Cognitive Dissonance Я Us: Meet the Planning Commission

• Topics: Bellingham,

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 Affordability and availability have been replaced by the commodification of housing.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, you 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:

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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

Wynne Lee

Jan 08, 2018

Thanks for continuing to report on this important issue, Dick.  It’s just as bad or worse and crazy in the rest of the County.  Unlimited number of STRs represent a stealth re-zoning of residential into commercial areas.

Yes, I know some people earn money that way.  All have enough $ (or credit) to own/invest in a second house or apartment or three, four ... Very different from people who actually need ONE place to live, day to day.

I’ve used airbnb, too. Some have been great, actually in homes where I got to meet some wonderful locals. Some stand-alones, too.  I prefer the pre-luxe B&Bs, like those before every place had to have chocolates on pillows, hot tub, 800 thread count sheets etc, gourmet coffee and absolutely no need to meet or even see the hosts. “Getaways” for sure.  I rather wish we’d were aiming for lives where fewer people feel the desperate need to ‘getaway’ and ‘escape’ quite so often, though I fully understand the urge.



Michael Chiavario

Jan 09, 2018

I am in agreeent with you on this one, Dick(except for  the ADU part) Short term rentals should be severely limited. I especially liked your use of the Term ‘profit centers’. Affordable housing ia a human right, not something that we should systematize speculative profit making into as is the case now.

We should all look at supporting expanding land trust models of housing ownership to remove speculation from the equation. 


Wynne Lee

Jan 09, 2018

Same problems everywhere. Here’s a link to some comprehensive info on citizen efforts in Monterey, Ca to deal with STR problems.  Some may not be as relevant in B’ham or WC, but worth looking at.

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