Bellingham debates whether to allow more ADUs in single-family neighborhoods
Two Bellingham neighborhoods illustrate why a proposal to allow tiny homes, backyard cottages or carriage houses in single-family areas citywide has generated so much debate.
Faced with rising rents and home prices over the past several years, Bellingham officials have been looking for various ways to add housing without causing sprawl in the hope of easing a vacancy rate that's nearly zero and offering younger residents a glimmer of hope that they can build a future in Bellingham.
"Even my kids can't afford to live in the neighborhood they grew up in," said Happy Valley Neighborhood Association board member Wendy Scherrer.
Scherrer said Happy Valley board members support a city plan that would expand the ordinance governing accessory dwelling units, called ADUs for short. Before the City Council started to consider the new ADU rules in all areas, the Happy Valley neighborhood was pushing for a trial effort to allow up to 20 ADUs in that neighborhood.
"I want us to use existing structures in a smarter way," said Happy Valley resident Alex McLean. "It seems like a natural evolution. People are doing it anyway (illegally)."
York Neighborhood Association president Mark Sherman said members of the York board oppose the citywide plan.
"It's gone from a pilot project to a citywide 'upzone,' " Sherman said. "To us, it seemed as if we've gone from a single neighborhood self-determining how they will participate in housing in the neighborhood to one in which a top-down decision is on the verge of being made that doesn't include the voices alive in the neighborhood."
A decision could come soon.
City Council members held a public hearing and discussed the ADU measure April 9 and again in committee on April 23. Written public comment closed Friday, and the council meets again May 7.
ADUs are small apartments added to the main house on a property, or a small house that's separate from the main house – such as an apartment above a garage.
Detached ADUs are prohibited in most areas of Bellingham, but the proposed new rules would allow them, said city planner Chris Koch.
Those detached units — or D-ADUs — are the blister point of community friction, especially in neighborhoods surrounding Western Washington University, where demand for student housing has turned many single-family homes into virtual rooming houses.
In York, it's not unusual for four or more students to share a house, allowing the landlord to charge rent that's far too expensive for a young working family.
City law bans more than three unrelated people in a single-family home, but that rule is routinely flouted and nearly impossible to enforce, York residents said.
That's one reason that the York Neighborhood Association board opposes the proposed ADU ordinance, especially in regard to detached units. They believe that the measure will add to existing problems such as parking, noise and safety of tenants.
"Instead of a family of two parents and two kids, you can rent out each bedroom independently and get $500 a person," Sherman said. "This creates incentive to rent to students, sometimes in totally unsafe conditions."
It's not that the neighborhood hates students, Sherman said. York neighbors welcome student input and even have space on the board for student representatives — although those seats are vacant at the moment.
Tom Scott, another York resident, said there's broad fear that backyard cottages could become short-term rentals or Airbnbs.
"On the plus side, a D-ADU does add housing," Scott said. "But the Airbnb, that takes jobs away from people who work here in the hospitality industry. Plus, it cuts into the housing stock and drives up prices."
Though their neighborhood boards differ on the issue of backyard cottages, both York and Happy Valley share a rich history and are among the oldest neighborhoods in Bellingham's post-pioneer era.
Political leanings trend left in both areas — with voters overwhelmingly choosing Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton over the Republicans' Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, according to the Whatcom County Auditor's Office.
"I really believe that it's not black and white, it's not red and blue," Scherrer said. "Any intelligent person realizes that there's a real-estate crunch that Bellingham is going to have to deal with. We're all in this together."
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 recent report from Zillow.com.
In 2016, renters made up 76 percent of the population in York and 78 percent in Happy Valley, according to the city's website.
York is mostly single-family homes with a few duplexes and apartments, while Happy Valley combines a range of housing options, including apartments, duplexes, senior housing and innovative developments such as co-housing and land trust projects.
York is about one-third the size of Happy Valley, with 2,600 residents across 222 acres according to U.S. Census and city of Bellingham figures. It lies east of downtown, bordered by Ellis Street/Samish Way, Lakeway Drive, Interstate 5, and Whatcom Creek. It includes Nelson's Market and Marlins' Cafe, which date to 1895.
Happy Valley has 7,000 residents in 627 acres. It lies south of WWU and east of Fairhaven, a mostly flat wetland below Sehome Hill and South Hill, extending to Interstate 5. It includes the Connelly Creek Nature Area, and the Sehome Village shopping center.
Happy Valley still shows evidence of its early residents, the mill and cannery workers who lived in modest homes near their jobs in Fairhaven. Farther east toward the freeway, the neighborhood reflects its agricultural past, with larger lots on former farmland, but also a high concentration of apartments and other multi-family construction.
