The Gristle

Much ADUs About Nothing

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

MUCH ADUS ABOUT NOTHING: Imagine two aircraft traveling in opposite directions at different speeds and altitudes, in different hemispheres of the globe. At no point are their paths likely to intersect.

That is the geography of the city’s policy discussions of zoning changes that might allow home-owners to construct an additional separate small, self-contained living space on their property, discussions that culminated in a long, well-attended and remarkably civil and intelligent public meeting this week on detached accessory dwelling units (DADUs). Many spoke passionately about the integrity of neighborhoods and the assurance that comes from enforcement of covenants and zoning codes; others spoke of the urgent need for affordable housing and greater diversity in housing stock and rental options. Only at the margins do these topics intersect—for clearly DADUs are not a solution to the city’s (and larger West Coast’s) affordable housing crisis, but they may be part of a toolbox of options that might be.

City property owners can already build accessory outbuildings where their yards permit it, with a great deal of liberty on matters of scale, mass and design of the structures. They can be big; they can be ugly. The issue is whether outbuildings might be constructed to allow people to live in them, with greater controls on the scale, mass and design of the construction. The city’s Planning Commission recommends these dwelling units be more compact and tightly designed, although permitting up to four occupants on a smaller lot size.

From the standpoint of level outcomes and equal protection, and with a reluctance to predict the future and pick “winners and losers,” city planners propose that DADUs where they qualify be permitted citywide, including all neighborhoods zoned for single families. Only attached ADUs are currently permitted in single-family zones. And yet, while the city’s “hands off” approach is understandable, the proposed policy is an abdication of the very purpose and goal of planning, which is to try to predict the future and place infill in areas best suited for that development. City Council took no action on the proposal at the close of the evening’s public meeting.

The community largely talked past one another.

Scores of homeowners in those single-family zones have criticized the proposal, claiming (among many concerns) it represents a breach of the social contract between the city and the neighborhoods and reneges on the city’s commitment to allow DADUs in neighborhoods that support the concept, not citywide.

For those seeking social justice and a solution to an existential housing crisis affecting many thousands of city residents, the DADU controversy appears to be a mismatch of goals versus outcomes. Across the entire city, the DADU proposal might produce perhaps 200 additional housing units over 50 years, fatally inadequate to the need.

Early indications suggest grudging public support for the proposal, with 60 percent of comments received by the city favoring citywide DADUs.

“There are a range of people asking for a citywide ordinance: retirees, people concerned about aging parents, working families,” Jenn Mason commented to Council. Mason serves on the Bellingham School Board and champions inclusionary neighborhoods. “This is not top-down. This is the majority of people who have been asking for gentle infill in inclusive neighborhoods across our city.”

At its core, the DADU proposal begins to break down the zoning covenants that discourage a variety of housing forms and living choices throughout the city (and that’s at the crux of the tension with existing historic neighborhoods). It also, by increasing the number and variety of potential landlords across the city, abrades the foundation of Bellingham’s rental housing crisis: Too many units—many in poor repair—are currently held in the hands of a very, very small and exclusive club of property management firms. The market is inelastic and oligarchic, with demand far outpacing supply.

But for all that, the city’s proposal is a mismatch in cost versus benefit—it unsettles the neighborhoods while doing very little at the margins of the country’s affordable housing crisis. It’s a battle for a small hill in a much wider and more important theater of conflict. It is, frankly, not the heated argument Bellingham needs to be heatedly arguing at this moment.

“We have allowed a decaying housing stock to become a profit center for negligent rental practices,” Abe Jacobson commented at the meeting. “Helter-skelter emplacement of DADUs only worsens this problem.

“We’re squeezed between vibrant cities like Seattle and Vancouver, with ample money to come in and speculate in Bellingham,” Jacobson observed of the larger problem. “They can come here and pay cash, and they are bidding up the cost of housing. We have to face that the market is failing and the market is not going to work,” he noted. “We need to take the speculation out of a large portion of our housing stock.”

“The DADU ordinance will do only a little to increase density and reduce environmentally destructive urban sprawl,” Michael Chiavario commented. “It will not stop the inflationary influence of capital from both local and nonlocal sources on mortgage and rental costs. Only a systemic change of major proportions will do that.

