The Flip Side of Housing Affordability
We need to pay more attention to the wage side of housing affordability.
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For the February issue of Whatcom Watch I wrote an article entitled, Character - The Content of Bellingham’s Neighborhoods. In the April issue of the same newspaper, Shannon Maris, a self described “residential designer” and Happy Valley resident, wrote a riposte to my article entitled, A Different Take on Neighborhood Character. In that article, she ostensibly corrected assertions made by me while she promoted a YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) project in Happy Valley to rezone the single family areas to permit detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs).
Ms Maris tried to clear up what she thought were misconceptions on my part. Unfortunately, what she wrote was confused. To be exact, as to the topic of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in general, attached ADUs are allowed in both multi and single family areas. Detached ADUs are only allowed in areas zoned multi-family. In 1995, detached ADUs in single family zones had to register and meet current code to remain legal, essentially grandfathered. Further creation of detached ADUs in single-family areas was no longer permitted. The 2009 Infill Tool Kit, which included detached ADUs as a housing form, explicitly excluded the Tool Kit from use in single-family zones. Therefore, Ms Maris’s contention that the Tool Kit (along with detached ADUs) was authorized in single-family zones is incorrect, only new legislation by a Type VI process can do that.
Ms Maris also tried to defend against fears about the creation of ADUs in single-family zones by citing the statutory limit of 20 such units per neighborhood, at which time a review of the ordinance is required. This is true but not reassuring. A review of the city’s ordinance on ADUs was kicked off recently by the permitting of the 20th unit in Sehome. The problem Ms Maris fails to mention is the proliferation of unpermitted/illegal ADUs in our neighborhoods, notably in higher density areas such as York, Sehome, South Hill, etc. Unfortunately, there is no current inventory of these unpermitted units and the city will not investigate these units unless a code violation complaint is filed. This pits neighbor against neighbor, not exactly the kind of action that brings cohesion to neighborhoods. So the automatic brake that Maris cites as a control is a fiction. Complaint-only systems do not work. We saw that with complaint-only enforcement on rental conditions and now the results of rental inspections are proving the point.
There appears to be several other points of misunderstanding. Ms Maris contends I suggest that “landlords in single-family zoning can add another residence to all their existing rental properties if the detached ADU ordinance goes through.” I did say, “Some landlords are certainly eager about the possibility of adding dwelling units on single-family property rentals.” She also states “To say it is WWU’s responsibility to house all of its students states the impossible and improbable.” when what I said was “Western Washington University has chosen not to be a player in Bellingham housing issues, and has spent the last 40 years increasing enrollment by about 50 percent without adding to its existing, on-campus 4,000 bed dormitory space.” Finally, Ms Maris wrote that I proposed “...to take all the rentals and make them affordable housing.” Context is important as I wrote this, “Here’s the problem: the city wants neighborhoods to take on more density, but there has already been a continuous, hidden density increase over the decades, a de facto up-zone to boarding house districts. And landlords won’t voluntarily relinquish these cash cow illegal rentals, which removes single-family homes from the market and drives up purchase prices for all. Single-family rental homes should be returned to the market as affordable housing.”
At the end of her article, Ms Maris took the opportunity pitch the Happy Valley YIMBY project that I mentioned above. At the March 13th meeting of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association, “they” voted (Was it just the board voting or a general meeting of Happy Valley residents?) to ask the city for a rezone of all their single family areas. The requested rezone would allow the building of detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs) that are currently only permitted in multi-family zoned areas. The Happy Valley action is termed a “pilot project.” Ms Maris claims it will add no more than 6-10 units, although she does not say how many permitted units already exist or how many unpermitted units might already be in Happy Valley, perhaps taking the actual count to 20 before they even begin. Nor was there any indication whether these 6-10 units already exist and the owners are looking for legalization. What they really need is a moratorium until the number of permitted plus unpermitted units is determined.
Nonetheless, if the pilot project does not work out, it will be difficult, albeit impossible, to roll it back. Units once built would have to be razed. One legitimate fear is that the proliferation of DADUs would open the door to investor or homeowner misuse as illegal vacation rentals to maximize income while depriving permanent tenants of rentals units. Hundreds of vacation rentals are listed in the Bellingham area, as Bellingham Herald reporting on the topic has shown. Since attached ADUs are already permitted in Happy Valley and are cheaper to build, why all this folderol about detached ADUs?
The planning department has stated that the Happy Valley pilot project would be brought forward through a Type VI legislative process and would take place concurrently with the citywide ADU Ordinance update that was initiated in 2015 but then sidelined while the Comprehensive Plan update occurred. City planning staff meets this week to discuss re-initiating the overall ADU Ordinance update. In late April or May, the planning department is looking to reconvene the ADU focus group that met several times last year. The group consists of neighborhood and business representatives. Planning Commission work sessions would follow and flow into the Type VI process mentioned above. That means both the Planning Commission and City Council would gather input on the proposal and hold public hearings before voting on the new ordinance or the Happy Valley proposal.
Before we as a city move on ADU code revision, we need to resolve the vacation rental problem. If not, neighborhoods may be well inclined to heavy skepticism about ADUs absent effective controls and the very existence of illegal units. Concomitantly, the Happy Valley project must be thoroughly reviewed to ensure that it represents the consensus of the general membership of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association and not just that of a handful of board members acting as surrogates for particular homeowners.