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Bellingham
Friday, May 14, 2021

City opens discussion on detached ADUs

By Meredith Karbowski

The Bellingham City Council is opening up discussion on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to improve housing availability for residents of Bellingham.

ADUs are living spaces on a property that one can live in completely independent from the main house. An ADU has its own bathroom and kitchen, and a detached ADU can be a shed or a detached garage, City Planner Chris Koch said.

Changes proposed will allow detached ADUs in single family zoning citywide and lessen other requirements for ADUs. Currently only 20 ADUs are allowed in each single family zoned neighborhood and detached ADUs are not allowed in single-family zones.

Current code mandates the Council to review the ADU ordinance, as the 20-unit limit has been reached by neighborhoods such as South Hill.

“I see this as being a solution,” Koch said. “We have a housing crisis right now, and we need as many tools as possible to help address it, and this is one of the tools.”

Many Bellingham residents have written letters to the City Council this year voicing their opinion on the ordinance banning detached ADUs.

Proponents of detached ADUs say adding them to neighborhoods can add more homes available for renting, which can help to balance the competitive market and lower rental costs.

This accessory dwelling unit is in the Lettered Streets neighborhood, a single family residential zone. It was built on to an existing workshop the early 2000s, and was previously occupied by a tenant. The homeowners now use it as a guest house. // Photo by Taylor Nichols

Galen Herz, a recent Western graduate and cofounder of the Bellingham Tenants Union, said the main issue he has seen in his role with the union is housing availability.

Herz said allowing detached ADUs and building more on single-family homes will help the housing availability crisis.

“Every new home that gets built helps out the situation,” Herz said.

Herz said he has heard different landlords say as many as 40 people will apply on the first day of a new rental listing.

“When there is a low vacancy rate, it forces [potential] tenants to compete against each other, which raises the price of housing,” Herz said. “That’s what has really enabled these large rent increases that we have seen in the last few years.”

According to Census data and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Bellingham’s vacancy rate decreased from 3.4 percent in 2000 to 1.79 percent in 2016.

Herz said allowing detached ADUs on single-family properties can open up neighborhoods to become more inclusive and economically diverse, and also provide better housing availability for students.

In a study done by the State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality on detached ADUs, 98 percent of ADUs in Portland, Oregon in 2014 were reportedly rented out at a mean price similar to an average apartment or cheaper.

April Hinkle-Johnson is a Bellingham resident who lives in a detached ADU. A friend of Hinkle-Johnson had a backyard cottage on their property that she moved into when she graduated college in 2012, she said.

After returning from a yearlong trip in December, Hinkle-Johnson moved back into the cottage. Instead of paying rent, she lives there on a work-trade – she does work around the house for the family, and in return, lives in the cottage rent-free.

Hinkle-Johnson said this was the best option for her after coming back from her trip, as she did not have the funds to find an apartment or home and start paying rent.

Hinkle-Johnson is in support of legalizing detached ADUs, but stated that she is weary of landlords taking advantage of renters.

“Bellingham is a premium market, and a lot of people want to cash in on those people coming into town,” Hinkle-Johnson said. “People could rent out anything, and it could be places really not fit for human habitation, and could be exploiting young renters who don’t know how to advocate for themselves.”

If made legal, detached ADUs must adhere to the same rental requirements as other housing types.

Opponents of detached ADUs feel that they would become a problem if a tenant was being loud or otherwise disruptive to the neighborhood, as they are separate from the main house and less likely to disturb the property owner, Koch said.

Koch also said that residents were concerned that putting more buildings on a property for rental purposes would minimize the natural habitat, which would potentially become an environmental problem.

Despite concerns voiced by residents, Koch thinks that changes to the ordinance are a step in the right direction toward making housing availability more achievable.

A public hearing to discuss changes to this ordinance and the Bellingham municipal code will take place on Jan. 25, at 7:00 p.m. in the City Council chambers.

Bellingham residents are encouraged to provide public comment at the meeting or email written comments to planningcommission@cob.org by Jan. 23 to be shared at the hearing.

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