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City’s First Step to Rezone/Upzone Single Family Neighborhoods

By On
• In Bellingham, Planning,

The public process for amending the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance has been compromised by poor planning and lack of transparency in notifying the public. The city canceled a public hearing on the revised ordinance that had been scheduled before the Bellingham Planning Commission on December 7th. The new hearing has been moved to January 25th, however, the “Re-notice of Public Hearing” issued last week does not even mention the massive change proposed by the Planning Commission since it began its deliberations on the matter several months ago. The “re-notice” does not inform the public accurately about the hearing’s substantial change in purpose. Was this intentional or just a bureaucratic attempt to clean up an earlier mistake of inadequate notification? With a change of scope of this magnitude, the public needs a clear notice of intent.

The origin of this switch is that the commission unexpectedly asked staff to draft an ordinance for a wholesale rezone of all single family neighborhoods, in what Commissioner Maute-Gibson referred to as “a bold move,” to allow Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADUs) city-wide. Heretofore, DADUs have only been authorized under the city’s Infill Housing Toolkit that does not apply to single family zones. At the same meeting, there was also a discussion of reducing the minimum lot size required for DADUs (now at 10,000 sq ft) and minimizing setbacks while drastically diminishing the percentage of required green space; the “spare no tree” approach. Consequently, the city is about to renege on its commitment to neighborhoods that toolkit forms would be added only if the neighborhood submitted a proposal. What happened to neighborhood planning and neighborhood self-determination?

Moreover, missing in the discussions of the ADU ordinance, and the problem of affordable housing in general, is any discussion of measures regarding the outcomes of such zoning changes. What defines success? There has been no discussion at all about reviewing the ADU ordinance in 4, 5, or 6 years. The reason this has NOT happened is because the goals of these proposals have not been established nor has anyone taken the time to coherently present the measures of success. If you do not know where you are going, how do you expect to arrive?

There is also a failure to demonstrate where any proposals - ADUs, DADUs, town homes, duplexes, etc. - have already worked to actually LOWER housing prices or make lodging more affordable overall. If you work for minimum wage, it is of little importance that a Cadillac is less pricey than a Maserati. So let’s ask about affordability by asking who exactly is buying the town houses in the Fountain urban village on Peabody St. for $425,000. Surely it is not a single mother from Birchwood with three children who is working for minimum wage. Town houses on Cornwall Ave. are being sold at $325,000. Not much comfort for a family with an annual income of $50,000. And where is the flurry of construction of attached accessory dwelling units that have been authorized by code since at least 1995 in single family zones? Have homeowners been holding out for decades, waiting for the zoning to change just so they can build detached units at twice the price? (see below)

The city, and by extension the Planning Commission, has failed to make its case on affordability, pointing only to places that have adopted such zoning modifications and saying, “Well, CITY X did it, so should we.” We are not hearing that “City X has done it with great success! And here is the proof.” Prices are not going down, nor should we expect that they will go down regardless of how much is built in spite of the admonitions of the real estate and development community. ADUs and DADUs are not inexpensive to build. One need only look at the Portland experience where average construction price of an ADU, calculated several years ago, was about $45,000 and a DADU around $80-90,000. That these housing types remain affordable either for the owner or the tenant is just not demonstrable.

Land Capacity Analysis
Land Capacity Analysis

The city is approaching housing and affordability in a haphazard and disconnected manner. It is a piecemeal approach to growth planning that has no measurable goals and forces citizens to consider various solutions separately, as fragments without a cohesive element other than to build more of everything. Throw out the rules and densify, densify, densify in the name of an elusive affordability and equity that cannot be met by free market action because the free market has no interest in affordability and equity. The kicker is that a Bellingham land capacity analysis [click on chart at left above] demonstrates that without any changes to our land use, there is sufficient capacity for growth projections for the next 20 years.There is ample developable land already to accommodate affordable housing. Adding for land capacity won’t automatically create more housing capacity. Affordable housing, on the other hand, is guaranteed only by living wages, subsidies to individuals or families, public housing or rent controls. Anything else is a gift to those who profit from development. No coastal city in the entire U.S. with a strong economy and satisfactory quality of life has been able to provide affordable housing. [See Affordable Housing. Mission Impossible? and Myths Around Affordable Housing in Bellingham]


About Dick Conoboy

Writer • 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

Dec 08, 2017

Thank-you Dick for clarifying what the issues are really- -   behind the facade of “affordability” and “equity”.   It seems if we apply the question “who benefits” to the upzoning policy,  it will be big developers, not ordinary citizens.

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Dick Conoboy

Dec 13, 2017

I have asked Dianne Foster if I may quote her recent letter to council member April Barker about issues that are related to my article above.  Having received permission from Dianne, I am quoting her email in its entirety.

Dear Ms. Barker,

I am responding to your comments at the Housing Week council panel “discussion”, which was in reality a speech in which the audience was not allowed to participate.    Many of us citizens attended that event on our own time in response to a mailed invitation,  and because we are interested in affordable housing and social justice issues.    As I testified Monday at Council in favor of the renter protections,  I have spent most of my life moving from one crummy rental to another, and wish there had been protections for a family like ours,  with a daughter on chemo (and who I believe did not survive transplant because of her stressful life).   We were often evicted because the landlord could make more money renting each bedroom to a student,  thereby increasing their income.   (one of these landlords,  amazingly,  was the millionaire son of Nike founder Bill Mauerman). 

I appreciate the Council rental protection ordinance,  but am outraged at your rant against the neighborhoods at the Housing Week panel.   To the point that I ran out of the room and slammed the door when I realized there would be no audience interaction.   You are blaming us older,  non-conformist Bohemian types in the historic core neighborhoods for racism, segregation,  and exclusionary policies.    Some people thought I was paranoid to believe that the DADU ordinance was the gateway to upzoning all of Bellingham to multifamily zones, but your rant at the panel was proof to me that it is only the opening salvo.   Since we already have 27 ADU’s in Sehome,  documented by Senator Harriet Spanel,  and the city won’t recognize them in their inventory,  why would we believe that any rules in future would be enforced when the floodgates are opened?  Since the outer, newer neighborhoods all have covenants and we don’t,  we depend on public law for our rules.  

As to racism and exclusionary policies,   that is fake populism without any basis in reality.   Did you know your audience at all?   Did you know that I was on the front lines in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s for civil rights and anti-war causes?   That I barely escaped many times from having my head bashed in by a 2 by 4 when the frat boys attacked our sit-in against war recruiters?  That I escaped tear gas by the Seattle Tac Squad?  (I was quick on my feet).  That I helped black and while GI’s go underground from Ft. Lewis and housed them in my home in that process?  That I have spent thousands of hours on picket lines for labor unions,  including farmworkers,  and most recently the refinery workers strike in Anacortes,  and the Sakuma strike by Las Familias?   Maybe I could have bought my white privilege and stayed home,  and made enough money that I could have bought a house sooner than old age,  or in a nicer neighborhood.  But because of my working class background I chose class consciousness over privilege.  This was in addition to my day job as an RN,  usually working night shift.   Since most of these actions were before you were born,  I wonder if we could have a little humility here.  

As a Democratic PCO since ’04,  I have walked my precinct (and others) every primary and general election,  except last year,  when I was diagnosed with leukemia.  (My Aryuvedic doctor said I “burned out my stem cells.” )  My personal political preference is further left than the Dems,  and I see the root cause of inadequate housing as record income inequality, the “looting phase” of  capitalism.   Certainly not the people volunteering their time on neighborhood boards. 

This “YIMBY movement” is not a movement,  but rather an astroturf campaign by developers and bankers to tear down old neighborhoods and replace them with million dollar condos and mcmansions.  Don’t be fooled unless you want to.  Check out their website.   I propose a 5-6 hour conference by City Council to bring all voices together – neighborhoods, builders, affordability advocates – to actually talk to each other,  instead of past each other.  And I would like a response to this letter,  as it appears you have not read my previous comment. 

Yours,

Dianne Foster,  Sehome Neighborhood Association

P.S.  The “bad guys”,  York Neighborhood,  spent hours of volunteer time rezoning the area for Eleanor Apartments, while Sehome neighbors worked for years on the Urban Village, and Carol Yoon wrote the book of historic houses called “Home on the Hill”.   She and former SNA President Alan Matsumoto are not racists, by the way. 

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Dick Conoboy

Dec 13, 2017

In support of Dianne Foster in her letter above, I sent the following email to the city council.  The link to the Whatcom Democrats web page is no longer valid as the posing was removed several days ago.

“Council Members,

I received a copy of Dianne Foster’s email to Council Member Barker and wish to declare my support for Dianne  Foster’s call to stop once and for all the demonizing of those who oppose certain zoning changes by calling them racist, elitist, privileged, white, etc.  Unfortunately, this demonization has now taken hold with the Whatcom Democrats where on their web page one of the vice chairs now describes opponents as supporters of segregation. I never thought that in my lifetime I would be referred to as a segregationist. 

What I am opposed to is not changes in zoning but changing zoning with little thought in mind about goals to be achieved and measures to let us know when we have arrived at those goals.  We are witnessing a slap-dash effort without a careful definition of the problem to be solved.  Generalizations, such as “affordability”, are followed by demonization of citizens if they do not support the vague means to get there…wherever “there” is.  I wrote the following several days ago on NWCitizen:

“The city is approaching housing and affordability in a haphazard and disconnected manner. It is a piecemeal approach to growth planning that has no measurable goals and forces citizens to consider various solutions separately, as fragments without a cohesive element other than to build more of everything. Throw out the rules and densify, densify, densify in the name of an elusive affordability and equity that cannot be met by free market action because the free market has no interest in affordability and equity. The kicker is that a Bellingham land capacity analysis [see attached] demonstrates that without any changes to our land use, there is sufficient capacity for growth projections for the next 20 years. There is ample developable land already to accommodate affordable housing. Adding for land capacity won’t automatically create more housing capacity. Affordable housing, on the other hand, is guaranteed only by living wages, subsidies to individuals or families, public housing or rent controls. Anything else is a gift to those who profit from development. No coastal city in the entire U.S. with a strong economy and satisfactory quality of life has been able to provide affordable housing.”

Note also that the neighborhoods were left out of the planning efforts for Housing Week except to attend dutifully lectures by people and organizations who knew better than the city residents what those residents need.  So much for inclusiveness. Meanwhile the Planning Commission lurches forward telling the neighborhoods what is good for them but not for a moment taking a serious look at their warnings of unintended outcomes. Input from a focus group of stakeholders on the ADU ordinance is largely ignored.

I am exhausted with and disgusted by this fragmented and hasty process in which we are lectured by Council Member Barker and others who think their propositions are the only answer and the rest of us should keep our mouths shut. So I am calling on the City Council and the Mayor to do whatever is necessary to stop this dangerous development involving demonization and vilification. “

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