Five reasons to support backyard cottages and Missing Middle homes
Education, climate, public safety and more— housing connects to it all.
Our community has a huge housing challenge, and yet backyard cottages, a more affordable home type, are not allowed in the vast majority of Bellingham neighborhoods. This is wrong and needs to change.
Before the upcoming Public Hearing on Backyard Cottages/ADUs hosted by the Planning Commission (September 7th, 2017 at 7:00 PM, at City Council Chambers, 210 Lottie St), here are some reasons why supporting backyard cottages and Missing Middle homes is crucial for a healthier, more happy, and inclusive city.
Also, myself and others have put together a toolkit that explains what to expect at the meeting, what backyard cottages/ADUs are, what the proposed changes are, and tips/resources for testifying.
Five reasons to support backyard cottages and Missing Middle homes:
1. Ensuring everyone in our community has a decent, safe home.
Many of our neighbors are without shelter in Bellingham. The lack of available homes is one of the drivers of this huge problem — caused in part by zoning laws that prohibit many affordable housing types in most of our residential land.
In 2012, a study by Thomas Byrne of the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans estimated every $100 increase in median rent causes a 15 percent increase in homelessness . High rent increases occur when vacancy rates are low, as made clear by Washington State Department of Commerce researcher Tedd Kelleher’s presentation at the City Council’s Town Hall on Housing Affordability (slide below). His research on the connection between vacancy rates and rent has been confirmed by studies throughout the country .
We need to build enough homes in an equitable manner for the people without shelter currently, and also return to a healthier vacancy rate. Research by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University has reported a 5.5 % vacancy rate is needed to stabilize rents so they no rise no faster than inflation . Our current vacancy rate is close to an unhealthy 3.2% according to the 2015 Census Bureau’s American Community Survey .
Backyard cottages are more likely to meet the needs of a more diverse community. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s study on backyard cottages and attached homes has published a report about backyard cottages with case studies . They concluded, “In addition to providing practical housing options for the elderly, disabled, empty nesters, and young workers, ADUs can provide additional rental income for homeowners. ADUs are smaller in size, do not require the extra expense of purchasing land, can be developed by converting existing structures, and do not require additional infrastructure.”
Backyard cottages also cost less to build, averaging around $55,000 to build based on 2012–2014 data (in Seattle, which often has higher construction costs than Bellingham. This amount does not include regulatory/impact fees), opposed to the near average $100,000 cost to build one apartment unit in Bellingham [6, 7]. If our community is trying to provide homes for people at an affordable cost, backyard cottages are an excellent option.
Also, more broadly, both market rate and below market rate (subsidized) homes stabilize rising rents and reduce economic displacement, as found by a study the Urban Displacement Project of the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA. When moderate-income and higher-income tenants rent or buy a market rate home, they’re not competing with a lower-income tenant for an affordable home. It’s not an either/or when it comes to homes, it’s both.
2. Protecting our climate, natural lands, farms, and clean air.
Our community values the beauty of the outdoors and protecting the climate. By building homes in existing neighborhoods, we can prevent urban sprawl and enhance walkability, and the efficiency of public transit. Also, by increasing affordability, workers can live here and don’t have to commute from Ferndale or Mount Vernon.
The Obama administration’s EPA also was clear about the need for compact neighborhoods served by transit to accomplish America’s climate goals. In a report released in 2011, “Location Efficiency and Housing Type: Boiling it Down to BTUs,” they determined the weighted average energy usage of a single detached home with a car for primary transport used 253 percent more energy than a multifamily home with transit access .
“Housing type is also a very significant determinant of energy consumption,” the study concluded. “Fairly substantial differences are seen in detached versus attached homes [i.e. rowhouses], but the most striking difference is the variation in energy use between single-family detached homes and multifamily homes, due to the inherent efficiencies from more compact size and shared walls among units.”
Good housing policy is good climate policy. Additionally, building homes inside existing neighborhoods can also take development pressure off our drinking watershed, another huge priority for our community.
3. Quality education for all children.
Economically mixed neighborhoods will improve education for all our kids in Bellingham and help close the opportunity gap, instead of having ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools that concentrate wealth and poverty. By having economically mixed neighborhoods, the schools that pull from those neighborhoods will also be economically mixed.
Integrated schools have well-documented benefits for low-income students, and new research is finding they also benefit middle and upper class students. In a 2016 review of education studies by Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo of Teachers College Columbia, the authors wrote, “researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving” . The report also found students of all races who attend integrated schools have higher SAT scores and are less likely to drop out than students in segregated, high-poverty schools.
In our current system, segregation can be seen in our elementary schools: 86 percent of Alderwood Elementary students (58 percent children of color) are receiving free/reduced lunch, compared to only 21 percent at Wade King (16 percent children of color) . The impact of zoning in segregating communities by class (and because class & race intertwined, race as well) is not unique to our community .
In addition to segregation, research has shown children from low-income families deal with the difficulty of moving more due to housing insecurity .
We know a better and more just education system can be strived for by changing housing policy, it is a matter of political will to achieve it.
