With rents and home prices rising, they’re hoping these will ease Bellingham housing

Bellingham debates whether to allow more ADUs in single-family neighborhoods

Bellingham may expand the number and size of accessory dwelling units -- so-called mother-in-law apartments added to a house or garage -- allowed in single-family neighborhoods citywide.
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Bellingham may expand the number and size of accessory dwelling units -- so-called mother-in-law apartments added to a house or garage -- allowed in single-family neighborhoods citywide.

New backyard cottages, carriage houses and mother-in-law apartments attached to homes have been popular in the year since the Bellingham City Council eased rules allowing them in residential areas as part of an attempt to address the city’s housing and homelessness crisis.

Bellingham officials have received nearly 70 applications for the little homes known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs over the past 12 months, said Kurt Nabbefeld, development services manager in the Department of Planning and Community Development.

“There was some pent-up demand,” Nabbefeld said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

“At our Permit Center counter, we have been hearing for years that people want to do this,” he said.

In 2018, there were 47 valid applications for ADUs, 42 of them coming after the new ordinance was approved. Those included 31 detached homes or “granny flats,” and 17 attached apartments.

In 2019, there have been 25 applications, including 14 detached homes and 11 attached apartments.

Most applications have been in the Sunnyland neighborhood with 18, followed by Columbia with 10, Birchwood with nine and South Hill with eight. Others are spread out among Cornwall Park, Fairhaven, Happy Valley, Puget, Roosevelt, Sehome, Samish, Edgemoor, South and Alabama Hill neighborhoods, he said.

“Those core neighborhoods, they’re all close to services in the downtown area,” Nabbefeld said.

Last May’s 5-2 council vote drew sharp opposition in some neighborhoods and support from others.

“This new opportunity will give homeowners, in Happy Valley and throughout Bellingham neighborhoods, one more tool to age in place, gain rental income and provide neighbors throughout Bellingham more diverse choices,” said Wendy Scherrer, a member of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association board.

“We now need to hold (the City Council) accountable when, despite this ordinance, housing prices do not come down — which is what I predict will happen,” said Kim Bogren Owen of the York Neighborhood Association. “The ball is in their court now to prove that this will create affordability.”

Nabbefeld said that all the units are still in the permitting or construction phase, so it’s too soon to assess the new measure’s impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Whatcom County home values rose 10% in the first quarter of 2019, according to a recent report from the Federal Housing Finance Agency, ranking the area 16th highest among 241 U.S. metro areas.

Median home price of homes sold in Whatcom County rose 5% to $383,400 in the first quarter, according to an April report from Troy Muljat of Muljat Group Realtors. In the Bellingham market, prices jumped 14.1% to $485,000.

Average monthly rent in Bellingham was $1,823 in April, according to the online real estate company Zillow, up 11% from April 2018.

Nabbefeld said that the new rules require the City Council to re-examine the ADU issue when 200 applications are received citywide or 25 applications are received in one neighborhood, or by the year 2025.

“If rates continue, we might see that threshold tripped” before 2025, he said.

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Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.