. In order for Cottage Courts to be financially viable, the density bonus will need to be significant enough that the smaller sized units still offer a return for the developer, otherwise we risk no Cottage Court developments being built.
The new proposed regulations would also reduce parking requirements which we strongly support. We already require a lot of parking in Raleigh and with smaller units there will be less of a need. Many folks in urban communities opt to be car-light, dictating less space needed for car storage. In order to prioritize a people center city, we need to prioritize places for people – not for cars.
One area that could have some good flexibility is ensuring that new regulations do not require cottage courts to be too large. It might be a good idea to move the minimum units needed down from 5 to 4. On the other side, plans to increase the minimum could negate some of the good work that we might see with allowing more units on a plot of land and loosening parking requirements.
Unfortunately to date, the Cottage Court model has not helped us realize more affordable housing units. The example cited above, The Cottages at Filmore is a beautiful development but houses are selling for $750,000 per property. They’re also 2,200 square feet homes – which is quite large.
It’s our belief that a way to really move the needle on this type of development would be to encourage smaller housing sizes and provide a true density bonus to make this option more financially viable for a developer. For instance if we looked at a density bonus of 50%, this would allow for a situation where 8 cottage court units could get built vs. 5 conventional units under a normal R-10 zoning.
Cottage Courts in practice have a ton of benefits to our community. Shared communal greenspace, reduced parking demands and aesthetically, they are beautiful! We need to find a way to encourage this type of development and create incentives to help guide the type of growth we want for our communities.