Why a Seattle Suburb Legally Defined What a 'Family' Is

Flickr user Ken Lund

In Bellevue, a satellite city outside Seattle, the City Council and Planning Commission have been working on a new housing policy for coming on two years now. It's a resolution that aims to solve a land-use issue facing a number of Bellevue neighborhoods.

All the council had to do to get there was decide what makes a family.

A surge in multi-room rentals in Bellevue's single-family neighborhoods forced the council's hand, according to testimony. Not an explosion of apartment buildings or condos, but an uptick in the number of landlords renting out individual rooms in single-family houses.

"Neighborhoods didn't like seeing houses getting chopped up and turned into boarding houses," says Sean Martin, external affairs director for the Rental Housing Association of Washington.*

So neighbors rallied, and Bellevue leaders mulled their options. Aaron Laing, the chair of the Planning Commission, described the proposed tweak best during a March 30 hearing: “What can we do from a regulatory perspective that is fair and constitutional that essentially results in what looks like single-family use in a single-family home in a single-family neighborhood?”

On Monday night, the City Council—reacting to a sustained uproar from residents—passed a land-use code amendment that frames what kinds of people can and cannot rent homes together in Bellevue. Families of any size can continue to rent single-family homes in single-family neighborhoods. So can unrelated people who together behave like a "single housekeeping unit," according to the Council.

(Craigslist)

But boarders are out. In particular, students of fast-growing Bellevue College looking to rent individual rooms in houses in Spiritwood and other residential neighborhoods near the school will have to look elsewhere. No more than four unrelated adults can live together on a single lease, per the new downzoning ordinance. And only if they're all on one lease, "living together as the functional equivalent of a family."

The issue erupted in June 2013, according to the Bellevue Reporter. By September of that year, the City Council had passed an "emergency interim ordinance" to deal with the rise in multi-room rentals in Spiritwood. The action adopted on Monday night represents the end of a long arc of drafting and revising language to stop the spread of de-facto dormitories. At least five buildings presented cause for concern for residents.

"These homes that were becoming problematic for the neighborhood typically had multiple leases. Each room would have a separate lease," said Council member Jennifer Robertson, during the same March 30 hearing. "There was no connection among the individuals. And as a consequence of that, in a lot of instances, you weren’t seeing the sort of neighborly accountability if you had a group of college kids renting one home where they’re all stuck on that lease together."

Students at Bellevue College are the people most likely to feel the brunt of Bellevue's new housing policy as it is implemented over the next year. The school is on a considerable growth spurt. It changed its name (and status) from Bellevue Community College to Bellevue College in 2009; it won accreditation as a bachelor's degree–conferring institution the following year.

With some 34,000 enrolled full-time and part-time students, Bellevue College is now the third-largest institution of higher education in the state. Yet it has no on-campus housing—no dormitories whatsoever. (Representatives for the college did not respond to requests for comment.)

"Bellevue College was always considered a commuter school. My friends and I used to call it 13th grade," says Chris Benis, a Bellevue lifer who is legal counsel for the Rental Housing Association of Washington. "Well, now it's not just 13th grade. It's people going back to school, people from foreign countries, and all they want to do is have a cheap place to live close to the school. They don't need a lot of space. But the school doesn't offer any of that."

Benis says that the housing issue runs parallel to the debate over "apodments"in Seattle. Investors, some of them foreign, Benis says, bought homes to rent out, dividing living rooms and garages in order to turn three-bedroom houses into dormitory-style dwellings for 10 or 12 renters.

Some of these rooms may have been intended for foreign students. More than 20 percent of the student population is Asian or Pacific Islander. Some 1,700 international students enroll at Bellevue College annually. Homeowners in Spiritwood told The Seattle Times that they grew concerned after one investor, Qing Shen Song, and his family bought multiple homes in the neighborhood.

Benis, who owns and rents out several single-family houses in Bellevue, says that the first draft of the ordinance would have affected his rentals. The working language restricting single-family homes to actual families would have prohibited him from renting out, say, a five-bedroom house to five women who are friends. So the city refined the language. "When you put it under a microscope, it's really hard to differentiate between someone who's renting out 10 rooms to 10 different people from a situation where you rent a house to the Brady Bunch and there's 10 people living there," he says.

The March 30 hearing found Bellevue City Council members nearly unanimous in their praise for the code amendment. Not everyone is satisfied with the outcome, however. "I have little doubt that traffic, noise, and untidy grounds are sometimes a problem with boarding houses," writes Martin H. Duke of theSeattle Transit Blog. "Indeed, homes occupied by a single family can also make noise and not keep up the yard."

Duke adds, "But Bellevue has hit upon a way to limit this that also happens to specifically exclude poor people from the neighborhood, which should concern anyone interested in social justice."

Members of the Council did not respond immediately for comment. But they did touch upon some limited social-justice issues in the March 30 hearing on the policy. Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci argued that the new language will protect students who had been exploited by rent-seeking landlords.

"I think having a lack of affordable housing allows people to be in some sense abused," Mayor Balducci said during the recorded Council hearing. "If you’re renting out eight rooms at several hundred dollars a room, you are charging people who can barely afford it an obscene amount for the house itself. Which you would never get away with if you were charging market rate for one family."

During the Bellevue City Council action on the ordinance on Monday night, both Paul Bell, state legislative liaison for Bellevue College, and David Rule, president of the school, spoke in favor of the ordinance. Bell as well as a Bellevue student asked the Council to increase the cap on unrelated people who can live together from four to five. Rule said that the school has just put out an RFP for its first phase of university housing.

"I feel like I live across from a little apartment building," said David Pater, testifying during the Monday night Council hearing, which was live-streamed. He has been among the most vocal residents complaining about student housing in Spiritwood. "That belongs in another neighborhood, not across from my house."

Still, students who want and need dormitory-style "apodments" in Bellevue have no plain alternative to the ad-hoc solution that is now being phased out. The need is going unmet by Bellevue College, although the school isinvestigating the possibility of building on-campus housing. The need is being altogether prohibited by the city for certain neighborhoods.

"As our city grows, as our need for affordable housing grows as well, we’re going to have more of these issues in our neighborhoods," Council member Lynne Robinson said during the recorded March 30 hearing. "I don’t want us to be reactionary."

It may be too late for that, at least in Bellevue's single-family neighborhoods.

"I really, really like the suggestion to move the individual room rentals to a different type of district," said Mayor Balducci during the recorded hearing. "I think that is a really neat solution to what is an underlying problem that is multifamily uses in single-family districts."

(Top image via Flickr user kenlund)

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