I previously lived in a small detached home next to a single-family home in Happy Valley in the 1970s when getting my bachelor’s degree at WWU. It’s what almost all of us students did. The attached and detached accessory dwelling units, known as DADUs, allowed us to live car-free because it put us in easy walking distance of campus and it was affordable. We walked to the neighborhood stores, local coffee shops, and some of my classmates occasionally offered babysitting and gardening to their landlords.
Bellingham’s City Council will soon be voting on an ordinance that will create changes to the current accessory dwelling unit (ADU) regulations as recommended by the Bellingham Planning Commission on a 6-1 vote. If approved, the changes to the regulations will make it possible to build small, 800-square-foot, detached accessory dwelling units where it is not allowed now; that is, smaller detached homes on individual lots. This ordinance would allow DADUs as a secondary housing unit on a residential lot; small homes that are also sometimes called a backyard cottage, laneway house, garage apartment, garage conversion, or carriage house. Legally, a DADU must be part of the same property as the main home. It cannot be bought or sold separately. The owner of the main home is the owner of the DADU.
People build them for many reasons, but the most common goals are homeowners gaining rental income or providing flexible living space for multi-generational households.
There is a role for these small DADU homes in Bellingham neighborhoods. Flexibility in housing makes sense for environmental, lifestyle, and financial reasons. If you have a reasonably sized house and a DADU, you likely will have a combination of environmental benefits and some social benefits as well. You could have a best friend, a parent or a grown child live with you. This kind of flexibility and informal support could really help as the city’s population ages. Most people want to stay in their homes as they age, but finances and health can be problematic. A DADU could help aging people stay in their home, either with the additional rental income or by moving into the DADU and renting out the main house. So that’s the potential of this form of housing.
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The following is a list of the more significant changes to DADU regulations recommended by the planning commission to City Council:
1. Allow DADUs in all single family zoned areas. Only attached ADUs are currently allowed in single-family zoned areas.
2. Reduce the minimum lot size for DADUs from 10,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet
3. Change the maximum number of occupants for all ADUs from three to four.
4. Limit the number of bedrooms in all ADUs to two.
5. Require a minimum of one off-street parking space for all ADUs.
6. Eliminate fees on all ADUs for their affect on transportation and parks impact fees for all ADUs.
7. Reduce the maximum building height for DADUs from 25 feet to 20 feet.
8. Include a requirement to review the ordinance when 200 DADU permits are issued city-wide; or 25 in any one neighborhood; or by year 2025, whichever occurs first.
Let’s encourage the members of the Bellingham City Council to adopt this new ordinance to allow more small homes in Bellingham. If so, the change could be self-propelling. DADUs require no public funding to implement. They could create new income-generating opportunities for property owners. They would bring some of the benefits of density for local prosperity, vibrancy and sustainability. Detached ADUs would provide opportunities for people who need them: units of less expensive, sustainable housing dispersed across our Bellingham neighborhoods.
The issues we face about future housing choices in Bellingham are complex, controversial and ever-changing. As a community, we have engaged in lively debate with friends, family, neighbors, nonprofit housing organizations, planners, planning commissioners, city council members and our mayor for the past three years. I believe we can find common ground on this DADU decision and achieve progress to help solve housing problems, taking important small steps at a time. We can’t do much to solve our housing problems if we don’t take actions.
Small is powerful. We can build small and live large in Bellingham. City Council and Bellingham – together let’s help ease our housing shortage.
Wendy Scherrer is on the board of the Happy Valley Neighborhood Association, has a degree in environmental planning from WWU, and has lived in her neighborhood for more than 40 years.