Thursday, August 30, 2007

What Can We Do?

How do we extricate ourselves from this quagmire? First, we must recognize that the core issue is non-enforcement of Bellingham City Code on single family zoning. The reasons for this are many but, at this point, moot. Second, we must concede the enormous contribution to the problem by Western Washington University, more by omission than by commission. Expecting the community to absorb more than 8,000 students each year is not helpful. Third, we must concede that the live-in property owners have been marginalized in favor of those who rent their single family properties. These landlords are totally uncontrolled, an unacceptable situation in a city where even dogs have to be licensed. We cannot allow the landlords to hijack our planning meetings and selfishly further marginalize the other property owners. Many cities across the nation require landlord licensing such as Madison Heights, MI (click here for info) and New Haven, CT (click here for info).

The bugaboo of “unconstitutionality” of our code should be put to rest until such time as a court has decided the issue. Some will lament the cost of a court proceeding but we ought not forget the repeated costs to the city by allowing the “rooming house-ification” of our neighborhoods. By that I mean the price to control unhealthy living conditions, overcrowding, litter, parking, traffic congestion, noise, public drunkenness/urination, assaults, etc., the symptoms of laissez-faire enforcement. There is also the de facto, uncontrolled growth in single family neighborhoods rendering our neighborhood plans moot. Moreover, there is the immeasurable price of the degradation of quality of life for our residents who are forced to accommodate the annual turnover of rooming house renters whose ignorance of the basics of civility is well known.

There are other actions we can take after, and only after, the city enforces the current code. Otherwise we will be on yet another round of giving aspirin to the trauma victim.

- License all landlords to include those who rent single family homes.

- Develop a program of health and safety inspections of all rented property.

- Insist that Western Washington University step up to bar and provide additional student housing either through more on-campus dormitory space or through public-private construction ventures.

- Insist that Western Washington University extend their student code to cover off-campus activities.

- Hire additional code enforcement personnel.

- Contact other jurisdictions with successful zoning enforcement to obtain additional techniques and tools.

We must avoid the “Kumbaya” effect wherein our elected leaders shrug their collective shoulders and call for yet another meeting with the neighborhood associations to “tackle his tough issue and sing songs around the campfire” I, for one, am looking for LEADERS who will take action NOW; who will enforce the current code. I am looking for a City Attorney who will find an approach to support the single family zoning code instead of undermining it before it is ever tested. I am looking for a City Council that will look out for the homeowners who want to live in peace and quiet. As I review the candidate comments on my blog, I am not encouraged. Nor should the readers of this blog be heartened.

(Here is a reminder to our elected officials and our mayoral and council wannabes: You will need the support of these single family homeowners as you struggle to adopt policies that will create infill and avoid sprawl. You will have a tough sell on your infill ideas and promises when you ignore the de facto infill caused by the creation of these rooming houses. This mistrust will spill over into all you do to meet the challenges of traffic congestion, water quality and, above all, growth. These issues are interconnected. You ignore single family zoning enforcement at your peril.)

Again, I urge everyone to contact the candidates for office and current city officials. Tell them "I"m mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" (Borrowed from the movie Network, 1976) Feel free to copy and plagiarize from this blog. Moreover, it is time to vote to ensure we have leaders who will support us on this issue.

Here are their emails:

For Mayor

Dan McShane - team@danmcshane.com
Dan Pike - dan@pikeformayor.com

For At-Large Council

Louise Bjornson - Dale-Louise@msn.com
Michael Lilliquist - Michael@LilliquistforCityCouncil.org

For Ward 5
Terry Bornemann - terryb903@comcast.net
Bill Geyer - billgeyer@comcast.net

For Ward 4
Damon Gray - djgray@damonjgray.org
Stan Snapp - stansnapp@Yahoo.com

For Ward 3
Larry Farr - larry@larryfarr.com
Barry Buchanan - barry@barryforbellingham.com

For Ward 1

Jack Weiss - jack@jackweissforcouncil.com

The Present Council - citycouncil@cob.org

The Mayor - mayorsoffice@cob.org

The Planning Director - tstewart@cob.org

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Candidate Snapp for Ward 4 - Round Two

The exchange below between Mr. Snapp and myself is a follow-on to an earlier blog entry of 8/16 which I encourage you to read before tackling this one. (My comments are in red, those of Mr. Snapp in blue.)

