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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Defining family poses housing barriers

WA State Senate considering bill to prohibit limits for the number of unrelated persons living together

By Kenneth Duncan

Washington state representatives are currently considering a bill that would prohibit local governments across the state from limiting the number of unrelated persons under the same roof, including Bellingham. 

Senate Bill 6302, created in order to address affordable housing and housing access in the state, says that current laws intended to cap unrelated persons living together exacerbate the housing shortage. The bill report also mentions that it could potentially free up to 20,000 bedrooms at zero cost to the public.

Local ordinances make distinctions between what is considered “family” and “unrelated persons,” with cities such as Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Bellingham, limiting the number of non-family persons that can live together. Bellingham’s current cap is one of the lowest in Washington, with a maximum of three non-family individuals per household.

Defining what is and what isn’t family according to local law is difficult. Bellingham’s municipal code defines it as one or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption. Groups of three or less unrelated individuals also function as “family” under Bellingham code. 

Kurt Nabbefeld, a development services manager at Bellingham’s Planning and Community Development Department, said that the code doesn’t acknowledge the changing structure of families in the state.

“We are dealing with a code that is decades old and that family definition has been around for quite some time,” Nabbefeld said. “The typical definition and makeup of families has definitely changed over time.”

The version of the bill passed by state Senate would prevent local governments from regulating the number of unrelated people occupying a household, while an amended version created in the House would allow property owners to apply with their city’s local planning offices to exceed the limit.

According to Nabbefeld, the code is intended to prevent the development of “party houses,” where several unrelated tenants have an adverse impact on a neighborhood. 

“The idea is that the less people that are there, the less impact those people have on surrounding neighbors,” Nabbefeld said. “We work hard with people when we do get these types of complaints and ask, what’s really the problem here? Is it because these five guys living in a house have a party every other night and there’s trash out front? Well, then let’s try to fix that.”

Emily, a Bellingham resident, requested anonymity in order to avoid retaliation from their landlord. Emily said that Bellingham’s cap made it difficult for their non-traditional family to find housing following a sudden eviction.

“We were only able to find a place that we could afford and got approved for the week of our move out, because we had to hide one-fifth of our income on applications,” Emily said. “We have to pretend we don’t have a fifth roommate, which makes our income look tiny, and we got rejected so many times that we almost were forced out of a lease and onto the streets.”

Bellingham’s housing shortages are well documented, with one-bedroom apartments renting for $1,081 a month on average, and two-bedrooms for $1,295. This is a 10.31% and 15.26% increase from 2019, respectively. For new arrivals like Josh Flynn, who moved here from Montana in February for an engineering job, restrictions on available roommates affect his choice.

“Coming as a single guy who didn’t know anyone in the city, it was definitely very difficult to find housing,” Flynn said. “A studio apartment is around $1,200, which I’m not going to pay. My current 3-person housing is the only one that fits my price range without being related to anyone here.”

On top of defining family, enforcement can be difficult. According to Nabbefeld, applying the law in accordance with Bellingham’s definition of family develops its own set of challenges.

“Three or more, related by blood, marriage or adoption: how are we supposed to know if people are related by blood?” Nabbefeld said. “Is it from a marriage perspective? Are we requiring people to show us their marriage certificate? It’s just very, very challenging to show that there’s an actual violation occurring.”

For Emily, legitimizing families that don’t fit Bellingham’s definition would be a step forward for the market overall.

“I think this bill would be a huge step forward in not only protecting renters and balancing the scales, but it would also legitimize non-traditional families and that’s important, too,” Emily said.

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