Accessory Dwelling Units - There Is No Rush

There is no reason to rush an updated ordinance on ADUs when we do not even know what the current number is or where existing illegal units are located.

There is no reason to rush an updated ordinance on ADUs when we do not even know what the current number is or where existing illegal units are located.

• Topics: Bellingham,

Over the past year, various groups (primarily a focus group, the Planning Commission and the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission) have met in work groups to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and the need to update the current ordinance.  The last version of the ordinance was passed by the City Council in 1995 but has not been updated since and has largely been ignored, especially the requirement to register such units with the city on a recurring basis.  Notably, the city has been complicit in not actively pursuing landlords who are not in compliance except as the result of a complaint.  The result is unregistered and likely unpermitted dwelling units that put occupants at risk.  For example, the ADU pictured above was condemned several years ago and declared uninhabitable after a long struggle between the tenant and the landlord to effect repairs.  Only about 94 ADUs are registered in Bellingham although in neighborhoods such as South Hill, York and Sehome, there are, according to neighborhood residents and association officials, dozens of unregistered and therefore illegal units of poor or unknown condition. 

The current attention being paid to ADUs comes about primarily as a result of the requirement to review the ordinance once there are 200 registered ADUs city-wide or any specific neighborhood exceeds 20 ADUs.  The South Hill neighborhood is nearing this number of registered units, although as noted above, the proliferation of illegal units means that quite likely South Hill already has many more than 20 ADUs.

The city is exploring ways to increase infill and density within the city limits.  Although the planning director himself has said on several occasions that ADUs, in and of themselves, cannot substantially add to density or cure the problem of insufficient affordable housing, the city is moving ahead with the review process.  There is nothing inherently wrong with ADUs.  There are, however, problems when the number of existing units is unknown and the current density of neighborhoods is not well understood or quantified.  A proliferation of ADUs in the York Neigbhorhood is not the same as an equal number in Cordata or Edgemoor. 

Increased density brings with it the inevitable nuisances of noise, insufficient parking and litter.  The city poorly manages and mitigates these problems in that they are low on the list of priorities for the police, code enforcement and public works.  Problems linger for weeks, months or even years.  In some areas near the university, there is no longer room for additional vehicles.  This situation begs for some sort of control on the number and spacing of ADUs as people who rent them cannot be expected to just get rid of their vehicles.  Statements to the effect that ADU residents will for the most part take public transportation, walk or bike are unsuppported and go against the everyday experience of those now living in crowded neighborhoods, replete with ADUs, many of which are not yet identified by the city in spite of complaints.  The limit of three people occupying an ADU also says the possibility exists that three additional vehicles will be brought into a neighborhood.  In some cases both the main house and the ADU are rented out, thus ignoring the code requirement that the landlord live in either the house or the ADU.  This further aggravates issues related to noise and parking since the landlord is not present as a calming agent and the house may well be stuffed with 5 or more renters, most of whom have cars, who are seeking to lower their individual costs. This is understandable economically, however, if allowed to continue and proliferate, will radically change the character of a neighborhood.

Although there is no reason not to eventually bring ADUs back into the realm of housing possibilities, a current inventory is essential.  The recently adopted ordinance on rental inspections may uncover some units that have not yet been known to the city, however, the rollout of inspections under this ordinance will play out over three years.  What mechanism will the city then use to identify (prior to enacting an ADU ordinance) all existing units?  Without that knowledge an ordinance that specifies the number of ADUs allowed in a particular area will be ineffective and destructive. 

The city has to answer these questions before proceeding.  Saying that mitigation of problems will take place later and that present density is not an issue are not acceptable responses. 

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

Geoff Middaugh

Nov 16, 2015

Both the pro and the con articles frame the issue well.  Citizen’s need to engage.  The City needs to make a choice about what it wants with ADU’s and enforce the terms, otherwise, its chaos.  My belief is that whatever becomes a legal ADU, has to be owner occupied.  If not, they become started houses for neighborhood problems.


Tip Johnson

Nov 16, 2015

It’s very easy for someone well-fed and content within their comfortable single family home to say there is no hurry for more affordable housing.  The less than 2% vacancy rate doesn’t affect them.  Folks losing their rental because the house sold to a family for their child attending university, those couch surfing while they look or lining up for motel vouchers, those of modest means with children to shelter - they may have a different view.