Of course you (sic) didn’t ask people to beat up on candidates. That statement is no more literal that “shooting from the hip” as you accuse un-named incumbents of doing in your quote below:

Delicacy causes me to refrain from mentioning names of the hip shooters, however, one or more might find themselves addressees on this message.

Again you describe single family zoning as a closed issue. Says who? When? Who says its (sic) open or closed? I don’t know of any candidates that (sic) have “proffered this dubious rationale in the past” and you don’t name them or the reference.

I think it is instructive to appreciate that the legal issue surrounding single family zoning, which had been portrayed to us as a closed issue, is apparently quite open. Voters should consider that when examining candidates (especially incumbents) who have proffered this dubious rationale in the past.

Again, no citations or documentation just your view that it’s a “closed issue”. I don’t know of any issues that are closed. If citizens have concerns, it’s the job of elected officials to listen and act if they deem it appropriate to do so. If someone told you this was a closed issue, say who, when and where and give someone a chance to respond.

If you really want the votes from your constituency, you will have to provide some concrete solutions to end this mess the City of Bellingham calls zoning.

Again, you call our zoning system a “mess”. What is that supposed to mean? How can a reasonable person take that kind of statement seriously. When you described a specific concern I responded in agreement that if a code is not enforceable for whatever reason then it needs to be changed or taken off the books. If it’s taken off the books, what then? Your perception of the problem won’t change a bit, but some other remedy will have to be sought.

I attended the candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters on July 18th. Although all of you spoke to the issue of growth, none brought up the subject of the lack of enforcement of the “single family” residential portion of the Bellingham Municipal Code.

I can’t speak for other candidates but I see “growth” as a huge issue and we’ve talked about a wide range of issues and potential issues under that heading. Other than the email I have from you, not one person has brought up this issue to me during this campaign. I’ve personally knocked on 508 doors in this, very large Ward. I’ve talked literally to hundreds of people and not once has this topic come up as a concern. Granted this Ward is not close to campus but, you point out that this is a much larger issue than that of student housing. This Ward has some wealthy neighborhoods but it also has plenty of neighborhoods with rentals and other mixed uses and densities. I’m not saying it’s not a valid issue I’m just sharing with you that it’s not an issue in my mind like “safe drinking water” “Responsible Growth” (density verses (sic) sprawl) and “Fiscally Responsible Choices” that I’ve been talking with voters about in my Ward. Lot’s (sic) of people are very concerned about downtown and waterfront development and a host of other issues and they are all important but to me, I’m focusing on these three. If you feel my opponents will do a better job of addressing the most meaningful issues from your perspective then, by all means, vote for them. The one most likely to move to the General with me is an “incumbent” and you’ve said very harsh words about them as a group, so I’m thinking you’d be better off taking your chances with a new guy like me, but you get to decide.

Lack of enforcement has turned parts of this city (zoned single family) into rooming house districts.

Again, you’ve made a completely unsubstantiated charge. Rooming houses are licensed and inspected so they are determined to be reasonable safe. If you feel there are occupancies that should be classed as Rooming houses, notify the inspection bureau of the Fire Department and see if they agree with your determination. If they do the occupancy will be inspected. At least that’s how it worked when I worked at the Fire Department.

I will post your comments to my blog with attribution and comment.

It’s your Blog so you get to say anything you want but I won’t be posting again and signing my name, which is the only way I post.

I also ask that you take me off your mass emailing lists. Courtesy dictates not including personal email addresses to the entire community. As a candidate I have a Yahoo account posted, not my private and personal email which you’ve been spreading around.

My reply of 8/16

I suggest you contact the Whatcom Independent to have your email address taken off THEIR site at http://whatcomindy.com/candidate_watch.php. That is where I got it. I have no idea what your Yahoo address is nor have I been able to find a web site for your candidacy. Your “personal” email seems to be public domain now. See your info below from the Indy. I did not make this up.

