Victory for Spiritwood neighbors in the form of emergency ordinance

On Monday, City Council passed a new emergency interim ordinance to address a housing model that has taken off in Bellevue.

On Monday, the Bellevue City Council passed a new emergency interim ordinance to address a housing model that has taken off in Bellevue. Concerns about the growing prevalence of multi-room rentals in single-family homes was first brought to the attention of Council in June of this year by Spiritwood neighbors.

“Three and a half months later we’re acting on it,” said councilmember John Chelminiak, one of a number of councilmembers, city staff and candidates who toured Spiritwood to find themselves in agreement with residents that the housing model required an urgent solution. “We promised that we’d give you a good close look at it and I think we’ve delivered on that.”

In May, residents noticed that at least five of the houses in their cul-de-sac had been purchased and renovated by investors. One home in particular, which neighbors referred to as a “mega house,” had been outfitted with eight bedrooms. The structure dwarfed all adjacent homes. Neighbors reported seeing Craigslist postings and suspected the houses were functioning as an informal “dorms” because Bellevue College had recently added additional four-year degrees without providing housing for the growing student population.

When Spiritwood neighbors brought the issue to the attention of council, it quickly became clear that the for-profit housing model wasn’t limited to East Bellevue. Citywide, 43 rental housing violations were reported between 2011 and 2012, up from 27 between 2003 and 2004.

Throughout the last couple weeks neighbors all across Bellevue have shared stories of housemates sleeping in shifts to accommodate one another, rat infestations and traffic problems in their quiet, single-family neighborhoods.

“Thank you very much,” said Steve Fricke a resident of Spiritwood, during Monday’s comment period. “A sincere thanks to all city staff and council for listening to our issues regarding shared housing.”

The city has acknowledged that while the emergency ordinance deals with an immediate issue, a long-term solution would also need to be sought in the form of updates to the city’s comprehensive plan and discussions on housing affordability in Bellevue. Reflecting on Monday’s vote, Fricke said he hoped the city would consider forming a committee to give input on how best to address this issue further down the line.

The emergency ordinance passed 6-0 by the council on Monday amended the definition of boarding houses to include rooming houses, and was expanded to apply to stays of 30 days or more. Also revised was the city’s definition of family, which previously allowed for up to six unrelated adults and now limits the number to four unrelated adults living in a single dwelling. Exceptions could be made if more that four people demonstrate that they operate as a family, using a set of criteria that includes details like shared utility costs or common ownership of furniture and appliances.

“We still need to deal with how we house kids as they go to school. That’s important, we need to figure that out,” said Chelminiak, acknowledging that council and staff’s work was not yet done. “Part of that is affordability of housing. We also need to look at neighborhoods’ transition…We need to have a very open and honest discussion about how the city can help achieve that because if we don’t have that discussion a lot of very large homes will be built on lots.”

To ensure that residents currently operating under city code weren’t unfairly penalized, a grace period is allowed through July of next year, to allow for residents to bring properties up to compliance. Unless there are foreseeable threats to the environment or safety, enforcement would be complaint-based.

“Neighbors all across Bellevue, if they’re impacted by this situation it behooves them to contact city staff and file formal complaints so the city can investigate and utilize their resources,” says Fricke. “It will be interesting to see how it’s enforced. It’s always nice to have a statute or a code, but a code is not a code until it’s enforced.”

The code immediately goes into effect, though East Bellevue Community Council (EBCC) will also need to pass the ordinance before it can be enforced in that jurisdiction, of which Spiritwood is a part. Staff said they hope to bring it before EBCC in early October with a public hearing scheduled before Bellevue City Council for Nov. 4.

“These are dormitories masquerading as single-family homes, sometimes very small homes,” said Chelminiak. “This ordinance gives direct guidance. … We’re able to maintain single-family residences for single-family use without violating fair housing laws.”

For more information about the ordinance, visit the city agenda.