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Bellingham approves 'backyard houses' to fight shortage

The Bellingham City Council approved a measure allowing mother-in-law units in the city.
Ray Dellecker of Bellingham believes backyard homes could help people live more affordably and help homeowners pay their mortgages.

The Bellingham City Council approved a new law allowing homeowners to build mother-in-law units by a 5-2 vote. The city hopes the new law will ease the city's housing shortage.

Ray Dellecker, who lives in the "Happy Valley" neighborhood for nine years, backed the measure.

"Families with limited means, young couples starting out or people who own a home and are aging in it can't afford to stay here," he said.

With vacancy rates in the city near zero, rents and home prices are creeping out of control. That's why Dellecker wanted the city to allow people to build so-called "backyard houses" commonly referred to as "mother-in-law" apartments on their properties that they could rent out.

Dellecker believes the small homes would permit people to live more affordably and help prospective homeowners pay their mortgages.

"Without taking some kind of effective action on affordable housing the neighborhoods are just going to gentrify and prices will become completely out of touch," he said.

Mark Sherman lives a few miles from Happy Valley but his opinions are worlds apart.

"In what city, San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle has any of this ever worked?" he asked.

Plenty of backyard houses already exist around Bellingham, many of them converted garages. Sherman believes if the city writes them into law, housing prices will actually go up because the additional homes will make the properties much more valuable.

He also worries the push for additional density could be the first step toward condos and apartments – bringing traffic and parking problems. What's worse, he fears for the loss of the uniqueness of his community. Looking at what has happened to Seattle's once quaint Ballard neighborhood, now generally referred to as a "condo canyon," Sherman does not want to see the "Ballardization" of Bellingham.

"It takes livability and just throws it out with the trash," he said.

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