Are there safety issues?  Sure, and ways to deal with them.  Besides the Landlord/Tenant Act - under which the example problem was apparently resolved - we now also have rental inspection regulations.  Under this framework, an inventory will eventually be known and standards imposed.

All the supposed concern over how many folks might reside where, how many cars they use, whether they will use bicycles or public transit are straw men thrown in the path of a viable solution to infill that requires little or no public investment.  To call this approach ineffective and/or destructive is just name-calling.  It has proven effective for the tenants who might otherwise be homeless.  And if is is destructive, where is the evidence?  South Hill remains a pleasant neighborhood in high demand. 

Noise and parking issues can be managed without denying people housing opportunities, and a few cottages will change the character of a neighborhood far less radically that the rabbit-warren, animal-house infill strategies that are presently de rigueur.


Dick Conoboy

Nov 16, 2015

“Holy Litmus Test!, Tip. Next time I will check with you before I pen an article to see if I am qualified to speak. And in case you missed it, I am not against ADUs nor are the neighborhoods of York, Sehome, South, South Hill, etc. All I and these citizens want is a sane approach to infill/densification that does not ruin a neighborhood.

And where is it written that these ADUs (up to 800 sq. ft. and housing up to three people) will be affordable?  I am already seeing $500 and up for renting just ONE ROOM in a single family home.  Why are the owners of ADUs suddenly going to go all charitable on us?  If you want those ADUs to be affordable, the city better start thinking about rent control otherwise you can forget about cheap housing.

I can personally attest to the effect of ADUs on my own block that is chuck full of those comfortable single family homes you talk about.  We have two homes of 12 on the cul-de-sac with ADUs.  The owners of both homes live nowhere near here. When one of the owners did live in one of the houses, he chose to live in the ADU and got his tenants from biker bars.  He mostly stayed at his girlfriend’s place and was blissfully unconcerned.  We had years of noise, arrests, parking glut, property destruction and one home robbery. Other than the arrest for assault (tenant on tenant) none of the other issues were ever controlled by the city in spite of complaints.

So it ain’t all glitter, Tip.


Cathy McKenzie

Nov 16, 2015

Tip’s perspectives are spot-on.

For months now, my family has been struggling with a Mob-like permit review and approval process for a straightforward, lawfully allowed use—a mother-in-law living space above an attached garage addition for our adult daughter—which should have taken only a week at most to be approved. Instead, we have been presented with additional “required” conditions, binding covenants, and related extra expenses, based not on a face-value evaluation of our permit application and stated use but a worst-case-fear-scenario perpetuated by the myth that slumlords and their illegal, uninhabitable ADUs have taken over our single-family neighborhoods.

What started as an inclusive community conversation about citywide infill options, affordable housing, and renter safety has turned into “new” (circa 2003), planner-discretionary “requirements” that discourage all but the deepest-pocket developers from improving their modest properties while providing comfortable places for extended family members to live when on a limited income or while they save up for a home of their own (God forbid if it happens to be in a single-family Bellingham neighborhood).

Right now it appears the good neighbors and their families are being heavily “fined” for trying to improve housing conditions, while the bad neighbors are still lurking illegally at everyone’s expense.

Let’s hope ADUs—and reasonable, affordable ADU policies—will be approved soon, with some flexibility for individual family situations and building locations built into the permitting process, so that families in all neighborhoods can find some relief before they or their loved ones go broke or die trying not to go broke.


Tip Johnson

Nov 16, 2015

Holy ad hominum, Conoboy!  Care to describe the litmus test you felt I imposed?  Hopefully you are not feeling guilt in your comfortable digs while others stress under essentially zero vacancy over not being able to find even a squalid dump they can afford. 

But then, you have worked tirelessly to make sure such units - however folks might desire them - are destined to become completely unavailable. I’m waiting to see the admittedly sketchy but always in demand functional community of affordable units called the Lumpy Dumps (at the south end of Fairhaven Park) succumb to the wrecking ball and be replaced by some even less savory and less affordable - albeit safer and more codewise - high density student-related housing to which you will object even more strenuously.

You know you don’t need my permission to express your opinion, but if you do it where I’m registered to comment, I just might.  I’d like to be easier on you, but your arguments make it difficult.  Nothing personal.  Many of us have accepted that greater urban densities are necessary to prevent urban sprawl.  It’s really just a question of what kinds of infill are most desirable, most functional and most affordable - at least in terms of meeting stated goals and objectives.