“Stan Snapp
E-mail: stansnapp@xxxxxx.net (I removed the ISP name)
Phone: (360) 305-0607
Stan moved his family here 40 years ago. He is a retired Division Chief from the Bellingham Fire Department. Campaign issues: protect our drinking water reservoir, support neighborhood efforts, open communications between citizens and City Hall. He served and led Greenways, Watershed Board, and Parks Master Plan committee. Experience counts.”

You are right, Stan. My name does not appear on the blog but it does appear on all these emails I have been sending around to the neighborhood boards, the candidates, my friends, city officials and to you – emails that are telling folks to go to my blog at www.zonemaven.blogspot.com.

My reply as of today 8/29.

By the way, you also might want to remove your personal email from the Whatcom County Auditor site which you can find by clicking here and here.

Back to your comments above. You really did tell me “BTW, encouraging people to beat up on candidates really doesn’t help anybody very much.” Not sure what else I should think about a statement like that.

As for the single family zoning issue being a “closed issue”, that is exactly the way it has been presented to me over the years by the former mayor and by current and former members of the city council. If you read my blog, you will find stories from homeowners about their failed attempts at redress. I suggest, if you want further first-hand stories regarding non-enforcement, you may want to actually ask the question as you ring doorbells. However, keep in mind that, if you were to check, you would find that Ward 4 is one of the least populated wards with respect to students. Take a stroll in York, Sehome or Happy Valley and listen to the homeowners there. Or you may want to read some of the emails posted at the Sehome Neighborhood site. (Click here)

As for a response from the city, I would print it here if I had it. I have not heard a word from the Mayor, the City Attorney or the Planning Department as a result of my blog or emails. Perhaps in your role as candidate, you could persuade them to respond. Last year I did get an email from Mr. Capell of the office of the city attorney in response to my request for information as to what might constitute sufficient information for them to take a landlord to court for having too many tenants in a house. Here is his kafkaesque response in its entirety which suggests that somehow I should devine the elements they need for prosecution.

“From: JCapell@cob.org [mailto:JCapell@cob.org]
Sent: Friday, October 13, 2006 3:44 PM
To: Richard Conoboy
Cc: CBurkhart@cob.org; DGalligan@cob.org
Subject: RE: FW: 160 S. 46th St.

Thanks for the information. Your observations certainly would be relevant (but not conclusive) in a determination of how many people are occupying the residence. However, these observation (sic) do not tell anything one way or the other about whether these individuals are related. One might assume that they are not and, in fact, they probably aren't, but the City does not get the benefit of any such assumptions if it charges and tries the owner of the residence for criminal violation of single family residential zoning laws.

Please feel free to forward me any other observations that you make that you think are relevant to the issue. I cannot, however give you direction as to what things you should be attempting to gather or obtain because that would raise questions as to whether you had become a so-called de facto "state actor" which in turn raises questions of constitutionality. I'm sure this probably seems overly complicated, but, for better or worse, it is the way it is. Thanks again for your reply and feel free to keep me posted on any additional information.

Jeff H. Capell
Asst. City Attorney
(360) 676-6903 phone
(360) 671-1262 fax”

Mess: “A confused, troubling, or embarrassing condition; a muddle.” I rest my case. And, by the way, we don’t have to replace anything. All we have to do is enforce the current code. I am sorry if this problem does not rise to the top of your importance meter, however, I feel obligated to remind you that all growth planning revolves around the definitons of that which constitutes high/medium /low density. If the terms you use to define these densities , such as single family housing, defy description you are in a mess. See above for definition of "mess".

Let’s talk about rooming houses. The problem is precisely that these rooming houses are NOT licensed nor would they be given their locations. However, I find your suggestion to report unlicensed rooming houses to the Fire Department an intriguing one. I propose to my readers that they do just that. Perhaps we have found a work-around solution. My readers can contact the Fire Department for rooming house violations at (360)676-6831. Tell them Mr. Snapp suggested the call.

