State Defines “Family,” Bellingham’s Got It Wrong

New state legislation will cause cascade of changes to Bellingham’s codes

New state legislation will cause cascade of changes to Bellingham’s codes

There has been a constant “discussion” for at least the last two decades over the legality, constitutionality, advisability, morality, etc. of the Bellingham city code that limits the number of unrelated people who can share a dwelling unit (more on that below). The city was poised to reopen that “discussion,” but the state legislature has chimed in, restricting Bellingham's options. The city must now act.

SB 5235, entitled “Increasing housing unit inventory by removing arbitrary limits on housing options,” was just passed by the legislature. It forbids cities and counties to limit the number of unrelated people in a dwelling unit. The legislation also requires local governments to have zoning, development regulations, or official controls on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). However, there is an exemption from the requirements of SB5235 for jurisdictions that have passed such ADU legislation within the last four years. Bellingham's ADU ordinance falls under this exemption and, as such, is not likely to be rewritten.

On the other hand, Bellingham runs afoul of the “arbitrary limits on housing.” This is the current definition of family in Bellingham from BMC 20.08.020 Specific definitions:

“Family” means one or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than three unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit. For purposes of this definition, children with familial status within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. 3602(k) and individuals with disabilities within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. 3602(h) will not be counted as unrelated persons. “Adult family homes,” as defined by RCW 70.128.010, are included within the definition of “family.” Facilities housing individuals who are incarcerated as the result of a conviction or other court order shall not be included within this definition.”

That definition must change according to this from the Final Bill Report

“Unrelated Occupants. Cities, towns, code cities, and counties may not regulate or limit the number of unrelated persons that may occupy a household or dwelling unit except for any occupant limits on group living arrangements regulated under state law or on short-term rentals and any lawful limits on occupant load per square foot or generally applicable health and safety provisions as established by applicable building code or city ordinance.”  

At the Planning Commission meeting on May 6th [go to 1:10:00 on the video counter], Planning Director Rick Sepler announced that the city would have to amend its family definition. Review of the family definition was already slated to undergo some revision, however, the state legislation will now play markedly in the revision of our code. The Planning Commission will take up the task after staff reviews the issue and creates options to consider. The planning director indicated that the first presentation before the Planning Commission will be on June 17th.   

Sepler also commented on some unintended consequences of the state legislation, especially with respect to the current practice of renting rooms individually in a house, called fractional rentals. This new legislation would possibly transform fractional rentals into boarding houses and as such will be limited to certain areas appropriately zoned for boarding houses. Household units will have to be redefined as they will no longer include fractional units. The boarding and rooming code will also need to undergo a redo. No doubt other issues will arise during Planning Commission work sessions, so be prepared for major or minor conundrums.  

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

Dianne Foster

May 10, 2021

So could this possibly mean that Hammer and Hansen properties,  and other absentee landlords,  can no longer rent out the houses in my neighborhood for $500.00 per bedroom for slum conditions?   This may be a good thing…..


Dick Conoboy

May 10, 2021


That thought and other similar ones occurred to me as I looked at the legislation, however, I think we will have to wait for the process to start to see what the possibilities are with respect to our current code. and to what extent the council is willing to go to limit this present tyranny of landlords.

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