Accessory Dwelling Units - An Update

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An article appeared in the 3 Jun 2019 Herald ( With rents and home prices rising, they’re hoping these will ease Bellingham housing) on the situation with accessory dwelling units since council approved the building of detached ADUs citywide last year. What is missing, as usual with the Herald even when they do report, is context. Nowhere in this piece does the author note that attached ADUs have been legal citywide for decades and that detached ADUs were also legal except in single family neighborhoods. Attached ADU permitting is not necessarily, therefore, an indicator of pent up demand. Of the 45 applications received for detached ADUs in the last two years, there is no precise indication of where these units are located. Are they in single family zoned areas or in multi-family areas where they would have been approved before the new law took effect anyway? How many of these detached ADUs existed beforehand illegally and now are just being legalized by owners who have gamed the system for years? If all we are doing is approving illegal units, there is no way to measure pent up demand since the unit already existed sub rosa. Approving existing illegal units does not add to inventory.

Because the city didn’t conduct an inventory of existing ADUs prior to the new legislation, the number of these units still operating illegally is unknown. This hides the real state of our housing demand and is a cynical middle finger to those homeowners operating within the law. There is also no attempt made by the Herald to relate the construction of ADUs, attached or detached, to the vacation rental law recently passed in Bellingham. How many of these new units will become places for tourists to alight while workers in Bellingham have to live in Deming or Ferndale to find housing that, although not totally affordable, is cheaper than within Bellingham’s city limits? Granted, the new legislation forbids the use of detached ADUs as vacation rentals in single family neighborhoods but the term “enforcement” in this city is the proverbial “four letter word,” this author not having just fallen off the turnip truck. I already have one report from the York neighborhood that a three bedroom summer rental there is occupied by 11 people.

Nor has any review yet been made of the effect of these new or formerly illegal ADU constructions with respect to parking requirements, placement or design. Since most of these units need administrative approvals only, input by adjacent property owners need not be sought, even though construction may radically alter the enjoyment and use of their properties.

Housing prices and rents continue to rise in Bellingham, however, as the article in the Herald indicates, the citizens need to hold the city’s feet to the fire regarding the efficacy of these types of housing units. If all these units do is funnel money to landlords while providing no affordable housing, then we need to revisit our planning. Nationwide there is little indication that loosening the housing and zoning regulations leads to affordability.

About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Jun 03, 2019

Dick, I believe the lead image to your article should be this one:  READY!  FIRE!  AIM!

Bellingham’s decision-makers have notoriously failed to clearly and thoroughly define problems they hope to solve.   Because these problems are rarely, if ever, well defined, their so-called solutions invariably miss their target.   

As I’ve written before (Affordable Housing: Mission Impossible?), the Housing Trilemma is a thorny issue, especially for high-demand coastal cities.  Bellingham decision-makers have shown virtually no expertise in this area.  It makes you wonder why they think they can solve the unsolvable.  Their strategy seems to be to throw $#!+ against the wall to see what sticks.

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Geoff Middaugh

Jun 04, 2019

Great rticle Dick, and excellent observations.   From what I can see from the COB Planning Notices website, there are people trully trying to comply with the law, and do the right thing.   Yet, the bad actors, do nothing, still get ignored by enforcement, and the neighborhoods pay the costs of parking problems, detriorated homes and noise.   

 

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