Ward 4 Candidate Gray Comments - Snapp Redux Coming Soon

Candidate Gray responds on 7/26

Thank you for taking the time to express your concerns regarding this thorny issue, and for your service to our community in the various capacities in which you generously volunteer your time.

I understand and share your concerns. I am personally affected in my own neighborhood by the very issue you address. Indeed the home I purchased, and now occupy, was previously rented to seven college students. When my wife and I purchased the home, the neighbors were very relieved to see an actual family moving into the home.

In a related issue, while the general idea of accessory dwelling units might not have been a bad one in principle, there is no doubt that it is being abused and the city needs to do something about it. Single family zoning means just that, and it is unacceptable for the exception to become the rule, as it is apparently doing in some areas of our city.

To start to get to solutions, as you are calling for, first, I support a full legal review of our enforcement options. I share your skepticism regarding the claims of constitutionality and enforceability, but I also recognize that there are issues of privacy and "a man's home is his castle" that we have to examine carefully in order to develop an enforcement policy that will comply with the state and federal constitutions and laws.

In addition, we need to strengthen our neighborhoods by empowering residents and by updating the neighborhood plans, as many local neighborhoods are currently doing. Parking is a key issue in this regard and parking regulation can be an effective enforcement tool as well, if used properly.

I'm new to the local political process, and thus am still in the learning phase on this and many other issues. I look forward to receiving more input from you to assist me in developing effective solutions to the many problems we face.

Thank you again for sharing your concerns, and for your willingness to address challenging issues to keep our city in its finest form.

Sincerely,

Damon J. Gray
Candidate for Bellingham City Council, Ward 4


My reply

Luckily you never had to experience living next door to the group of 7 who previously occupied your home. I would encourage you to talk further with your neighbors about their experience.

As for ADUs, I think they are a bad idea all around and just another way to circumvent the zoning/density issue. Worse yet, they encourage abuse by allowing owners to eventually move into the ADU and invite renters into the main house. Eventually, the owner can move elsewhere and rent the ADU as well as the main house. Who is checking to see if the owner is on the premises? Given the track record of the city on dealing with no more than 3 unrelated people in a single family home, I do not feel reassured at the prospect of effective enforcement on ADUs.

As for the legal review, I said it before and it now bears repeating, “Why do you want to review a process that has never been tested?” The only definitive test is a judicial review, i.e, through the courts. Do we have any more reason now than we did before to think that further review will produce a better code? If such a review is necessary, where have the great municipal legal minds been for the last umpteen years? How much longer are we going to drag this out without getting to the nitty-gritty of enforcement?

Neighborhood plans will only empower the residents when they hold meaning. Until single family residential zoning is a consequential term, all the verbiage of the plans with regard to density is moot. Parking problems are symptomatic and a diversion from the zoning issue.

Development Code Being Updated - Noodle to Be Pushed Uphill

I will guess that you were not aware that an update of the development code has begun as of June this year. The Bellingham Business Journal in its July edition reported that “the planning department began work in June on a major update of the city’s development code, which hasn’t been overhauled since it was written and adopted in 1982.” The article further stated “The process will take about two to three years to complete, and several full-time planning staff will be assigned to the project. The process will eventually involve public input and final approval by the city council before it is adopted.”

The code portion is essentially Title 20 Land Use Development which you can find by clicking here. In the first phase they will be looking at the “building blocks of definitions.” This means they will be looking at the definitions among which is that for single family. Developer Troy Muljat opined “I’m skeptical because curve balls get thrown in left and right to the city process.” According to the article, he also said that he is wary of politics getting into the process. That is a sure bet if I ever saw one.

Muljat was further quoted as saying “All developers want, and all the city staff want, is to know what the rules of the game are, and today a lot of people don’t really know what’s going on,” Well golly, read the posts to this blog! He said. “You get a lot of butting heads, but at the end of the day, they really don’t want to.” You bet. You have an entire zoning code that depends upon a definition which the city refuses to recognize. That is a very large problem.

