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.”

FCC Advent
Past Columns
Paradigms in Collision

November 28, 2018

Leftover Turkey

November 21, 2018

The Divisions Between Us

November 14, 2018

The Map is the Territory

November 7, 2018

Climate Kids

October 31, 2018

What The Market Won’t Bear

October 24, 2018

As Above, So Below

October 17, 2018

As Below, So Above

October 10, 2018

A Civil Disagreement

October 3, 2018

Zombie Pipeline

September 26, 2018

Too Little, Too Late

September 19, 2018

Open Secret Disclosed

September 12, 2018

Consent of the Governed

September 5, 2018

Let the People Decide

August 29, 2018

3-in-1 Oil

August 22, 2018

A Deeper Dive

August 15, 2018

Blue Wave Stalls Offshore

August 8, 2018

Mountains of Our Efforts

August 1, 2018

Events
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The Giving Tree

10:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Cook It and Book It

3:30pm|Lynden Library

Bellingham Mysterians

4:00pm|Village Books

Women's Snowshoeing Basics

6:00pm|REI

All-Paces Run

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Bellingham Reads

6:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

Books on Tap

7:00pm|North Fork Brewery

Comedy Open Mic

7:30pm|Shakedown

Amahl and the Night Visitors

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

VoicePlay
Tomorrow
The Giving Tree

10:00am|Village Books

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Amahl and the Night Visitors

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Coat Drive

9:00am|Community Food Co-op

Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Lynden Front Streeters

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Hiking and Beer

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The LIghts of Christmas

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Histories & Mysteries Book Club

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Creekside Open Mic

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Carols and Old Songs with Evan Ingalls

7:00pm|BAAY Theatre

The Mark Taylor Quartet

7:00pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Intro to Improv

7:00pm|Improv Playworks

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Thursday
The Giving Tree

10:00am|Village Books

Coat Drive

9:00am|Community Food Co-op

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Bellingham Public Market

Holiday Pet Food Drive

10:00am|Whatcom County

Deck the Old City Hall

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

The LIghts of Christmas

5:00pm|Warm Beach Camp

Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

Valley Crafters Holiday Bazaar

10:00am|Deming Presbyterian Church

Winter Wear Drive

10:00am|Community Food Co-op

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

10:00am

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Miracle Pop-Up Holiday Cocktail Bar

4:00pm|Swim Club

Poetry Writing Group

5:30pm|Village Books

Jazz Jam

5:30pm|Illuminati Brewing

White Elephant Incognito Dinner

6:00pm|Ciao Thyme

Ballet Bellingham presents The Nutcracker

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Journey's Christmas

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

A Christmas Carol

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Noel Noir

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Naughty List, A Holiday Cabaret

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

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