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On a quiet Bellevue street next to 1950s ramblers and ranch-style homes with well-maintained flower gardens, one behemoth of a single-family residence towers over the neighborhood. With its no-frills design and more than 6,500 square feet, it looks like an apartment house instead of a luxury home.

The designer, George Shen, says the house at 1722 144th Ave. S.E., a 15-minute walk from Bellevue College, was built with renting at least some of the seven bedrooms in mind, especially since the college is expanding from a two-year to a four-year school.

“It’s a typical house,’’ Shen said, “with just a little more room.’’

And it’s in zoning for single-family housing, designated at a time when the word “family” was presumed not to need any clarification. Times, however, have changed. Is a family two adults and two children or four unrelated adults?

Neighbors of the house on 144th Avenue Southeast say the owner and other developers in Bellevue’s Spiritwood area have taken advantage of the lack of a family definition in the city’s “single-family” zoning ordinance to convert the homes they’ve bought over the past year or so into boardinghouses.

Qing Shen Song, the owner of the home on 144th,
declined to comment on his project. His attorney, Bennett Tse, said Song is one of a large group of investors who have bought rental houses all over the Puget Sound area and California and say they are merely taking advantage of an economic opportunity.

On Sept. 23, the Bellevue City Council took the first steps to curb what officials say is an emerging business model — not just in Bellevue, but in Auburn, Edmonds and Lynnwood, as well as in numerous cities around the country — through an emergency ordinance that limits the number of unrelated adults living in one house to four. It’s patterned after an ordinance Auburn recently approved; it also requires homeowners to live at the house if they are going to rent out rooms and limits the rooms rented to two. It does not prevent group homes for the elderly or disabled.

Bellevue is now working on a permanent ordinance. The first public hearing

is scheduled for Nov. 4.

The increased need for affordable housing in the Northwest has brought a variety of ways to meet that need. Renters take on an entire house and sublet rooms without the owners’ knowledge. Homeowners rent rooms to several roommates to meet the mortgage.

Review Craigslist ads and you’ll find a Redmond couple looking for five roommates, at $700 a room, to help pay the mortgage. An Edmonds woman is looking for a third roommate to pay $650 a room in the house she rents near Edmonds Community College — parking not included. And someone in Lynnwood is renting rooms in one house for $600 each.

Seattle has licensed boardinghouses that provide affordable places for people on small incomes. These places meet building codes and provide a safe environment, which makeshift boardinghomes might not.

In neighborhoods where single-family homes end up being converted to boardinghouses, neighbors complain about yards not being kept up, trash collecting, rats and traffic. Some of the homes that developers bought in Spiritwood appear run down and have unkempt yards, a contrast with the rest of the neighborhood.

Tse said there has not been a single complaint about the behavior of the tenants who live in the rental houses so the number of renters should not be an issue. Nevertheless, he said the investors agreed they would comply with the ordinance and limit the number of renters. But “it only hurts the renters because there are fewer units available and the rents will be higher,” he said.

College connection

Nationwide, using single-family homes as boardinghouses is a problem, especially whenever there is a college nearby, said Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace.

“For years, Bellevue has carefully protected the character of the neighborhoods … so here are these investors looking to skirt the zoning. … We’ve had multiple complaints,” Wallace said. “This is not the first time I’ve noticed it happening, but not on this scale.’’

For Barbara Benson, Stephanie Walter and others who have lived in the Spiritwood neighborhood for decades, City Council action can’t happen fast enough. Developers, including Song, have now bought six properties in the area.

The neighborhood shift began innocently enough with Benson, a friendly woman who started a conversation across the fence with Song, who appeared to be a new neighbor.

He was working in the yard of a house at 1718 144th S.E., which he had purchased. He and his wife were moving to the neighborhood. They had a pregnant daughter who wanted a house, too. Did Benson know of others in the neighborhood that might be for sale?

“We were thrilled” at the prospect of new neighbors, Benson said, and showed him a rambler at 1613 144th S.E., a block from hers. He didn’t purchase it, but Blue Sky Equities bought it from Dakoda Rooney for $340,000 cash without an inspection.

Then Song told Benson he wanted housing for his nephews. Benson showed him another nearby house at 14424 S.E. 17th St. In June, C & S Real Estate, owned by Song’s daughter, Cindy Song, purchased the house for $300,000 cash, again without an inspection. On Aug. 13, Cindy Song filed for a permit to demolish the home. Tse said what will be built on the site will “be much better than what’s there.’’

Neither Song, his daughter or nephews moved into the houses that he said were being bought for them, neighbors say.

Shen insists the new house he designed will be Song’s home, although he said the proximity to the college was why the house was built.

The house has seven bedrooms, eight bathrooms, two studies, a great room, two rec rooms, a family room, a den and an unfinished basement with another 2,654 square feet of space and a garage that can park six cars.

It had two kitchens, but Bellevue’s single-family home building code allows for only one. So one kitchen was removed from the plan.

Eight bedrooms

The rambler Benson first showed her neighbor is an illustration of what went wrong in the neighborhood, city officials say.

When Rooney lived at 1613 144th S.E., it had three bedrooms. Rooney visited her old home in August when she returned to the area for a wedding. A construction worker was outside the home and asked her if she was from the city. When she said no, one of the renters invited her in. She said she was stunned. The house was unrecognizable. It had been chopped into eight small bedrooms filled with blankets and air mattresses, she said.

Blue Sky obtained a remodel permit to build an addition to the home, convert the garage to heated storage space and remodel the bathroom. But Bellevue issued a stop-work order after other remodeling without a permit was discovered.

In late August, the city found the property to have six bedrooms and to be in compliance with the code. The garage had been converted to a heated storage space and was not being used as a bedroom, putting the home in compliance, according to the city’s code.

Under Bellevue’s emergency ordinance there are no penalties for operating a boardinghouse in a single-family home until July 2014, when a permanent ordinance will go into effect, say city officials. In the meantime, an ample supply of needy renters is a tempting incentive for developers.

Neighborhoods do change over time, said Councilmember John Chelminiak. And affordable housing is a need.

“That’s something we’ll have to address. How do you make redevelopment occur so the neighborhood feels comfortable with it?’’

Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or or