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New state laws pave way for more housing density

Bellingham must pivot on ADU rules

South Hill and other residential neighborhoods in Bellingham could be built with as many as six units per lot after the so-called "missing-middle" bill passed into law in the last state legislative session.
South Hill and other residential neighborhoods in Bellingham could be built with as many as six units per lot after the so-called "missing-middle" bill passed into law in the last state legislative session. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Bellingham leaders may set aside months of work on new rules for accessory dwelling units, to make way for state legislation that will go even further to encourage construction of ADUs — attached apartments and detached cottages built on single-family lots.

Meanwhile, single-family zoning as we know it in Bellingham and some other cities across the state is coming to an end. House Bill 1110, awaiting the governor’s signature, will allow four residential units on every single-family lot — six if at least two affordable housing units are added.

With passage earlier this month of HB 1110 — the so-called “missing-middle” bill — and the ADU bill, House Bill 1337, Bellingham City Council members now must pivot in their approach to regulating housing.

Council member Lisa Anderson said at an April 24 meeting that city officials should take the time to survey individual neighborhoods about how added density might or might not work for them, especially given the density bonus awarded for affordable units.

“I think that would be a really important outreach … to get their perspective of whether or not there would be interest, and what would that look like,” Anderson said. “And does the city even suggest we support that? Because I’m concerned about infrastructure in some of our older neighborhoods.”

Council members asked the city’s planning department to draft an ordinance that would align with the new state law on ADUs. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign HB 1337 into law in the coming weeks.

The legislation requires cities to allow up to two ADUs on a residential lot, prohibits cities from requiring the property owner to live on-site, and allows for an ADU to be sold separately from the main house on a lot, as a condominium, with the intent of expanding affordable home ownership options.

Early ideas about new city rules governing ADUs didn’t go as far. The council signaled in February that it would keep requiring property owners to live on-site if they rented their ADU. The city also was looking to limit properties to just one ADU, up to 20 feet high and 800 square feet in size. The new state law will allow ADUs up to 24 feet high and 1,000 square feet.

Council member Michael Lilliquist proposed on April 24 that the council consider adopting at least some of the new state law. The council has plenty of time; new state ADU rules won’t go into effect in Bellingham until January 2026.

“I personally might not want to just adopt everything in state law. I think I’m pretty sure I’m uncomfortable with a few of the things in state law,” Lilliquist said, without elaborating.

State Sen. Sharon Shewmake, who lives in Bellingham and who championed the ADU bill and other housing legislation, challenged the council’s cautious approach to easing ADU restrictions, calling it “weak-sauce regulation.”

“It’s ridiculous that in the middle of a housing crisis, people are still advocating for renter bans on ADUs,” Shewmake said.

Bipartisan support

As recently as one year ago, the state Legislature had trouble passing significant housing legislation. With a majority of renters in Bellingham overburdened by housing costs, according to recent census data, and with a chronic housing shortage statewide, several bills passed with bipartisan support this year.

“Only one other state has fewer homes per household than Washington, and over 44% of residents are cost burdened,” Lt. Gov. Denny Heck said in an April 23 news release marking the end of the legislative session. 

“Both chambers remained focused on increasing housing supply, stabilizing support for renters and public investment for new affordable housing — making this the landmark year of housing,” Heck added.

Tenant supports that passed this session included changes to eviction procedures and a bill that makes it more difficult for a landlord to deduct from a renter’s damage deposit.

Also, as Shewmake noted, the housing trust fund received a record-setting cash infusion this session: $400 million that can pay for construction of 3,000 affordable homes.

Another local lawmaker said the Legislature didn’t go far enough this session to support people struggling to find or keep their housing.

Rep. Alex Ramel, a Democrat from Bellingham, sponsored a bill that would have capped rent increases at the rate of inflation. The bill failed.

“The Legislature made some significant steps to invest existing resources into the housing trust fund and to allow more missing-middle housing,” Ramel said in a news release from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “I don’t disparage these and other important gains, but I saw we could have done much more.”

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