The city's Happy Valley Neighborhood plan notes several areas of single-family residential use with lots ranging from 2,500 to 20,000 square feet.
York is "perhaps Bellingham's earliest middle-class neighborhood," and most of its homes were built between 1885 and 1939, according to its profile at the city website. York homes are small, on lots averaging 4,500 square feet, and close together.
It has a population density of 15.3 units per acre, vs. Happy Valley's density of 13.2 units per acre.
"The character of York is really special to those who live here," Sherman said.
Many York homes are classic examples of early 1900s residential architecture, and reflect the pride their owners show in their imaginative paint schemes and well-kept lawns and gardens. Other older homes have become essentially rooming houses – occupied by several students who share the rent.
Average assessed value of a single- family house was $277,797 in Happy Valley and $252,768 in York, according to city of Bellingham research.
Other data such as age, education and median income, are more difficult to assess, because Happy Valley makes up an entire U.S. Census tract, but York is part of a statistical area that includes the Sunnyland neighborhood.
Income levels for Happy Valley also are skewed because of that neighborhood's high student population, said Chris Behee, a government information systems analyst for the city.
A total of 14, 972 students were enrolled at WWU in spring quarter, according to university records. Of those, 3,712 were living on campus.
But not all off-campus students live in nearby neighborhoods, or even in Bellingham, said WWU spokesman Paul Cocke.
Median household income in Happy Valley is $21,838 and half its residents live below the poverty line, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. Median age is 22.8 years and 41.1 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher.
Median household income in York and Sunnyland combined is $41,889 and 26.9 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. Median age is 26.6 years and 42.6 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher.
Both the York and Happy Valley neighborhood associations formed years ago, to fight City Hall and development pressures that began in the late 1970s.
"We don't like to get pushed around by big money," said Hue Beattie, a Happy Valley resident.
"York has a really long history of being at loggerheads with the city over lots of things," he said.
Neither neighborhood opposes the city's goal of expanding its stock of affordable housing and giving homeowners more options on how to use their property.
But here's where they split.
Sherman and other association members think that the proposal to expand detached accessory dwellings citywide is being made based on faulty information. For example, he said a city map of legally-built accessory dwellings shows only three completed and one pending application in York.
But on a recent tour of York, neighbors pointed out six buildings in a one-block stretch of alley between Franklin and Ellis streets that likely house renters..
"Let's conduct an inventory and let's go forward and focus on real solutions for housing availability," York resident Anne Mackie said during an April 9 public hearing on the ordinance.
Mackie also works with the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition, which opposes the ADU measure and collected 500 signatures against the measure.
They oppose the citywide change, seeking instead more restrictive rules that would allow detached buildings on a case-by-case basis.
Neighbors say that illegal rooming houses and detached ADUs have added to a crush of parking and noise problems, especially on weekend evenings when students have guests and parties. York's proximity to downtown adds to the parking crush as visitors seek free parking away from the downtown core.
Streets and alleys throughout York are lined with cars and residents sometimes must park blocks away from home.
"What's happening is that a single lot can be occupied by nine people, which if you don't plan for it, you have a block like mine," said York association board member Jean Ryan.
Conversely, Happy Valley neighborhood representatives who embrace the citywide proposal showed a stretch of alley where they said detached units could add housing without causing other problems.
"We have a lot of houses that were built within the last 100 years in our neighborhood," Scherrer said. "Alley housing is a popular thing in a lot of cities, and it's already happening in a lot of neighborhoods, permitted or not permitted. But ADUs could be in alleys."
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.
Proposed new rules for ADUs would reduce the minimum lot size for the property from 10,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet — about the size of typical property in the Lettered Streets or Columbia neighborhoods, he said.
Other changes would allow as many as four occupants per D-ADU and limit the number of bedrooms 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, and the owner must live in either the main house or the detached unit, he said.
A review of the ordinance would be required by 2025, or when 200 new legal ADUs are built, whichever comes first.
York neighbors reflect the opposition view that such detached units should undergo more city scrutiny, such as what's required under a conditional use permit, said Kim Bogren Owen, former York association president.
"You have very incredibly high demand for a small number of houses. Nobody disagrees that we all want more affordable housing. We just want to be heard," Owen said.
Owen said she hopes that York can continue to see a diverse mix of ages and incomes, from students and young professionals to young families and retirees — rich and poor alike. She said they'd also like to see more racial diversity.
"I'm not doing this because I think I'm going to lose money," she said. "Any homeowner in this neighborhood stands to make a lot of money if this goes through. But we won't do that because we know it won't solve the problem."
Attribution for a comment about "big money" was corrected May 3, 2018.