Backyard Cottages

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Behind the bureaucratic acronym “DADU” are many benefits to the homeowners, retirees, rentersand working people of Bellingham. Detached Accessory Dwelling Units can help address Bellingham’s housing shortage, provide opportunities for aging in place, and preserve ecosystems and farmland.

When we increase housing options, it becomes easier for older folks to maintain independence and participate in our community. The AARP, with U.S. Census Bureau data, notes, “the nation’s decreasing birthrate and aging population will continue to boost the demand for smaller homes in more compact neighborhoods.”  We know that 70% of Bellingham households are 1-2 persons. DADUs, also called granny flats, backyard cottages or laneway housing, are a right-sized solution for our changing community.

Backyard cottages can provide private, independent housing for extended family members within proximity of the rest of the family. No other housing type offers this kind of “built-in” affordability. What a great gift for a family. They not only help parents, but also provide proximity for grandparents to their grandchildren. I wish I could build one for my 86 year-old mother.    

The Weekly quoted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Bellingham Metropolitan Area ranked number one in 2017 for fastest job growth in the U.S.” Meanwhile, rental vacancy rates are at an all-time low of 1.5 percent, creating competition among renters and escalating prices. This spiral compounds our problems. Rental costs are climbing out of reach of working families and of those of us thinking of downsizing and living on fixed incomes.

Many years ago, my grade school teachers lived in a variety of housing forms that were traditional European settler stock—but are now considered non-traditional and even “illegal”. As young professionals starting careers, it made sense to start small—whether with a carriage house along an alley or the duplex next to my grandparents’ single-detached house.

In Bellingham, we have frozen our rules in the 1940s. Seventy percent of our residential land is restricted from using these simple styles of housing. We can return to traditional forms of affordable housing. Bellingham has a history of adapting to the times. We will be a successful and vibrant city only if we remain flexible in our changing world.

I have owned my home in Bellingham for 20 years. Adding a granny flat would be a great way to supplement my income and help pay for my home mortgage. (I realize the mortgage and property taxes would change. The rental income would still outweigh those costs.) There is no pension for my job, and I have no inheritance waiting on the sidelines. This is true for many of us these days. In Portland, nearly half of D/ADU owners are between the ages of 55-74.

Many Bellingham residents are wary of predatory landlord companies owning scores of rental houses. When vacancy rates are so low, large property managers have more market power. If individual homeowners like myself can have backyard cottages, together we can dilute that disproportionate control.

Legalizing backyard cottages will not result in density doubling overnight. Portland, famous for permissive D/ADU laws (no owner occupancy requirement since 1998, building permit fees waived) has seen two D/ADUs built per 100 eligible lots.

We in Bellingham are also passionate about our green space. Therefore, I am grateful that the proposed ordinance keeps in place open space requirements consistent with existing single-family zone standards.        

In fact, the more costly it is to live in Bellingham, the more people choose to move out to the county. The consequence is sprawling development paving over farmland and ecosystems while more people drive through our neighborhoods to reach central destinations. Our taxes pay to build and maintain the extra infrastructure for these longer commutes. When we let people live within walking distance of their needs, we will be living up to our reputation as an environmentally conscious community.

Finally, smaller housing structures are a great way to increase the vitality of Bellingham businesses. Local foot traffic increases economic prospects.

Backyard cottages and granny flats will not solve every problem related to housing supply and affordability. However, the benefits of backyard cottages are substantial, and the entire city will benefit from them.  We have before us an opportunity to help our neighbors and help ourselves. Let’s take this modest step to build a Bellingham that works for all. It’s a smart move for a sustainable future.

Therese Kelliher is a 20-year homeowner in Bellingham with a lifelong interest in building livable communities. She is a former board member and past president of the Puget Neighborhood Association, and was a charter member of the Bellingham Transportation Commission.

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A Public Accounting

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