BELLINGHAM - More than three years ago, after months of public debate, City Council approved new development regulations to allow construction of some different types of housing that were supposed to help meet the demand for places to live inside the city limits.
How many of those housing types have been built in response to the new rules?
Precisely zero, says Chris Koch, a city planner.
"We've only had one application," Koch said. "It was approved for one small house, and that was not built."
The 2009 rules, lumped together under the "infill toolkit" label, permitted construction of a variety of mostly smaller housing units such as cottages, duplexes, triplexes, townhomes, and new dwelling units attached to existing homes.
During a City Council committee discussion of the matter on Dec. 10, Koch said the planning department gets calls from property owners thinking about taking advantage of those rules. City planners also remind property owners of these opportunities when people call the city to find out what their development options might be.
But in Koch's view, the new housing types are not being built here because they still are prohibited in most single-family neighborhoods.
When planning department staffers brought the new housing types to council in 2009, they had intended them for use in existing single-family neighborhoods. But residents of many of the city's older neighborhoods were hostile.
Council member Terry Bornemann reminded fellow council members why that was the case: Residents of many city neighborhoods already are unhappy about crowded rental houses that cause parking problems and other neighborhood issues. They saw the 'infill toolkit" housing types as encouraging more of the same.
"Wherever you have neighborhoods like York and Sehome that are already higher-density areas, some people pushed back at that," Bornemann said.
Council member Jack Weiss noted that the infill toolkit also provides design standards meant to help avoid problems and make the new dwellings compatible with neighborhoods. Residents of some neighborhoods said they liked the changes, but opponents convinced the council to limit their use to areas already zoned for multi-family dwellings.
Koch said the council had hoped that some of the new housing varieties would be built in those other areas, giving both the council and city residents a chance to get comfortable with them and smooth the way for their eventual use in single-family zones. But that hope has not been realized.
In addition to the single-family barrier, Koch said homebuilders are deterred by a lengthy permitting process, hefty fees, higher costs per square foot, and an aversion to being the first to try something new - aside from the fact that the housing market and the rest of the economy remain sluggish.
Koch plans to develop some new approaches in hopes of modifying the rules for infill toolkit housing types to make them more palatable to both neighborhood advocates and City Council, and thereby spur some actual development. He promised to stay in communication with neighborhood leaders while those new approaches are in development, in hopes of having proposals that will be less controversial for council review in the second half of 2013.
"We're going to be looking at the barriers that have prevented this thing from being implemented," Koch said. "There's a lot of barriers, real and perceived."