“The changes we need in Bellingham are to make housing affordable for all and stop urban sprawl. That means increasing density within our current borders while working on many ways to make housing affordable—and by affordable I mean monthly payments capped at 30 percent of one’s income.

“The DADU ordinance is a small, but necessary step in the right direction,” Chiavario argued. “DADUs can and should be a housing form that adds to the long-term housing stock of Bellingham and DADUs should be prevented from being speculation fodder by permanently making them part of owner-occupied lots.”

“Let us not destroy the dream of affordable housing by engaging in naive and simplistic thinking that will only lead to disappointment,” Warren Sheay cautioned. “An in-depth understanding of the complexities of the real estate market is essential if we are to devise genuine housing solutions.”

Smoking Crow
Past Columns
Symptoms of Pain

April 25, 2018

A Last Ditch Effort

April 18, 2018

The Sin of Sinclair

April 4, 2018

All Thumbs on the Scale

March 28, 2018

The Boundaries Between Us

March 21, 2018

Dirty Deeds

March 7, 2018

Sunshine Storm

February 28, 2018

A Public Education

February 21, 2018

Power Play

February 14, 2018

Neutral Ground

February 7, 2018

The Nature of the Emergency

January 31, 2018

‘Fix’ fumbled, punted

January 24, 2018

New Energy

January 17, 2018

Save Our Salish Sea

January 10, 2018

Predictions of Protractions

January 3, 2018

Parsing the Puzzle

December 27, 2017

Camp Kelli

December 20, 2017

Gifts of the Three Magi

December 13, 2017

Utility

December 6, 2017

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English Country Dancing

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Mt. Baker Plant Sale

3:00pm|Mt. Baker High School

Jazz Jam

5:30pm|Illuminati Brewing

Pub Run

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Canadian Exploration

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Mexican Kitchen

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Balkan Folk Dancers

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Get Gritty

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9 to 5, the Musical

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Misty Flowers

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Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Free Appliance Pick-up

10:00am|Whatcom County

Bellingham Beer Week

10:00am|Throughout Bellingham

Mt. Baker Plant Sale

3:00pm|Mt. Baker High School

9 to 5, the Musical

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Wild Things

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Book and Bake Sale

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Valley Writers

1:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Coffee Tasting

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Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Fourth Friday Art Walk

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Ship of Fools Closing Reception

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Inspire Higher Dreams Gala

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Always...Patsy Cline

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Skagit Community Band

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The Kid

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

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Legends and Brawls

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

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Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Free Appliance Pick-up

10:00am|Whatcom County

Bellingham Beer Week

10:00am|Throughout Bellingham

Mt. Baker Plant Sale

3:00pm|Mt. Baker High School

9 to 5, the Musical

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Book and Bake Sale

10:00am|Deming Library

Always...Patsy Cline

7:00pm|Conway Muse

Skagit Community Band

7:30pm|Maple Hall

Cantabile Chamber Choir

7:30pm

Legends and Brawls

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Ferndale Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Hall Post #154

Have a Heart Run

9:00am|Edgewater Park

Senior Center Plant Sale

9:00am|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Hydrangeas 101

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Linuxfest Northwest

9:00am|Bellingham Technical College

Everson Garden Club Plant Sale

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Independent Bookstore Day

9:00am|Village Books

Backyard Habitat and Native Flora Fair

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Bellingham Farmers Market

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Vaisaikhi Day Celebration

10:00am|Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Sudden Valley Garden Club Sale

10:00am|Sudden Valley Dance Barn

Correspondence Club

10:30am|Mindport Exhibits

Sculpture Tours

10:30am|Big Rock Garden Park

Growing Dry Beans and Grains

1:00pm|Chuckanut Center

Panel discusses oil sands pipeline

3:00pm

Klee Wyck Journal

4:00pm|Village Books

Visions of the Soul Opening

5:00pm|Forum Arts

Spring Has Sprung Opening Party

5:00pm|Matzke Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park

Naomi Shihab Nye

7:00pm|Performing Arts Center

Moon Walk

7:00pm|Whatcom County

Contra Dance with Incognito

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Dylan Foley and Eamon O'Leary

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Skagit Symphony Classics Concert

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Paula Poundstone

8:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

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