When you say ADU, I’m not sure if you are talking about detached or attached ADU’s.  For instance, 800ft2 is pretty large for a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (D-ADU), whereas carving an Attached Accessory Dwelling Unit (A-ADU) of that size out of a 2,000+ ft2 Disneyland Gothic McMansion is easy.  Of the two homes of twelve on your unfortunate cul-de-sac, were they A-ADUs or D-ADUs?  A-ADUs are more like duplexes and structurally imply independence, while D-ADUs usually feature a host/guest relationship that often facilitates mutual respect and more responsible community behaviors.

For instance, the photographic example in the article is more like a typical (16x20ft) 320ft2 garage conversion, less than half the size you reference.  Do you think five people are moving into one of those?  Even three is quite a stretch unless one is a young child - unlikely to have a car.  My experience is that these are usually occupied by one (as you say, “tenant”) and sometimes two - though I have recently read articles indicating that couples trying to live in tiny homes is a good way to become single. 

On a fairly typical 5,000 ft2 lot with a 1,200ft2 primary residence, with another 400 or so for parking/maneuvering and accounting for setbacks makes a D-ADU of 800ft2 possible only if no one wants a patio, yard, garden or tree.  If you have ever researched “tiny homes”, you’ll often see them try for 800ft2 but looking at them the prospect of packing in the numbers you fear seems unlikely, at least for more than an evening of cards, carousing or whatever.

I’m not suggesting there will never be problems,  and agree that no matter what the housing type, we need better tools for dealing with the inevitability. My experience with friends living in so-called bootleg D-ADUs has been that they are smaller, more affordable and better managed under a more comprehensive spirit of cooperation and community than other more conventional infill alternatives.


Dick Conoboy

Nov 17, 2015


I have been a participant in three long sessions of discussions with the city planning staff at which both builders’ interests and neighborhood residents were present. The comments from the residents were clear and I can attest to the problems associated with these units - only 94 registered in the past 20 years. Several neighborhoods are chuck full of illegal ADUs (shacks) which have no permits and may or may not have the owner living on the grounds.  A few years back a student made an ADU out of an attached garage of a SF house across the street from my home. That may speak to the reason the permitting department is being more vigilant although I cannot speak to your specific case. 

I will say it again that I am not against ADUs if they are first identified so we know where the current ones are and then registered as a rental and inspected regularly for safety and health issues. 

The Planning Commission will meet this Thursday evening in a work session on ADUs.  Although comments from the public will be an option of the commission president, please come and talk about your experience.


Dick Conoboy

Nov 17, 2015


Aha!  You can dish out those ad hominems but you cant take it, eh?  You owe me a drink on Thursday.

The gist of all that I have been saying is that we need to move on the ADU issue with some thought and caution.  The abuses have been many and the greed palpable. 





Alex McLean

Nov 25, 2015

Parking should be a consideration for ADU applications.

Cars impact neighborhoods, after all, and they are definitely a barometer of liveability therein.

The City has punted on parking overall, however, and grants wildly speculative assumptions to developers who claim—out of the thin blue air—that THEIR particular tenants will shun the demon combustion engine and, miracle of miracles, need no parking for such contrivances. Small mystery why: underground parking can cost as much as $40,000 per-stall.

When State Street is fully puckered with its forced infusion of “dormitory housing” we can lean back and laugh at the bias the City has for large, out-of-state developers as opposed to locals hoping to build cottages in their backyards.

While we enjoy that good chuckle, we should also expect the bill for a new public parking garage—financed by our tax dollars—lest State Street become an unbearable and unuseable goatshow of vehicles pinwheeling around looking for vacant spaces in front of equally vacant local businesses.


Tip Johnson

Dec 10, 2015

The Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality surveyed owners of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) in Portland, Eugene and Ashland in 2013.

82.4% of ADU residents have one or fewer cars.  46% park their cars on the street while 50% park off street in a garage, driveway or parking pad.  Over 60% of ADUs have housed the same residents for one to three years.  64% house a single occupant.  82% of ADUs are 800ft2 or smaller and 76% have one or fewer bedrooms.  54% are detached ADUs.  89% of residents are 18 or older.

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