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Monday, May 10, 2021

Opinion: ADUs can bring some relief to housing crisis

Illustration by Mathew Roland.

By Kira Erickson

Housing has become a hot commodity in Bellingham, and the market is competitive. Too often, students are trapped within a housing market which pits them against lower-income individuals and families. This only succeeds in creating an environment in which landlords can, and do, profit from the high demand by overlooking tenants’ rights.

The local housing crisis has long been a hot topic among Bellingham residents. The upcoming public hearing on the ordinance update for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) has stimulated further discussion about possible solutions to alleviate the housing shortage.

ADUs, though not the only answer to solving the housing crisis, will increase housing and bring at least some relief to Bellingham’s hectic housing market.

The Planning Commission’s report provides support for ADUs, should legal regulations be adjusted. It supports removing the 20-limit restriction on ADUs in each neighborhood, for example, and encourages the building of more detached ADUs.

“Other cities that have successfully sought to make this form of housing more available generally permit all forms of ADUs in all or most areas,” the commission’s report states.

However, new changes being proposed to the Bellingham Municipal Code regarding ADUs are being met with vocal opposition. Some Bellingham residents are threatening access to this more affordable form of housing and underscoring an unsettling claim that they are ruining the “character” of the neighborhood.

In a letter addressed to the Bellingham City Council and Bellingham Planning Commission, these community members expressed an aesthetics-based concern about legalizing ADUs in single-family zones.

“[This] represents a step backward that undermines decades of deliberate Neighborhood Planning by replacing neighborhood plans with overreaching, top-down, cookie-cutter directives that fail to respect neighborhood input,” the letter said. 

They also recommend permanently prohibiting the short-term rental of detached ADUs.

A resident’s concern not just for the appearance of their own property, but of the whole neighborhood, indicates a startling trend of overreaching homeowner control in the development of the neighborhood and of the city. And with Bellingham’s current vacancy rate at 1.79 percent as of 2016, renters may require short-term housing for any number of reasons, work-related or otherwise.

Perhaps they are seeking security from an abusive partner, and having a stable living situation independent of their old one is vital. For some, living in an ADU for a few months may even be a temporary living situation — as in the case of a college student seeking housing — before moving into a different space. Putting restrictions on ADUs such as these does nothing to help alleviate the current housing crisis.

Allowing ADUs in single-family zones city-wide fosters economic growth and diversity within the neighborhoods of Bellingham. They are also a less expensive housing alternative, and desperately needed by some members of the community. According to public comment submitted to City Council, some residents want to build ADUs to help take care of elderly family members. Other people have simply realized they have the extra space for an ADU and want to build one to help out those in need of housing.

The proposed regulation changes for expanding permitting of ADUs may help to reduce the numbers of those struggling to find secure housing, college student or otherwise. Solving the city’s housing crisis is not an easy task, and ADUs are certainly not the sole answer. And as with any housing situation, a strong protection of tenants’ rights are absolutely necessary to stop landlords from taking advantage.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Kira Erickson, Asia Fields and Melissa McCarthy.

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