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Multi-family Zoning: Achieving Intended Densities

The City Council asked staff to “leave no stone unturned” in seeking solutions to the City’s housing crisis. Through a series of focused discussions, staff identified several approaches that could result in increased housing variety for people of all ages, abilities and incomes. Key to these discussions was Council’s direction to find ways to allow smaller, less expensive homes. Staff’s analysis of these options indicated that many areas zoned Residential Multi (RM) have been significantly underdeveloped with densities much less than what’s intended in the Comprehensive Plan. In some cases, these areas have been developed predominately​ with lower density single-family homes. Changes to the land use code to facilitate the uses envisioned for RM zones have the potential to not only result in more homes of all shapes and sizes, but to also advance many goals and policies of the Comprehensive Plan, including those related to housing affordability and options, efficient land use and climate change. As such, on August 26, 2019, staff presented its preliminary analysis to the City Council Planning and Community Development Committee and was directed to further identify the necessary changes to facilitate intended development patterns in RM zones.

Moratorium - Preserving Future Opportunities

On Monday, March 9, the City Council adopted an emergency moratorium on the processing of certain applications for new single-family development in multi-family zones. The moratorium is effective immediately. This action is in conjunction with the RM project and will prevent development that is inconsistent with intended densities in multi-family zones. The moratorium does not apply to multi-family development in multi-family zones and contains several exceptions, including minor alterations to existing single-family residences, Infill Housing Toolkit housing forms (e.g. small and small lot single-family houses, cottages and courtyard housing), and other projects that achieve adopted densities in these zones.

The moratorium was adopted under state law, which requires that a public hearing be held on the emergency ordinance within 60 days of adoption. During the May 4 City Council public hearing, the City Council took no action on the moratorium, which means that no changes were made to the adopted ordinance and it will remain in effect for at least 12 months while the City conducts the public review and adoption process for the RM project.

Questions regarding the moratorium can be submitted to planning@cob.org.  All other questions regarding the RM project can be sent to RMproject@cob.org.


The City is using to engage with the community on various City-sponsored projects, planning processes and programs. Due to COVID-19, both of the in-person open houses related to the RM project have been cancelled, and we invite you to sign up at our engagement site, engagebellingham.org, to learn more, provide input and stay informed about this project!


POLICY LU-2: The Multi-Family Residential designation is intended for areas that are able to support higher concentrations of people, while encouraging a desirable living environment within and adjacent to these districts. This zoning also provides a compatible mixture of residential housing types, typical accessory uses, public and semi-public uses, office uses and limited neighborhood commercial uses in appropriate areas.

(2016 Comprehensive Plan, Land Use Chapter)


  • Implement the Comprehensive Plan's intent for RM zones
  • Address the City's housing, climate change, environmental and land use goals
  • Expand housing variety for Bellingham's diverse residents (e.g. smaller households and seniors)
  • Provide an opportunity for more people to live in walkable/bikeable/transit-friendly neighborhoods with access to jobs, services and amenities
  • Promote the benefits of multi-family housing


This project is focused on changes to the land use code and neighborhood plans that will allow all RM zones to achieve the densities and types of homes intended for these areas, while also increasing opportunities for additional homes. More detailed analysis is needed to identify the steps required to fulfill the project purpose; however, the following four components have been identified to date:

  1. A simplified ranged zoning system for all RM zones. This system would assign the adopted Comprehensive Plan density ranges of high, medium or low to each RM zone and allow development at any density within the assigned range.
  2. Projects in RM zones that meet location-efficient criteria would be eligible for a density bonus. Specifically, a property would be able to develop within the density range of the next highest density category (e.g. a “medium” density property would jump to the “high” density category).
  3. All Infill Housing Toolkit forms (small and smaller house, cottage, duplex, triplex, shared court, garden court, and townhouse) would be allowed in all RM zones. Small and smaller houses, cottages and duplexes are the only forms currently allowed in RM duplex zones.
  4. Certain (or all) RM zones would potentially include minimum densities.


This project will include additional analysis, public involvement and public hearings and work sessions with the Planning Commission and City Council.




Whatcom Housing Alliance


July 16, 2020: Public Hearing to consider adding the RM project to the 2019-2020 list of Comprehensive Plan Amendments ("the docket")

  • Materials for this meeting will be posted approximately 2 weeks in advance

January 9, 2020: Project Briefing



August 24, 2020: Public Hearing to consider adding the RM project to the 2019-2020 list of Comprehensive Plan Amendments ("the docket")

May 4, 2020: Public Hearing on Emergency Moratorium

March 9, 2020: Moratorium Presentation and Vote (under Mayor's Report)

August 26, 2019: Project Briefing


Please contact the Planning and Community Development Department at 360-778-8300 or RMproject@cob.org with questions and/or to receive periodic project updates via email.