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 units. 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 densities envisioned for RM zones have the potential to result in more housing units for more people and advance many goals of the Comprehensive Plan, including those related to housing options, compact growth and climate action.



  • Implement the Comprehensive Plan’s intent for RM zones
  • Address the City’s housing, environmental and land use goals
  • Expand housing variety for people of all ages, incomes and abilities
  • Provide an opportunity for more people to live in walkable/bikeable/transit-friendly neighborhoods


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 units intended for these areas. 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:

  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Certain (or all) RM zones would potentially include minimum densities.

RM Zoning Definition

Per POLICY LU-2 of the Comprehensive Plan’s Land Use Chapter, 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.


The remainder of the project timeline includes Planning Commission work sessions and a public hearing during the first quarter of 2021 and City Council work sessions and public hearing during the second quarter of 2021. Adoption of the amendments is anticipated with the other annual Comprehensive Plan amendments by the end of 2021.


On March 9, 2020 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.

On March 8, 2021, the City Council voted to renew and extend the moratorium for six months. A public hearing was held on April 26, 2021, during which time the City Council took no action, which means that no changes were made to the adopted ordinance and it will remain in effect until September 7, 2021.

Questions regarding the moratorium can be submitted to  All other questions regarding the RM project can be sent to


Engage Bellingham

The City is using Engage Bellingham to engage with the community on various City-sponsored projects, planning processes and programs. Sign up at our engagement site by clicking the button below to learn more, provide input and stay informed about this project!

Invite Us to Your Virtual Meetings

If your group (professional organization, neighborhood association, non-profit, etc.) would be interested in learning more about the RM project and telling us what you think – contact us at and invite us to your next virtual meeting!

Virtual Open House

On Thursday, October 8, 2020, from 6-7:30 pm, staff provided an overview of the RM project and answered questions from participants in a virtual open house.

  • Please note that the November 5 Planning Commission work session noted in the open house presentation has been cancelled.


Planning Commission Meetings

June 10, 2021: The public hearing from May 20, 2021 has been continued for the consideration of the draft ordinance regarding the RM Project. Register at to attend.

May 20, 2021: Planning Commission public hearing on the RM project. Register at to attend.

March 4, 2021: Planning Commission work session on the RM project

December 3, 2020: Planning Commission work session on the RM project

October 1, 2020: Briefing on up-coming public process for the RM project

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

January 9, 2020: Project Briefing

City Council Meetings

April 26, 2021: A public hearing was held, during which time the City Council took no action, which means that no changes were made to the adopted ordinance and it will remain in effect until September 7, 2021.

March 8, 2021: Voted to renew and extend the moratorium for six (6) months

August 24, 2020Public 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

Public Comments

Whatcom Housing Alliance
Citizen – Pfeiffer
King Mountain Neighborhood Association
Citizen – Smith


Contact staff at with questions and/or to receive periodic project updates via email.