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 . 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.