That loud and incessant clanging you heard last Thursday night emanating from city hall was from the heads of the Bellingham Planning Commission members as the clapper of cognitive dissonance slapped back and forth inside their heads. The Planning Commission work session on short term rentals (STRs) was interesting to watch as the commissioners attempted to reconcile the last several months of telling us how badly we need detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs) everywhere in the city to provide affordable housing for our citizens, and then toss a bone to landlords by saying it will be just ducky to turn the housing stock available to our citizens into STRs for visitors. The cognitive dissonance was painfully obvious, but few on the commission dais seemed to have sufficient awareness to stop the clanging!
Amazingly, there were actually owners of illegal short term rentals who used the comment period to plead their cases. This is the first time in 15 years in Bellingham that I have seen citizens admit before a public body, and on public TV, that they were breaking the law - but for such a good cause. Now either that takes cojones or just plain dimness. But it appeared to be lost on most of the commissioners, not one of whom ever mentioned the law-breaking.
The planning department memo on the draft STR ordinance casually addressed the notion of conflict by setting up a false equivalency between the need for housing people who actually live here and the need for vacation rentals.
The following program goals have guided the development of the new regulations:
1. Balance the economic opportunity created by STRs with the need to maintain the City’s supply of long-term housing;
2. Level the playing field for individuals and companies in the STR market; and
3. Protect the rights and safety of owners, guests and neighbors.
Instead of dealing with a housing availability and affordability crisis, we are being told that the city must now carefully balance a basic human need for housing with a property owner’s ability to make money on temporary visitors who want to party and snowboard. Affordability and availability have been replaced by the commodification of housing. Maybe the commission can explain this illogical disconnect to the families living in Deming or Kendall who have to commute into Bellingham each day for work because a single family home rental has been taken off the market to satisfy the gig economy in the form of AirBnB, VRBO and such.
This did not seem to trouble commissioner Iris Maute-Gibson whose “bold” action on the DADU issue late last year now has the city looking at a citywide rezone of single family neighborhoods that will largely favor developers. Maute-Gibson, while referring to a New Yorker article sent by a local citizen on the gig economy (the article essentially pans the gig economy and its precariousness) suddenly forgets the housing tribulations of locals while waxing poetic over short term rentals that she uses when traveling, likely displacing some poor, long-term renter schlubb at her destination. But that ain’t her department. This starts off an exchange dotted with anecdotal accounts of the marvels of the economic opportunities that short term rentaldom will provide poor divorcees, grandmas and single mothers (single fathers don’t get honorable mention). How can we be so cruel as to deprive them of the extra dollars? Never mind Maute-Gibson’s previous speeches about the crisis of affordable housing for Bellingham’s permanent citizens. Because she likes to stay in AirBnB’s when she travels, should welcome travelers into your once-upon-a-time residential neighborhood. Now you can have someone new to meet next door each weekend!
And what happened to the vision for our beloved downtown core to become THE place for couples (young and old) and small families to live and thrive? How does that square with having a dozen or more short term rentals in that apartment or condominium building you carefully chose? Who will control the constant, insouciant comings and goings of out-of-towners who do not give a fig about your schedule or that of your infant? It’s all about money and to hell with quiet enjoyment and quality of life. Overriding all that is the notion that everything and everyone is a profit center.
Gone is the goal of decent jobs, affordable housing, and thriving neighborhoods with permanent residents. Welcome the new scheme for absentee landowners to turn their shabby rentals into shabby-chic AirBnbs. You thought you bought a home in a single-family neighborhood with neighbors? Sorry. There’s another new group moving in Friday night. Enjoy their negative impact with noise, parking, and your livability. But not to worry.
Another work session on STRs has been scheduled for the Planning Commission on January 18th for those whose idea of enjoyment might also include theologians arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The problem with short term rentals will be their long term effects, with mitigation and enforcement in the back seat.
No neighborhood is exempt from these vacation rental intrusions. We must let the Planning Commission, the planning staff, the mayor and the City Council know that this is the first bad idea of 2018 for Belllingham. Here are the emails: