ADU Reform at the City & State Levels

ADU Reform at the City & State Levels

Written By: Nicole Miller

Currently both Washington State and the City of Bellingham are proposing changes to the current ADU regulations and process. From the outside it may seem complicated and long winded, but we’ve been keeping up to date with it, so you don’t have to!

But first let’s back up. Why is this such an important topic? All over the state, including Bellingham, we are seeing both a housing shortage and unaffordable costs for both renters and home buyers. Accessory Dwelling Units, aka ADUs, are seen as a tool to help fight both of these issues. While ADUs are certainly not the only answer to the affordability crisis, they are a start to addressing the issue. ADUs are, however, thought to have a much bigger effect on addressing the housing shortage. According to 2020 Census data, 71% of Bellingham households are made up of only 1-2 people. This means that medium and large sized single-family residences are not what Bellingham needs in order to solve the housing crisis. It needs ADUs and other forms of middle housing. As it stands right now, State and City regulations make it more difficult than it needs to be in order to permit and build ADUs (and middle housing). So, at both levels reform to the current ordinances are being proposed in order to ease these restrictions, allowing for more ADUs to be built and with less needless regulations.


-At the State level: There were two bills currently addressing changes to ADU regulations for the entire state. These are bills HB 1276 and HB 1337. Bill HB 1276 is essentially the watered-down version of HB 1337. However, bill HB 1337 recently passed out of the House Housing Committee with no amendments. Next steps for HB 1337 are to pass through the Rules committee and then through the Floor.  Organizations who support HB 1337 vocally as of the first hearing include Homes4WA, Sightline Institute, FutureWise, League of Women Voters, Habitat For Humanity, American Farmland Trust, Kirkland Planning Commission and a handful of architects and builders. TC Legend also supported HB 1337 over HB 1276.

-At the City level: There is one ordinance being proposed to amend Bellingham Municipal Code Titles 20 and 21 regarding ADU regulations and processes. This ordinance is essentially bill HB 1337 specifically for Bellingham. Whatcom Housing Alliance’s recommendations to the changes being put forth have been the main reference point for many community members and organizations. You can find their recommendations HERE. After the first hearing, City Council has sent the ordinance back to the Planning Commission for revisions for further clarification, data and feedback. Once the Planning Commission has finished this review, it will be presented to City Council again. They may need to revise again, or they will vote at that time. Once the ordinance passes through City Council it will take a bit of time for the Planning Commission to update their current ADU ordinance and implement the changes. However, assuming all goes smoothly, we should see the changes being implement most likely by the end of the year.

Key Components

-Remove Owner Occupancy Requirements: This is arguably the most contested topic in the City level ADU reform. The amendment states that the owner of the ADU is no longer required to live in either the main SFR or the ADU while renting and can therefore rent both out at the same time. On one hand, this would allow flexibility for homeowners who need to go out of town for extended period of time, or are elderly, and would increase housing availability. On the other hand, if there are not restrictions added to this amendment, it could open up Bellingham to more large-scale investors, taking control of our rental market and potentially further pricing out locals.

-Remove Off-Street Parking Requirements: The requirement of off-street parking, while may seem necessary to some, is typically not necessary or feasible on infill lots which are already near shopping centers and bus stops. Cities are using this as a technique to incentivize alternative modes of transportation, while also recognizing the limitations that come with infill lots.

-Condo-ization of ADU’s: Opening ADU’s to purchase is thought to help homeownership among the many small households that are currently struggling to afford the houses currently on the market and are therefore forced to remain renting. It is debatable as to whether this would create an affordable option or not. But the best way to create an equitable housing market is for more homeownership among the lower and middle class.

-Removing Appearance Requirements: Currently there are height restrictions and appearance requirements on DADU’s stating that they must match the aesthetic of the neighborhood, however current SFR’s are not even held to that same standard. The amendment would also allow the height of the ADU to increase to 25’ from 20’. There are some arguments to increase this limit even more or get rid of the restriction altogether to be able to accommodate a second floor and higher ceilings.

Other Bills To Watch

Washington State has at least 50 proposed housing bills. So if you want to take action and help sculpt the trajectory of housing in our state, look out for these bills and submit your commentary to the Housing Committee.

Among those proposed housing bills, HB 1110 / SB 5190 should be highlighted as they are important in legalizing middle housing.

If you are a renter, then you’ll want to watch out for HB 1124 which increases the timeframe that landlords must notify tenants of any increases to rent. There are also HB 1389 / SB 5435 which puts a cap on rent increase to either the rate of inflation or 3% (whichever is greater).

For more information on the State and City level ADU reform, see the following related articles.

-50 Housing Bills To Watch:

-Comparison of HB 1276 and HB 1337:,key%20reforms%20the%20bill%20requires).

-Recap of HB 1276 and HB 1337 Hearing:

-Washington State Legislature Bill Lookup: