Bellingham looks to tackle illegal housing after months of public input

Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Over the course of 2016, longstanding concerns about illegal rental units in some city neighborhoods have bubbled to the surface as the City Council updated its Comprehensive Plan and at times had heated exchanges with the public.

At the heart of the matter are housing issues.

Residents who are upset about the changing character of their neighborhoods and issues associated with rental units are asking the city to enforce rules already on the books.

Council members are trying to plan for the housing and services needed for all the people who will move to the area over the next 20 years. And those who invest in development want to make sure there is enough space to build.

Bellingham has a less than 1 percent vacancy rate, making it harder for people to find housing and driving up rents, and rapidly increasing home values — Whatcom County homes appreciated 10 percent in the third quarter of 2016 compared to a year earlier.

Enter the discussion about “accessory dwelling units” or ADUs, which are essentially small self-contained apartments separate from the main home on a property. Many call these “mother-in-law” apartments, and they can be attached to a house or stand on their own.

Anne Mackie, a community leader in the York and Sehome neighborhoods, has helped lead a group trying to get the city to address the issues of ADUs.

“Our key issue is ADUs have been built in neighborhoods without proper permitting and without following city guidelines,” Mackie said.

While there are rules on the books on how and where those units can be built, enforcement is complaint-based, and proving violations can be difficult.

“I would say many of us are not against that housing form,” Mackie said. “It has a place in a solution for affordable housing. But it’s the absentee landlords who are typically owners of these units – they’ve maximized their profits really at the detriment to the neighborhood.”

Currently, city code requires that owners occupy either the main house or the ADU for it to be in compliance.

But on July 25, four of the six council members (Terry Bornemann was gone that day) voted to change city policy to remove the owner occupancy requirement, citing a desire to promote more housing supply.

“There’s a real misunderstanding of thinking that renters are bad. Renters aren’t,” council member April Barker said.

She said inappropriate behavior already is against city code, and she worried that enforcing owner occupancy might result in less housing availability if someone had to move away and could only rent one of the units on a property instead of both.

Council member Gene Knutson voted against the measure, saying, “I understand people talking about enforcement, but this language has been in here a long time. I think you’re going to see the wrath if we take it out of there.”

And the council did receive backlash.

Public comment breakdown

During the Aug. 8 council meeting, Mackie, Dick Conoboy and Sean Wheeler spoke against the council’s recent actions.

Mackie said the vote gave a “green light to the real estate and rental industry to continue what they have been doing for the last 20 years – ignoring the housing rules of our city.”

Mackie continued past her 3-minute time limit, saying she and others had fought hard for renters’ rights and inspections, and that to say they thought renters were bad was false.

Wheeler said he was concerned the change would contribute to the housing affordability problem as more units are converted into expensive rentals.

When his 3 minutes expired, Council Chairwoman Pinky Vargas called time, but Wheeler continued reading from his prepared statements.

When he was over his comment period by about 15 seconds, Vargas got out of her chair, walked over to him and said, “Your time is up, Sean, thank you very much.”

Though the exchange lasted only a few seconds, many people were surprised by the breakdown in decorum, and the meeting was criticized in local blogs.

Wheeler said in an interview he found the move “supremely offensive.”

“One of the things I think is really crippling our country and our society is that we don’t have enough people involved or engaged. I think a lot of people feel very disenfranchised,” Wheeler said. “I had a sentence and a half left. There’s kind of a long tradition of if you have some information, they give you 30 seconds’ grace.”

Wheeler said it’s easy to dismiss the neighborhood concerns as frustration with nuisance issues such as parking and parties, but the larger issue for him is “the corruption of the economic market and what that means long-term for this neighborhood.”

He bought his house in the York neighborhood a few years ago and expects it has nearly doubled in value.

“It didn’t go from $180,000 to $300,000 in three years simply because I remodeled the kitchen, put on a deck and redid the garage,” Wheeler said. “It’s because property values have gone through the roof. Because anything on the market gets bought almost immediately with cash offers.”

Vargas later explained that she was at a loss for how to respond during the Aug. 8 meeting, and the later Oct. 17 public hearing, when the audience and council got into a back-and-forth after Vargas announced a consultant for the housing and building industry would be allowed more time to speak than usual. Mackie and others objected from the audience, and the meeting got into a back-and-forth, and then was recessed until people cooled off.

“Do I think some people overreacted? I absolutely do. Do I feel bad for what happened? Absolutely. Do I wish I would have handled it differently? Yes,” Vargas said in an interview.

Lessons learned

As chairwoman, Vargas said she has approved every request to give a presentation to the council to avoid the appearance of bias.

What she learned from all of this was that “the community needs an opportunity to speak to City Council outside of council chambers, in maybe a community meeting forum.”

She plans to recommend two public town hall meetings per year that would allow public comment and discussion with council members.

“I think that’s one of the most important lessons learned here. People feel like there is not an opportunity for discussion,” Vargas said. “I hear that. They’re right, and I suggest a change.”

Second, she said the city needs to do something about enforcement issues, and look to the future.

“We must look at how we’re going to accommodate 30,000 people, and we have a housing crisis already,” Vargas said. “Let’s find solutions. In order to do that, everything has to be on the table. We cannot quell things people find uncomfortable.”

What to do about ADUs

About a month after the July vote, the council rescinded that change and maintained the owner occupancy requirement for ADUs.

During the Dec. 5 council meeting, Planning Director Rick Sepler told the council the planning department will hire a new full-time planner in January to put most of their efforts toward finding and dealing with illegal units.

The city plans to create an inventory of units and work to get any that were illegally established into compliance.

The department may also ask the council to change the way some of the code is written to make enforcement easier, and the council could try to review the “rule of three,” which says no more than three unrelated people can live in a unit together.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil