Monday, November 16, 2015

Accessory Dwelling Units - There Is No Rush

 [Note:  This article first appeared on NWCitizen on Nov 16, 2015]

Over the past year, various groups (primarily a focus group, the Planning Commission and the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission) have met in work groups to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and the need to update the current ordinance.  The last version of the ordinance was passed by the City Council in 1995 but has not been updated since and has largely been ignored, especially the requirement to register such units with the city on a recurring basis.  Notably, the city has been complicit in not actively pursuing landlords who are not in compliance except as the result of a complaint.  The result is unregistered and likely unpermitted dwelling units that put occupants at risk. 
For example, the ADU pictured at left was condemned several years ago and declared uninhabitable after a long struggle between the tenant and the landlord to effect repairs.  Only about 94 ADUs are registered in Bellingham although in neighborhoods such as South Hill, York and Sehome, there are, according to neighborhood residents and association officials, dozens of unregistered and therefore illegal units of poor or unknown condition.

The current attention being paid to ADUs comes about primarily as a result of the requirement to review the ordinance once there are 200 registered ADUs city-wide or any specific neighborhood exceeds 20 ADUs.  The South Hill neighborhood is nearing this number of registered units, although as noted above, the proliferation of illegal units means that quite likely South Hill already has many more than 20 ADUs.

The city is exploring ways to increase infill and density within the city limits.  Although the planning director himself has said on several occasions that ADUs, in and of themselves, cannot substantially add to density or cure the problem of insufficient affordable housing, the city is moving ahead with the review process.  There is nothing inherently wrong with ADUs.  There are, however, problems when the number of existing units is unknown and the current density of neighborhoods is not well understood or quantified.  A proliferation of ADUs in the York Neigbhorhood is not the same as an equal number in Cordata or Edgemoor.

Increased density brings with it the inevitable nuisances of noise, insufficient parking and litter.  The city poorly manages and mitigates these problems in that they are low on the list of priorities for the police, code enforcement and public works.  Problems linger for weeks, months or even years.  In some areas near the university, there is no longer room for additional vehicles.  This situation begs for some sort of control on the number and spacing of ADUs as people who rent them cannot be expected to just get rid of their vehicles.  Statements to the effect that ADU residents will for the most part take public transportation, walk or bike are unsuppported and go against the everyday experience of those now living in crowded neighborhoods, replete with ADUs, many of which are not yet identified by the city in spite of complaints.  The limit of three people occupying an ADU also says the possibility exists that three additional vehicles will be brought into a neighborhood.  In some cases both the main house and the ADU are rented out, thus ignoring the code requirement that the landlord live in either the house or the ADU.  This further aggravates issues related to noise and parking since the landlord is not present as a calming agent and the house may well be stuffed with 5 or more renters, most of whom have cars, who are seeking to lower their individual costs. This is understandable economically, however, if allowed to continue and proliferate, will radically change the character of a neighborhood.

Although there is no reason not to eventually bring ADUs back into the realm of housing possibilities, a current inventory is essential.  The recently adopted ordinance on rental inspections may uncover some units that have not yet been known to the city, however, the rollout of inspections under this ordinance will play out over three years.  What mechanism will the city then use to identify (prior to enacting an ADU ordinance) all existing units?  Without that knowledge an ordinance that specifies the number of ADUs allowed in a particular area will be ineffective and destructive.

The city has to answer these questions before proceeding.  Saying that mitigation of problems will take place later and that present density is not an issue are not acceptable responses.

A work session on this topic will be held before the Planning Commission on Thursday, 19 Nov 2015 at 7pm in the city council chambers of city hall.  Agenda and materials here.