A Different Take on Neighborhood Character

by Shannon Maris

The front page article entitled “Character —The Content of Bellingham’s Neighborhoods” by Dick Conoboy (Whatcom Watch, February 2017) had some inaccurate statements. I would like to address those so accurate information is used when considering the options for the future of our neighborhoods.

I am a local residential designer, so I am familiar with the requirements for attached accessory dwelling units, the permitting process and the planning “language.” I am involved in reviewing the In-fill Toolkit requirements for detached accessory dwellings as part of a work group for the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association pilot project. And I am becoming more familiar with the In-fill Toolkit process via projects in multi-family zoned neighborhoods.

Detached and attached accessory dwellings can be quite involved, specific, and complex, so I can understand how information could get interchanged or misinterpreted.

Accessory Dwelling Units
At this time, Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) can ONLY be attached, and they have been allowed in single-family zoned neighborhoods since 1995. Detached ADUs (D-ADU) have been legal in multi-family zoning areas since 2009 via the In-fill Toolkit. (1)
Detached ADUs are allowed in single-family zoning with exceptions as noted in the “Guide for ADUs in single-family zones.” (2)

Not all two or more unit structures in single family zones are illegal. The units may have been established under a zoning which allowed multi-family development. If this is the case, the unit may be considered ‘legal non-conforming use.’ Applications to establish a legal non- conforming use are available from the Permit Center.

Or detached ADUs are allowed via the In-fill Toolkit, which “establishes special development regulations for a series of housing forms that are different than the traditional detached single-family dwelling unit. These regulations are intended to implement comprehensive plan goals and policies encouraging infill development, more efficient use of the remaining developable land, protection of environmentally sensitive areas, and creating opportunities for more affordable housing.”

Some of Bellingham’s older neighborhoods were established in the late 1800s, so there is a distinct possibility that the zoning, use, or buildings on a lot do not follow the current zoning rules. For instance, the lot I live on once had a church with a caretaker’s cottage and a parson’s cottage, which would have technically made it commercial due to the church. Now, 121 years later, it is single family, and the church moved to Harris and 18th St.

If an existing detached ADU were to become a legal ADU, it would have to follow the ADU guidelines (Endnote 2) — meaning it would have to be attached to the main residence and meet all the current regulations as listed on the city of Bellingham guidelines.

Proof of Occupancy
It has always been required that the owner of an ADU live in one of the residences to keep the intent of the 1995 ruling consistent: “to benefit the homeowner and family and retain single-family zoning and character.” Every odd year the owner is required to submit to the city proof of occupancy. (2)

In case you were worried about uncontrolled proliferation of ADUs:

“A maximum of 20 ADU permits may be granted in each neighborhood, at which time the City Council will review the ADU ordinance. The ordinance will also be reviewed within 60 days of issuance of the 200 ADU permit.”

The last time I was at the permit department, the South Hill neighborhood had met the maximum of 20, and no more are being allowed until the ordinance is reviewed.
ADUs or D-ADUs will not solve the housing crisis; correct, they were never intended to be the sole answer. To deal with our local housing crisis will take many forms and a combination of solutions.

The article mentioned that ADUs will increase service levels. Yes – no matter what – if you add more people service levels will increase. Do you want to provide services to more people where services already exist in town, where there are multiple options for people to decrease the level of transportation service by walking, biking, busing or driving much shorter distances from local neighborhoods? Or do you want to pay to provide new services where none exist outside the boundaries of town. We can’t put a lock on the city — so it would be wise to make choices with lesser impacts where services already exist.

The article also stated landlords in single-family zoning can add another residence to all their existing rental properties if the detached ADU ordinance goes through. But there is the owner-occupied requirement and that is exactly why I strongly support that it should remain in place. The landowner must occupy one of the residences and every odd year provide proof of occupancy.

A more valid concern voiced recently was – and what if owners don’t live there? How is that occupancy rule enforced? Yes, any rule is only as good as the follow-up. What are the consequences when in violation? Are they sufficient and effective? How can it be prevented? These are all good questions to ask the city’s Planning Department representatives.

To lump all “rentals or problem rentals” together and say D-ADUs should not be allowed (remember ADUs have been legal in single-family neighborhoods since 1995) is neither accurate nor fair. Most of us have experienced bad neighbors, bad renters, inconsiderate or misguided youth or excessively loud drinking – they all make for unpleasant neighbors, and they could be living in perfectly legal rentals. Yes there are problems, but that doesn’t justify banning all rentals or stopping only D-ADUs. You wouldn’t ban licensing drivers until you identify and eliminate all “problem drivers.”

To say it is WWU’s responsibility to house all of its students states the impossible and improbable. Many students stay in the dorms a short time and then leave for off-campus housing because dorms are often not very pleasant or productive places to live. Not all college students want to live in hi-density student “silo” housing, and not all students are in their 20s or bad neighbors.

Rentals Versus Owner-occupied
In response to York neighborhood having a “preponderance” of rentals, the U.S. Census reports Bellingham as having 46 percent owner-occupied homes and 54 percent rentals. So, York having 54 percent rentals meets the average. The Happy Valley Neighborhood, however, has 78 percent multi-family housing units, many of which are much closer to the university, compared to York’s 40 percent multi-family.

Further, the assertion that rentals go for $3,000 to $3,500 and destroy affordable housing choices assumes all those houses are seven-bedroom rentals at $400-500 per tenant. Most families only need a three-bedroom house, so using the same ratio puts the monthly rent at $1,500 month rent.

It is highly unfortunate, however, that large, unattractive, multi-bedroom “single-family” houses are being built in a couple of the single-family zoned neighborhoods and causing problems and grief for surrounding homeowners. It was mentioned that some developers just don’t care. Yes, but residents have spoken out and made the issues and problems known.

Happy Valley residents rallied when five-bedroom apartment complexes started appearing and causing problems. Concerned neighbors succeeded in getting a moratorium on five-bedroom apartments until problems were addressed and revised the bedrooms down to four. But our neighborhood is left with a swath of big apartments and wall-to-wall paved parking in that development.

If we zoom out and look at the big picture, the reality is we live in a college town with 15,000 students who typically have little money but need to live somewhere. That demand has created many years of both legal and illegal housing situations. There are also people wanting to live here, some who were raised here, but can not afford to buy a house here, as well as singles who want to live here and do not need a single-family home.

In the present shifting economy, real estate is one of the few safe investments, and it creates an income. There is no way we are going to stop people from buying houses and renting them to students (or adults), or selling them for what the market will bear. The one solution Mr. Conoboy offered was to take all the rentals and make them affordable housing. That would be ignoring 15,000 students who need short-term rentals, the popularity of our housing market and the current demographic of our population being over 50 percent single, senior, divorced. So we need to find other solutions to affordable rentals and affordable houses.

I agree completely with Mr. Conoboy, that the last thing we need is to create windfalls for speculators at the expense of neighborhood character. No one working on solutions to our housing issues in our neighborhood wants to ruin where we live and what we call home. Quite the opposite — we are aware of a tremendous need for housing, and we are trying to find solutions that DO fit in our unique neighborhood that allows it to be compact, diverse, connected, safe, walkable/bikeable, beautiful and healthy.

There are only a few ways to make things affordable:
1. Subsidize it with public or private money — or both.
2. Sweat equity — fixers or programs like Habitat for Humanity.
3. Build smaller (there is a limit to this rule).
4. Split the cost between more people (student model).
5. Live in less desirable conditions. (It’s called a low-rent district for a reason!)

There are a few forms of housing:
1. Single family
3. Multi-family/duplex/4-plex/apartments
4. Co-housing

We will be running out of single-family lots in Happy Valley soon and 78 percent is already multi-family. Our only option is D-ADU or ADUs or up-zone single family to multi-family. Our clear preference is D-ADUs or ADUs to provide housing, to preserve the character of our few remaining single-family zones, and to lower the environmental impact as well as concentrate building where services and infrastructure already exist.

Happy Valley Pilot Project
The Happy Valley Neighborhood Association decided to work on solutions to its housing problem and volunteered to be a pilot project for Detached Accessory Dwellings and to test out two of the In-Fill Toolkit housing forms: the Carriage House which is a small apartment above a garage and the detached accessory dwelling (800 square foot maximum).

I encourage everyone to try his or her hand at writing policy. It is really tough to come up with language that covers all the possible situations, allows what you do want and hopefully doesn’t cause what you don’t want (AKA unintended circumstances!) It became clear as we visited various sites that each circumstance was different and unique. What didn’t work in one location was just fine in others. I gained a lot of respect for planners and policy writers in our process!

Pilot projects by definition are small-scale test cases. In our case, a limited number of units will be allowed (6-10) and we can evaluate, revise and adjust as needed and work towards a model that fits. Neighbors intimately familiar with the neighborhood are reviewing the draft — rather than someone who doesn’t live here.

We are getting assistance and guidance by the city, so we can understand the language, references, history, exceptions and details. We have done on-site visits to potential sites and learned so much! We could not have done this without the help of Chris Koch, City Planner and Rick Sepler, Director of Planning and Community Development!

All of us need to get involved. Focus on solutions and focus on the specific issues with creativity, communication, a “how can this work” attitude and amazing things can happen.
Here’s an example. A three-bedroom rental on the next block was a problem probably once a month on Friday nights with loud music, racing cars, crazy parking, shouting people late into the night. One of the neighbors got the property owner’s phone number, and when ruckus ensued called the owner, sometimes late at night, so he could hear what was going on at his rental. The police were called as needed and two months later the renters were gone.

No landlord wants to see their investment trashed or get late night calls, and the residents probably didn’t like their party nights visited by the police. I learned that neighbors could work together on solutions and actually make change out of concern and respect for our neighborhood.

We are all in this together. Let’s work together to find solutions that DO work for each neighborhood and create a model with great alternatives for housing a diverse set of demographics and people. Bellingham is a great place to live — let’s keep it that way (or make it even better!) and find ways to share that with others within our present boundaries. It might not be easy but it will be worth it.

(1) More information is here: https://www.cob.org/gov/dept/pcd/Pages/infill-housing-toolkit.aspx
(2) https://www.cob.org/documents/planning/applications-forms/153-adu-information.pdf

Shannon Maris is a residential designer in Bellingham and is on the front lines of the detached accessory dwelling debate. Many past and present clients are waiting for the ordinance to change so they can house their relatives, elders, down-size and still stay on their property, or have a rental income to supplement their income



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