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.”

Pick and Go Silver Reef
Past Columns
The Raucous Caucus

April 17, 2019

Dragged

April 10, 2019

Edge City

April 3, 2019

Fixing the Fix

March 27, 2019

Halfway Houses

March 20, 2019

New Directions

March 13, 2019

Fire and Ice

March 6, 2019

The Big Short

February 27, 2019

Marina Lacuna

February 20, 2019

New Bites at the Apple

February 13, 2019

Coal Folds

February 6, 2019

Refocusing the Narrative

January 29, 2019

Old Town, Old Story

January 23, 2019

Ranker Unanchored

January 16, 2019

‘Alternative Methods’

January 9, 2019

Top Stories, 2018

January 2, 2019

Et Tu, #MeToo

December 26, 2018

Turn That Corner

December 19, 2018

Events
Today
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Unstable by Design

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Silent Sky

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Tulip Festival Street Fair

10:00am|Downtown Mount Vernon

Spring Book Sale

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Bellingham Beer Week

12:00pm|Throughout Bellingham

Genre Legends, Hot Dogs

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Buffett Beach Bash

7:30pm|Anacortes Port Transit Shed

The Coronation of Poppea

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Mainstage

Tulip Pedal Bike Ride

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Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

COB Earth Day Work Party

9:00am|Fairhaven Park

Fun with the Fuzz

9:00am|Bellingham Police Department

Bellingham Bay Bocce Tournament

9:30am|Bellingham Sportsplex

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Kiwanis Kids Egg Hunt

10:00am|Maiben Park

Cedar Dust Trail Ride and Party

10:00am|Boundary Bay Brewery

Plant Sale and Easter Events

10:00am|BelleWood Acres

Community Easter Egg Hunt

11:30am|Bellingham at Orchard

Obrigado Wines Tasting

2:00pm|Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Jesse Otero Art Talk

4:00pm|i.e. gallery

Splinter Ideas, Halibut on the Moon

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Workshop

6:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Skagit Valley College Drag Show

7:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Problem Child and Ten Miles Wide

8:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Blue collar comedy in Edison

8:00pm

Salsa Night

9:00pm|Cafe Rumba

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Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Tulip Festival Street Fair

10:00am|Downtown Mount Vernon

Bellingham Beer Week

12:00pm|Throughout Bellingham

Plant Sale and Easter Events

10:00am|BelleWood Acres

Sedro-Woolley Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Egg Hunt and Easter Brunch

10:00am|Boundary Bay Brewery

Bellingham Handmade Market

11:00am|Goods Nursery and Produce

Langar in Lynden

11:00am| Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurdwara

Barkley Village Egg Hunts

11:00am|Barkley Village

Easter Brunch

11:00am|Ciao Thyme Commons

Nina Gerber and Chris Webster

2:00pm|Nancy's Farm

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Monday
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

10:00am|Whatcom County

Bellingham Beer Week

12:00pm|Throughout Bellingham

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Earth Day Sustainable Food Fair

11:00am|Viking Union 565

Plant Diagnostic Clinics

4:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Before the Flood

5:30pm|Pickford Film Center

Women's Backpacking Round Table Discussion

5:30pm|REI

Swing Dancing Classes

6:00pm|Presence Studio

Healthy Desserts

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Student Poetry & Art Showcase

6:30pm|Burlington Public Library

Poetrynight

7:00pm|Alternative Library

Salish Sea Early Music Festival

7:00pm|St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Wild & Scenic Film Festival

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Guffawingham

9:00pm|Firefly Lounge

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