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Bellingham considers adding more ADUs to ease housing crunch

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Like many municipalities faced with rising rents and inadequate supplies of housing, the city of Bellingham is considering revising its ordinance governing accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The proposal generated lively debate via written public comments and at recent hearings.

Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf described a variation of ADUs known as D-ADUs (detached units, which new rules would allow) as “the blister point of community friction, especially in neighborhoods surrounding Western Washington University, where demand for student housing has turned many single-family homes into virtual rooming houses.”

Current regulations prohibit ADUs in most Bellingham neighborhoods and ban more than three unrelated people in a single-family dwelling, a rule some residents say is “routinely flouted and nearly impossible to enforce.”

Rising prices are driving much of the debate.

A check of Northwest Multiple Listing Service figures show a median asking price of $569,475 for current listings of single family homes in Bellingham; countywide it is $500,000. The median rental rate in Whatcom County, according to a survey by, is $1,623 a month.

City planner Christopher (Chris) Koch said proposed ADU changes would give homeowners more options, allowing them to add a small unit on their property to house a caregiver, to accommodate an adult child who wants to move home, or to enable owners to rent their main house and move to the ADU. “We see this as an incremental way of accommodating infill,” he said, adding “We’re not seeing this as a solution to the lack of housing or to the housing crisis.”

Opposing factions say congestion and safety are other important considerations. Some residents contend illegal rooming houses and detached units have added to parking and noise problems, especially in the York neighborhood (east of the City Center) when Western Washington University students have guests and parties. Citizens also expressed fears that backyard cottages could become short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs.

Proposed rules for ADUs would cut the minimum lot size for the property in half, from 10,000 square feet to 5,000, and would reduce height restrictions from 25 feet to 20 feet (about two stories). Up to four occupants per D-ADU and up to two bedrooms would be allowed. One off-street parking space would be required. Impact fees for transportation and parks would be waived.

Additional restrictions being considered would require the owner to live in either the main house or the detached unit. Proposed restrictions would allow only one ADU per primary residence. The changes would also mandate a review of the ordinance by 2025 or when 200 new legal ADUs are built, whichever comes first.

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