Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Changing the zoning in built-out neighborhoods to allow detached accessory dwelling units (what Kelly Bashaw and Dan Hammill called “backyard cottages and mother-in-law units over garages” in a recent column, “Schools and Planning for Growth”) is not the way to address Bellingham’s urgent need for affordable housing. And the debate over such a zoning change is being conducted in a way harmful to our community cohesion.

Not only would new detached accessory dwelling units likely be expensive to rent and dominated by vacation rentals (so they wouldn’t add significantly to affordable housing), but constructing these new units would tear apart the fabric of existing neighborhoods. Under the false-hope banner of increasing affordable housing, neighbors would be set up for conflict between those seeking additional income and their neighbors who would lose backyard sunlight, privacy, and predictability.

How many backyard vegetable gardens, decks, and play areas would lose hours of sunlight when new two-story structures pop up next door? Apartments over garages are typically constructed with outdoor staircases that are tenants’ only access to fresh air—so residents would understandably want to sit outside overlooking their neighbors’ yards.

Bellingham’s current zoning for single-family neighborhoods (more precisely “residential single zones”) protects current residents from these encroachments on sunlight, privacy, and predictability through a variety of rules. Protections include requirements for setbacks from property lines, limiting the buildable portion of a lot, prohibiting detached accessory dwelling units (unless “grandfathered” and legalized under a 1996 law), and regulating attached accessory dwelling units (including the requirement that one or the other unit be owner-occupied). Bellingham Municipal Code is available online (and is reader-friendly); most of these rules are in chapter 20.30 or 20.10.035. The Infill Housing chapter (20.28) that aims to create opportunities for more affordable housing by establishing special development regulations for nontraditional housing forms does not apply to residential single zones. Applying it to “residential single” is being discussed.

Conflict among Bellingham residents has already been flamed by proponents of changing accessory-dwelling-unit zoning—when they accuse current homeowners of lack of compassion for residents who cannot afford to buy a home in the current market. This echoes a long U.S. tradition of promoting conflict between people defending the sparse stability in their lives against those with greater need (for example employers who hired whites only, then during strikes hired non-white scabs).

I am concerned that a divide-and-conquer strategy is being employed whenever I hear remarks like “you people who bought houses a long time ago and don’t want the zoning changed are the reason why people like me can’t afford to buy a house,” or statements like this from the Bashaw-Hammill column:

“To us, housing is an equity and fairness issue. By not allowing people access to different housing types like townhouses, duplexes, backyard cottages and mother-in-law units over garages, we are effectively denying housing to people mostly with lower incomes. That includes young families with children in our school district. In many cases, equitable housing choices could allow for kids to walk to their schools.”

Taking away from current homeowners the quiet enjoyment of backyard sunlight and privacy won’t solve the problems of poverty and lack of affordable housing—and misdirects attention from true causes (as scapegoating always misdirects attention from true causes and possibilities for systemic solutions).

Predictability is the social contract at the core of zoning laws—so a homeowner or prospective buyer knows whether a neighbor can build a factory, cattle ranch, or apartment building next door.

Detached accessory dwelling units can be great alternatives in new neighborhoods or neighborhoods zoned multifamily (and many of the single-family homes we see in Bellingham are actually within multifamily-zoned areas). But because predictability where one lives supports well-being, I oppose changing zoning in built-out neighborhoods currently zoned as single-family.

The social cohesion of Bellingham’s neighborhoods is precious, and quite a contrast to cities, towns, and especially bedroom communities where neighbors don’t know each other. We build this social fabric every day through block parties, neighborhood associations, front-yard gardening or porch-sitting, walking and bicycling, meeting in neighborhood parks, PTA and other family activities in our neighborhood schools, participating in soccer teams organized by neighborhood clusters, and emergency mapping projects—and through a commitment to care for each other because that’s how we want to live.

I’ve long pondered why Bellingham planners and city leaders push so hard to loosen accessory-dwelling-unit rules in built-out neighborhoods zoned single family, despite decades of neighborhood opposition. I have reluctantly concluded that their affordable-housing argument is a smokescreen for the actual motivation: By changing the rules, the City would solve its problem of long-standing failure to enforce current zoning for accessory dwelling units (even after the “grandfathering” exceptions enacted in the 1990s). I don’t think this benefit is worth tearing apart the social fabric of our neighborhoods.

Emily Weiner was active for many years in the Cornwall Park Neighborhood Association and Parkview Elementary School PTA, and wrote about development, education, and other topics for The Bellingham Herald and Cascadia Weekly. She now lives in the South Neighborhood.

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