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.”