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Could this be a way for Bellingham to tackle rising home prices and skyrocketing rents?

Bellingham may expand the number and size of so-called "mother-in-law units" allowed citywide under a measure being discussed Monday. It's part of an effort to add housing without adding sprawl, in the face of rising home prices and rents.
Bellingham may expand the number and size of so-called "mother-in-law units" allowed citywide under a measure being discussed Monday. It's part of an effort to add housing without adding sprawl, in the face of rising home prices and rents. The Bellingham Herald file

Bellingham may expand the number and size of so-called "mother-in-law units" allowed citywide under a measure being discussed Monday.

Faced with rising home prices and skyrocketing rents, city officials have been trying to add housing without adding sprawl.

City planner Chris Koch said the proposed measure will give homeowners more options when adding what the city calls an accessory dwelling unit, or ADUs.

"We see this as an incremental way of accommodating infill," Koch said. "We're not seeing this as a solution to the lack of housing or to the housing crisis."

For several months, members of the city's Planning Commission have been discussing proposed changes to the city's ordinance that regulates accessory dwelling units, which essentially are small apartments or rooms that can be either part of or separate from the main house on a property.

Detached ADUs currently are prohibited in most areas, but the new rules would allow them, Koch said.

A public hearing on the measure is set for 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

Koch said the changes were prompted by a provision in the original 1995 ordinance that regulates ADUs. That provision allows for the ordinance to be reconsidered once more than 20 ADUs are approved in a single neighborhood.

He said about 100 accessory units have been built legally citywide, in addition to several illegally built units and others that are legal but don't conform to current codes and are "grandfathered" into the books.

Neighborhoods most affected by the ordinance include South Hill, York, Sehome and Happy Valley, Koch said.

"Happy Valley is really embracing them," he said, adding that its neighborhood association asked for permission to start a pilot program allowing ADUs.

Because Monday night's public hearing is expected to draw high interest among local residents, the City Council is canceling the 15-minute portion of the meeting that normally allows residents to comment on any issue.

"When we held the Planning Commission meeting on it (in January), it was standing room only," Koch said.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County housing rental rates continue to rise, at a rate even faster than Seattle's.

According to recent figures from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, the median price of homes sold in the first quarter in Bellingham was $425,000.

Median rental rate in Whatcom County was $1,623 a month in February, a 5.6 percent increase compared to a year ago, according to a new report from Zillow.com.

Koch said the new ADU rules under consideration would give homeowners more flexibility if they need a small unit on their property to house a caregiver, if they want to downsize and rent their main house, or if an adult child wants to move home.

Currently, an ADU is allowed only in areas zoned for single-family homes on a lot that's 10,000 square feet or is located on a corner or an alley, Koch said.

Proposed new rules would allow ADUs in all areas zoned for single-family homes and reduce the lot size for ADUs to 5,000 square feet — about the size of typical property in the Lettered Streets or Columbia neighborhoods, he said.

Other changes to the ADU ordinance would allow as many as four occupants, up from the current three, and limit the number of bedrooms in a detached ADU to two.

Height restrictions would be reduced from 25 feet to 20 feet, or about two stories.

One off-street parking space would be required for each ADU and transportation and park impact fees would be waived.

Only one ADU would be allowed per primary residence, he said.

Another city review of the ordinance would be required by 2025, or when 200 legal ADUs are built, whichever comes first.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty
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