Bellevue is expected to adopt rules Monday night to prevent single-family homes from being chopped up into rooming houses.
When a three-bedroom rambler in their Bellevue neighborhood got chopped up into eight bedrooms — two in the garage — Spiritwood residents complained to the city, only to learn there weren’t rules against rooming houses in single-family neighborhoods.
Monday night, the Bellevue City Council is expected to adopt permanent regulations that limit to four the number of unrelated people who can live in one house.
The new rules require the adults to be sharing the entire house under one lease and not renting individual rooms on a short-term basis. Any nonconforming leases would have to be terminated within one year or when they next expire, whichever comes first.
The city enacted an emergency ordinance to restrict rooming houses in 2013. Neighbors had complained about traffic, noise and landlords not paying for garbage collection or keeping up the yard. When several more houses in the area were bought up by the same ownership group, neighbors and the city worried that this wasn’t just entrepreneurial spirit but an exploitative business plan.
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But crafting permanent legislation turned out to be challenging. Representatives of the city, landlords, Bellevue College and neighbors had to work through thorny issues such as what constitutes a family and whether landlords should have to ask personal questions of prospective tenants about their relationships with one another.
“My concern was that we didn’t sweep in people who have nontraditional lifestyles,” said Chris Benis, a Bellevue attorney and landlord who served on a city panel hashing out details of the proposed ordinance. “ ‘Do you all chip in to buy the breakfast cereal?’ I didn’t think landlords had any business asking those personal questions.”
The general criteria agreed upon, Benis said, was that tenants self-identify as a group looking to rent a house and aren’t a lot of people who hadn’t known each other being brought together by a landlord to live together under one roof.
Any size of family can live in a house, under the new ordinance. But to deal with unrelated adults, the city proposes that renters be the “functional equivalent” of a family — that is, sharing meals and the costs of rent, groceries, utilities and other household expenses. Rooming houses may still be established in multifamily and mixed-use zones.
Officials at Bellevue College (BC), a short walk from the Spiritwood neighborhood, were concerned that the proliferation of rooming houses was being blamed on an unmet need for student housing. The college, with 37,000 students (about 11,000 full-time equivalents), is the third-largestin the state.
It’s been primarily a commuter college, with most students living at home with parents or with their own children, said Ray White, vice president for administrative services at the college.
He said BC does have about 1,000 international students as well as about 140 athletes, many of whom also come from outside the Bellevue area.
“We work pretty hard to put them into homestays and apartments,” White said.
But with the college expecting to add more four-year programs, he said, it’s planning to build about 1,050 housing units over the next eight years. The first, a 350-unit apartment building, is scheduled to open in fall 2018.
City Councilmember John Chelminiak agreed the rooming-house problem wasn’t all about landlords trying to make money off college students.
“The problem was a lot more than someone having a couple of roommates,” he said. Still, he supports the college stepping up to its planned growth and said the city will work with it.
The chopped-up, three-bedroom rambler that touched off the Spiritwood neighbors’ outcry is still a source of concern.
Stephanie Walter, who represented the neighborhood on the panel that helped draft the permanent ordinance, said the city issued a stop-work order in 2013 because the eight bedrooms were being built without a permit.
But she noted that, today, as many as seven cars are still parked out front. The comings and goings are still disruptive to a quiet, residential street. The apparent number of people living there (another neighbor estimated between nine and 12) still raises concerns.
Walter, who was recently appointed to the Bellevue Planning Commission, said the new ordinance will rely on people reporting suspected violations to the city. She is optimistic it will address the problem of landlords intentionally crowding too many people into single-family homes. But she said neighbors of some of these rentals still face the tension between wanting to welcome newcomers and having to report landlords who are breaking the law.
“Enforcement, that’s the real trick now,” she said. “It’s not neighborly to report violations, but it wasn’t neighborly to chop up the houses in the first place.”