Unfortunately, the council and the city government may use this “update” as an excuse to hold off enforcing the single family portion of the code, thus leaving homeowners with the constant threat of finding a rooming house next door or not being able to get rid of those already established. Don’t let this udpate be an excuse to delay action on code enforcement. Write to your council member or the candidates for mayor and council today. You would not expect that all development will cease while the rules are being updated. Similarly, you should not accept that single family zoning codes remain unenforced while the city is pushing the noodle up the hill.

Here are their emails:

For Mayor

Dan McShane - team@danmcshane.com
Dan Pike - dan@pikeformayor.com

For At-Large Council

Louise Bjornson - Dale-Louise@msn.com
Michael Lilliquist - Michael@LilliquistforCityCouncil.org

For Ward 5
Terry Bornemann - terryb903@comcast.net
Bill Geyer - billgeyer@comcast.net

For Ward 4
Damon Gray - djgray@damonjgray.org
Stan Snapp - stansnapp@Yahoo.com

For Ward 3
Larry Farr - larry@larryfarr.com
Barry Buchanan - barry@barryforbellingham.com

For Ward 1

Jack Weiss - jack@jackweissforcouncil.com

The Present Council - citycouncil@cob.org

The Mayor - mayorsoffice@cob.org

The Planning Director - tstewart@cob.org



Tuesday, August 28, 2007

York Neighborhood Rooming House

I received this a few days ago from a woman in the York Neighborhood.

"Hello Dick my name is (removed by request). I live in the York neighborhood, grew up here as a child, moved after getting married, moved away for five years. We purchased Grandma's house on Franklin St. We've been here for twenty three years raised our child here. What a great neighborhood this is except for every thing you stated in your letter. Thank you and HOORAY!! for you. I've called and been down to planning department several times and I don't get any results because as you said they're afraid of being sued. I just can't understand. Why can't our City Attorney … get this single family dwelling. Says there's no way to prove they're unrelated?? We had eight guys all the same age in a house now they should have checked this out but NO they sure didn't. We pay taxes on our homes to be single family. I think that a lot of neighbors right here would be glad to have a meeting with you perhaps all the city neighborhoods that have these problems should get together perhaps we could get something accomplished. Just recently I called building and codes about a building …that was going up and was told that if I had a complaint I needed to come down and fill out a form. In the past they would come and check it out. I just noticed when coming down the alley on Sunday stopped and checked it out and it sure does look like an apartment to me. Going to pursue this. Thank you again for your great letter…"

Must have been a group of octuplets.

Would any of our mayoral or council candidates care to reply to this homeowner? And what does our Planning Department and City Attorney have to tell her about getting rid of this rooming house?


Ward 5 Candidate Bornemann Replies. Candidate Geyer Missing-in-Action.

Mr. Bornemann wrote the following in response to my initial email in July 2007. Mr. Geyer has yet to respond.

Candidate Bornemann Comments 7/25

"I have asked the Mayor and City staff to bring back a landlord accountability ordinance that will address many of these issues. I was really hoping they would have it ready to bring before the council soon. I check this past week with Malcolm Oliver and Katherine Hanawell about the progress and was disappointed to hear it was progressing slower then I hoped. I told them that I want to see this before us as soon as possible. I will keep pushing to bring back this ordinance and this time get it put in place. As soon as Katherine gets an initial draft I want to get it sent to the planning commission for hearings and input from the citizens. We need to get better legislation and much better enforcement of zoning codes. I share your frustration in the lack of enforcement. I will work with the neighborhoods to provide the kind of protection that is needed. Houses zoned single family should be just that(,) not boarding houses. Terry"

To which I replied

I believe that the landlords (even of single family homes) should be licensed and inspected but I don’t want that issue to cloud the very basic problem we have here, zoning enforcement. The landlords have shown themselves to be organized opponents as you saw when they hijacked that meeting at the cruise terminal a while back. They will yell and scream and meanwhile the zoning enforcement issue will be ignored.

