Bellingham is wrestling with a housing issue that has sparked one of the most divisive discussions in years — a proposal to change rules that govern home additions and backyard cottages in single-family neighborhoods citywide.
Debate over accessory dwelling units in Bellingham — also called "mother-in-law units" or "granny flats" — has generated accusations of racism and elitism, according to both supporters and opponents of a contentious proposal now before the City Council.
"This ordinance as proposed by the Planning Commission does not resolve the issues of infill, affordability and diversity as it proclaims," said South Hill resident Geoff Middaugh, during a public hearing at City Hall last week that lasted nearly three hours.
"It divides us. It conflicts us," Middaugh said. "Never in my furthest imagination could I believe that a local issue like this could pit a community against itself in this manner. I've ended up being misframed as racist, exclusionary, against diversity."
ADUs have become a frequent topic online among members of local groups such as Don't Ballardize Bellingham, the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition, Open Neighbors Bellingham and the Bellingham Tenants Union.
After hearing about 50 residents speak Monday, the City Council voted to continue discussion during a later meeting of its Committee of the Whole. A date wasn't immediately set, but Council President Roxanne Murphy said it could be later this month.
City officials are still accepting comments on the proposed ordinance.
ADUs are small apartments or rooms that can be either part of or separate from the main house on a property.
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 a typical property in the Lettered Streets or Columbia neighborhoods, said city planner Chris Koch.
About 100 units already have been built citywide in areas zoned for single-family homes, with about the same number of illegal units, Koch 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.
One off-street parking space would be required for each ADU and transportation and park impact fees would be waived.
Middaugh said he lacks trust in how city officials will enforce the measure under consideration.
Other speakers countered that the proposed new rules will provide Bellingham residents with a range of housing choices — especially for young professionals as they begin their careers, for children who move home after college, for adult children with disabilities, or for elderly people who need live-in caregivers.
"We must build affordable homes and we must do it now," said Cora Cole, a Western Washington University student who lives in Lettered Streets. "I don't think that this is an Orwellian state of exception we create here this evening."
Rose Lathrop of Happy Valley, the green building and smart growth program manager for Sustainable Connections, described how she got help with a down payment for her house in 2001 when she was a 20-year-old single mother working two jobs while attending WWU.
"There's no way that I could afford to buy a house at any point along that time — and currently couldn't afford to buy a house today — if it wasn't for the fact that I had help, and I was fortunate," Lathrop said.
"I would love to be able to build that ADU in my backyard, reduce my housing costs, be able to afford to send my daughter to college," she said.
Rebecca Meloy, a Columbia neighborhood resident who supports the revised rules, said the new regulations should be implemented citywide, not just in select neighborhoods. Some Bellingham neighborhoods currently have covenants that prevent ADUs, which could invalidate any new rules there.
"It is wrong to pick and choose across certain neighborhoods and cause division," Meloy said.
Bellingham officials have been trying to encourage housing in a variety of forms without adding urban sprawl as residents cope with rising home prices and skyrocketing rents.
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 report from Zillow.com.
Tom Follis, a Bellingham real estate appraiser and broker, said the local vacancy rate is below 1 percent.
City officials said ADUs are a small part of the overall plan to address Northwest Washington's housing crisis.
Much of the friction centers on detached accessory dwelling units in older Bellingham neighborhoods that are mostly single-family homes on smaller lots, said Councilman Terry Bornemann. He represents the city's 5th Ward, which includes parts of the Sehome, South Hill and York neighborhoods.
Bornemann said he fears that the bulk of the pressure to build ADUs will be in older single-family neighborhoods with smaller lot sizes — such as Columbia, Lettered Streets, Sehome, York and South Hill.
He said restrictive covenants in some neighborhoods — he cited Edgemoor, upper Alabama Hill and Cordata — prevent such detached backyard homes.
Murphy said she thinks that some residents fear that ADUs could turn into short-term rentals or Air BNBs, changing the character of neighborhoods and causing problems with noise and parking.
A proposed pilot program for detached ADUs in Happy Valley is an example of how neighborhoods and the city can work together, and a way to see how detached ADUs can affect a neighborhood, officials said. Opponents urged the city to wait until the program has a chance to take effect before approving changes citywide.
South Hill currently has 20 legal ADUs, and the city's original ADU measure passed in 1995 required that the council reconsider its rules when any single neighborhood reached 20 legal units.
Mayor Kelli Linville said a more broad approach toward ADUs was taken as a result of a recent survey that showed housing, homelessness and jobs among the top three subjects that Bellingham residents want to see city officials address.
'A great alternative'
"I think it will continue to be an issue with the city and it will come back again," Linville said. "Especially for small families and couples, I think that it's a great alternative."
Rick Sepler, director of the Planning & Community Development Department, said a new policy would allow code enforcement officers to bring illegally built units into compliance with current codes.
"To stop all development till we resolve these issues flies in the face of a statewide housing crisis," Sepler said.
Several of the opponents said that the expanded rules governing ADUs are a de facto zoning change, and they would prefer to see backyard homes and home additions regulated by a conditional use permit that would allow neighbors to have input on a project planned nearby.
In an interview at his Birchwood home, Kurt Baumgarten said he built a detached accessory dwelling unit legally under the city's "infill toolkit" plan that was developed in the 2000s. It's a carriage house — an apartment above a two-car garage behind his home in a former orchard overlooking Squalicum Creek Park.
"I understand the concerns and I think they're valid but also they might be a little unfounded," he said. His building passed the scrutiny of both neighbors and city officials, he said.
Tommy Lingbloom of Sunnyland, however, has an illegal detached ADU that was built as an artist studio at his home.
Lingbloom described how he was raised in Bellingham, attended WWU and started teaching at Bellingham Schools.
He and his wife, also a teacher, bought their house and rented its illegal studio to a handful of tenants at a reduced price. The extra income helped with their mortgage.
But the city forced him to stop renting it.
"I guess I was really naive in how all this housing stuff worked," Lingbloom said. "And now this beautiful place where someone could live is sitting vacant right now. That's another baker, or a teacher or a church employee who does not have a place to live."
Lettered Streets resident Galen Herz said rising rents and the shortage of housing are squeezing workers, youth, the elderly, and families.
"Everyone deserves a place to call home, and every neighborhood should have homes accessible to people of all incomes. This ordinance represents a small step toward those goals," said Herz, who is a member of the Bellingham Tenants Union.
"I believe that most of us ... on both the pro and anti-DADU side want what is best for people and what is best for the city," Herz said.
"ADUs and backyard cottages can improve our housing availability, allow for intergenerational living and aging in place. ... We need to pass this and move on to bigger and bolder solutions that are in line with the housing challenge here."
Information about a proposed Happy Valley pilot project was corrected April 16, 2018.