Sunday, September 23, 2007

Zonemaven Guest Editorial in the Bellingham Herald

Here is a reprint of my guest editorial which appreared on Sep, 23, 2007 in the Bellingham Herald.

City should enforce rules on single-family dwellings

Let’s talk about growth, but neither the kind we usually read about with respect to Bellingham nor the manner in which the city will accommodate the 1,500 or so new arrivals here each year. We have had another, far more insidious, growth problem. It affects just about every neighborhood, unless you are one of the fortunate ones living on a hillside in a million-dollar home within 5 acres of trees. The growth about which I am writing stems from decades of neglect wherein the Bellingham Municipal Code has not been enforced, thus allowing for uncontrolled growth within areas zoned single family. The city has permitted property owners to convert their homes into de facto rooming houses.

Admittedly and somewhat perversely, this neglect allows an accommodation of thousands of young men and women, most of whom are university students, by providing low-cost housing at the expense of the quality of life and property values of your neighborhood. This growth is a cancer which, if allowed to continue, will persist in its metastatic march across the city and onto your block, if it is not already there.

Western Washington University just received $47million to increase the capacity of its facilities, which will attract more students; however, university management has not forwarded plans except to build one more dormitory in the next few years — maybe. Approximately two-thirds of the 13,000 students (i.e. 8,500) must still find affordable housing every year as the rental market tightens — as it is bound to do.

Incredibly, there is talk of using accessory dwelling units to increase the availability of low-cost housing. Not only will this poor concept increase the density in your neighborhood as ADUs are built, but it will also allow the homeowner, who no longer has the need to live in a large home, to move to the ADU and rent the main house. Since nobody controls the number of people living in a single-family home, there is effectively no limit to the number of renters.

I have first-hand experience of such a home on my street whose value, by the way, is around $400,000. The owner moved into the ADU and has had a succession of renters — families and groups. We have experienced at that home over the last five years an illegal in-home business, illegal parking, hulk and abandoned vehicles, unattached trailers, loud parties, and at least one arrest for assault and property damage.

As your neighborhood associations work diligently to update your neighborhood plans, they will be paying special attention to growth issues, especially to preserve areas already zoned for low-density, single-family dwellings. The problem is that city does not enforce the code designed to preserve the character of those areas. That neglect renders the planning moot as single-family, low-density homes are converted to medium- and high-density rooming houses which are not licensed or controlled.

Neither the university nor the housing market will respond by creating more affordable housing units until the current law is upheld and illegal rooming houses are a thing of the past.

We, the citizens of Bellingham, do not have to endure the status quo. We can demand enforcement action from our city officials and insist that candidates for public office recognize the problem and have well thought out plan to deal with it effectively.

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