4. Economic well-being for our city.
When members of our community are spending less money on rent or mortgages because rents have stabilized with a healthy vacancy rate and affordable home types, they have more money in their pockets. They can invest that money in themselves, whether it be health care, education, quality food and spend more supporting local businesses. More compact neighborhoods can also support more amenities, restaurants, and other businesses that contribute to a vibrant neighborhood.
5. Public safety.
Our community is not safe when many of our neighbors are sleeping on the streets without shelter, exposed to the elements and at greater risk of abuse. Our community is not safe when people are unable to move out of dangerous or bad living situations.
Studies show women who have experienced intimate partner violence are at higher risk of housing instability as evidenced by late rent or difficulty in finding affordable housing . When our housing situation is so bad as it currently is, survivors of domestic abuse are being put in an even more difficult situation.
For a safe community, we need to solve the housing shortage.
The above are reasons I support backyard cottages and infill — there are some in our community who oppose these home types in areas currently zoned single family. I have listened to those voices and heard many concerns about inventorying non-permitted accessory homes, neighborhood character, parking, shade, noise, growth, new neighbors, and beyond. It is completely valid for residents to have concerns about development. We need to take steps for responsible development while addressing these concerns, and keep the bigger picture of housing justice in mind. I also strongly believe subjective aesthetic preferences or issues like shade is on a completely different level of moral magnitude than economic and racial justice and providing affordable homes. Issues around parking can be dealt with by allowing the more dense infill toolkit housing forms near transit lines.
Lastly, I have a stake in seeing Bellingham succeed and want to continue living here. Allowing backyard cottages and Missing Middle home types in every neighborhood would help me afford to live in Bellingham. I am fortunate to have never experienced housing insecurity. Especially if I get older and wish to start a family here, I would be searching for a home. I would need to move out of my current 200 sq ft studio apartment that I rent for $700/mo (and I feel fortunate with that price). For many other people in my generation, who are already struggling with college loans and debt, low wages, and job insecurity, having more affordable homes available would make a great difference in their lives.
Small groups of affluent homeowners have had an outsized voice in the planning process for decades — our city needs to center those who are being most affected by the housing crisis. I encourage the commission and council to do outreach and listen to the voices of those directly impacted by the current housing crisis, especially Resident Action Project and Homeless Voice.
Solving our housing challenge in an equitable manner aligns well with many other community priorities, like education and protecting our environment.
I am optimistic our community can come together to solve the housing challenge and become a happier, healthier, and more inclusive community. And I intend to keep showing up and working with community groups until we get there.
 Byrne, T., Munley, E. A., Fargo, J. D., Montgomery, A. E., & Culhane, D. P. (2013). New Perspectives on Community-level Determinants of Homelessness. Journal of Urban Affairs, 35(5), 607–625.
 Joint Center for Housing Studies. (2015). America’s Rental Housing: Expanding Options for Diverse and Growing Demand. Cambridge: Joint Center for Housing Studies. December 9. http://jchs.harvard.edu/americas-rental-housing.
 Bluestone, B., Tumber, C., Lee, N., Modestino, A. S., Costello, L., Davis, T., … & Koepnick, R. (2015). The Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2015: The Housing Cost Conundrum. Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy Northeastern University.
 U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). Selected Housing Characteristics, 2011–2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. Retrieved from https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_15_5YR_DP04&prodType=table
 Sage Computing, Inc. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research. (2008). Accessory Dwelling Units: Case Studies. Retrieved from https://www.huduser.gov/portal/publications/adu.pdf
 Seattle Department of Planning and Development. (2015). Removing Barriers to Backyard Cottages. Retrieved from http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/OPCD/OngoingInitiatives/EncouragingBackyardCottages/RemovingBarrierstoBackyardCottages.pdf
 Ashworth Partners. (2015). Update: Bellingham Apartment Pipeline Report, May 8, 2015
 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2014). Location Efficiency and Housing Type: Boiling it Down to BTUs. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/location_efficiency_btu.pdf
 Wells, A. S., Fox, L., & Cordova-Cobo, D. (2016). How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. The Century Foundation. Retrieved from https://tcf.org/assets/downloads/HowRaciallyDiverse_AmyStuartWells.pdf
 Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (2016). Washington State Report Card. Retrieved from http://projects.propublica.org/schools/districts/5300420
 Rothstein, R. (2016). School Policy Is Housing Policy: Deconcentrating Disadvantage to Address the Achievement Gap. In Race, Equity, and Education (pp. 27–43). Springer International Publishing.
 Hartman, C. (2002). High Classroom Turnover: How Children Get Left Behind. In D. M. Piche, W. L. Taylor, and R. a. Reed(Eds): Right at risk: Equality in the age of terrorism, citizens’ commission on civil rights. (pp. 227–244) Washington, DC: Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.
 Pavao, J., Alvarez, J., Baumrind, N., Induni, M., & Kimerling, R. (2007). Intimate partner violence and housing instability. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 32(2), 143–146.
Note: This is a section of my public comment to the Planning Commission and City Council for the backyard cottage ordinance. I am publishing this here in the hope it used as a resource by others.