Is anyone contacting any of these other jurisdictions (Bloomington, IN; Allentown, PA; Lincoln, NE; Binghamton, NY; and Ann Arbor, MI) where they have already struggled with and won on these zoning issues? Are we re-inventing the wheel here when all we have to do is copy a winning strategy?

And on 7/27 his reply on other jurisdictions with effective zoning enforcement

"I will find out if those jurisdictions are included in the research that is being done. If there are not, I will ask that they be looked at. I know I have looked into Ann Arbors when we first tried to bring forward the Landlord Accountablity Ordinance. Terry"

And again on 8/27

"I agree that a simple landlord accountability ordinance will not solve all the problem(s) but hopefully what comes forward will also address the issues of enforceability and not just landlord accountability. I share your frustration with the inability to get the City to enforce the regulations on the books. I have been pushing for that as well and unfortunately have been unable to get the 4 votes necessary to move the administration to action. I have asked that the 3 unrelated rule be enforced and if it is challenged, so be it, we defend it. Unenforceability should be determined by the courts not a city attorney. I will bring the issue up at the next council meeting to get a response on the record about where the administration is on bringing a new ordinance forward that will address the issue being raised. I will see if I can get it on for the Planning Committee agenda if not, I will bring it forward on Old and New Business. Thank you for pushing us. With so many issues coming forward it is too easy to bring a(n) issue forward assume it is being worked on and move forward with other issue."

I am not hoping for anything as hope is an illusion. What matters is action. What “comes forward” depends on our pushing the issue. We cannot be diverted from the essential question which is the lack of enforcement of the Bellingham City Code regarding single family homes and the consequential turning of these homes into rooming houses. Landlord accountability at this time is a red herring. The root cause of the problem remains non-enforcement of existing code.

As you have recognized, Terry, other jurisdictions have been able to prevail in court with similar ordinances. (see such references on the right hand side of my blog) If we do not deal with the code issue, all else becomes moot, especially the hard work that neighborhoods are doing in updating their neighborhood plans. I sent the following to the Samish Neighborhood board with regard to its draft plan:

“I would like to encourage all the (Samish) board members to keep in mind that one of the major defining terms within this neighborhood plan, and indeed, every neighborhood plan is low density. This means single family zoned areas. Unfortunately, our city officials are unwilling to enforce the codes which prevent homeowners from converting single family homes (low density) into rooming houses (medium/high density depending on how many you can cram into a house). As a consequence, a good part of our planning and your hard work becomes a moot exercise where terms have little or no meaning except to present a nicely thought out plan that cannot be enforced.

I urge the SNA board to formally bring up this problem during discussions with the city. How does the Planning Department assure any sort of compliance with the plan when the terms are problematic and enforcement is not an option, save a perfunctory “investigation” which goes nowhere.”

I intend to push this issue very hard in this blog and in my communications with the candidates for mayor and the council up to and beyond the general election. I have sent messages to all the neighborhood associations and these organizations are beginning to react. Check out the Sehome Neighborhood newsgroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Sehome/ and read their stories.

Now if Mr. Geyer will send us his comments...

Monday, August 27, 2007

At-Large Candidate Lilliquist Responds. Candidate Bjornson – Mute or Moot?

On 7/29/2007 Michael Lilliquist responded thusly:

"I agree that this is a problem, but I am doubtful that the current law will ever prove effective. One problem is that not all unrelated families are troublesome. The other, constitutional question about what constitutes a family is simply one that the City should avoid taking on. We don't need the legal headache. I believe that we should focus more on the illegal behavior - noise, garbage, parking abuses, etc., than upon the familial status of the renters.

I think we need to put more muscle behind enforcing noise, littering, and nuisance regulations; the Council should instruct the mayor to direct the police to make this a higher priority; and I support re-introducing a law to hold landlords accountable. I am disappointed that Bjornson did not support the Landlord Accountability ordinance when it was first proposed. A voluntary system, that she suggested but never followed up on, won't work and has not worked. I see no reason to be tolerant of this kind of misbehavior. It's basic law-and-order. I see no reason not to write a tougher law. I'm not sure why we need to wait for three violations/convictions before we start to impose sanctions.

