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Saturday, May 8, 2021

City Council holds public hearing on short-term housing, temporary encampments

By Megan Sokol

In two public hearings on June 18, the Bellingham City Council heard from the planning and development commission as part of a continuing discussion on temporary encampments and short-term lodging, among other topics.

With Bellingham locals concerned over rising rent and lack of availability, along with complaints from residents frustrated with Bellingham’s homeless shelter, the city of Bellingham is looking to make some changes to current ordinances.

Lisa Pool, Bellingham Planning and Community Development senior planner, presented a draft ordinance for short-term lodging to replace the current outdated regulations on bed and breakfast facilities.

The largest of the changes would include the creation of a three-tier permit system, based on number of rooms and maximum stay, to regulate short-term lodging operations.

The City Council did not entirely support the proposal and moved unanimously to push the discussion back to the planning commission.

Short-term lodging refers to hospitality options like AirbnB and HomeAway. Pool said that over 300 homes in Bellingham are AirbnB residences.

Short-term housing hosts at the public hearing were against the proposed permit system, claiming they are too strict and costly for them to maintain. Their opponents argued that short-term lodging would exacerbate rising rent costs, rather than make them better, claiming the increase of short-term housing would raise rent for their neighbors.

Bellingham resident Don Keenan mentioned that AirbnB is essentially illegal in many other communities by referencing how Paris is currently suing AirbnB for raising the costs for neighboring tenants to live in the area and forcing them out of their homes.

The council also opened for public hearing on amending the current zoning ordinance regarding temporary encampments.

Residents who live near the shelter addressed frustrations over the gradual decay of their environment. They said litter, used needles and human feces are often left outside the shelter, and business owners say they are losing money.

HomesNow! Coordinator Jim Peterson agreed that the shelter needed structure, stating that tiny homes could relieve some of the community stress.

Richard M. Sepler, Bellingham Planning and Community Development director, tried to redirect the public’s attention from the shallow guard shelter and more toward how facilities within the shelter can be regulated

Though no decisions were made, the council takes public comments into consideration as they move forward. City Council member Pinky Vargas told the public that the city is trying to solve the problem in front of them, not create any more.

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