I hope this answers your question.”

Unfortunately, not.

"We don't need the legal headache." If, by this, you mean that the city does not want the headache and that it prefers that the homeowners have a constant headache, I agree.

Let's talk about citizen headaches. I have been fighting the battle of four de facto rooming houses on my street since 2002. I have heard the tired refrains from the mayor and council about unconstitutional codes, enforcement of noise, litter, parking ordinances, landlord accountability, etc. ad nauseam. Had they worked, the problem would be gone by now. Here is an example of four homes on my street of only 12 homes.

House #1 was a rental when I moved into the neighborhood in 2002. The students moved out because they could not stand the noise coming from the rental next door!! The home was then bought about 4 years ago by the parents of two WWU students. The parents lived in Arizona. The two sons then invited from 3-4 (?) other renters to join them in the house. After multiple disturbances over 18 months a final, wild party with over 100 "guests" they were cited for disorderly conduct. That finally stopped the loud parties, etc. except for the cars parked at the end of the cul-de-sac. The students graduated this year and a single family (real, not fake) bought the home.

House #2 is next door to the house above. Here the owner has been living in a mother-in-law apartment while renting the main part of the house. There has been a succession of renters who have been involved in such activities as car racing (trailers with cars and tires decorating the neighborhood) and an in-home business which the Bellingham Municipal Code forbids and which included vans and trucks parked on the street. One family of renters in 2002 was involved in a drunken domestic dispute which resulted in a broken front door and the arrest of a woman. All of these renters had multiple vehicles some of which teh police towed as abandoned or as hulks. The garage was used mainly for storage and, in one case, for the restoration of a vehicle. This owner must find his renters in biker bars or similar establishments.

House #3 is directly opposite my house and has been a rental since before I bought my home in 2002. There have been a series of tenants. For the first year there was a group of students (one of whom lived in the garage) followed by several families and then this last year by another group of students/young renters (not students). When the single family renters were there we had two quiet years. The families had one or two vehicles, which, unfortunately, they chose to park in the driveway instead of the 2-car garage. This past year, the young renters have been relatively quiet but only after having the police called on a party last fall at which dozens of uninvited guests showed up with concomitant noise, litter and public urination. The police gave a warning and that seems to have curbed further desire on their part to have parties. They do, however, have about a half dozen vehicles which get parked in the drive or on the street, often facing the wrong way or blocking my mail box. On the weekends, more cars show up as the girlfriends join the guys and remain overnight. I am not moralizing, just stating the facts. The students are leaving at the end of August and the owner is again renting the place. I have filed a formal complaint with the city on this house on several occasions. The landlord shows them a lease with 3 names on it and the city says, "Looks OK to us." Just who owns the six cars out front of that house every morning is somehow not the city's concern.

Home #4 was occupied by a group of young men who rented from the owners. The owners were one of the young men and his father. About 6 people lived in the house, each with a car. Some of the renters had formed a band and had converted the garage into a rehearsal room. You can imagine the noise. The vehicle traffic to and from the house was heavy and continued throughout the night, every night. Cars were parked all over the cul-de-sac. They finally sold the home to a single family.

As you can see, the problems of noise, litter, public urination, parking, etc. were solved only in the cases where a single family bought the home and there were no further rentals. If you don't attack the root cause, you end up replaying the same score every year or two. The only effective remedy is zoning enforcement. For without it, all other efforts are moot.

As for the landlord accountability ordinance, I agree in principle. That my barber has to be licensed while landlords, whose behavior has many environmental and health consequences, are not, is mind-boggling. However, let's not pretend that this will solve the zoning problem. While landlord accountability is a good idea it is not the answer to the problem of zoning enforcement.

On 7/30/2007 and 08/01/2007 Candidate Lilliquist replies.

"I m sorry to hear it. Perhaps you can find reasons to support me on other issues? It's your call, of course.

I am also sorry that you perceive me at putting quality of life issues in a secondary place, because I believe the opposite to be true. I think more vigorous enforcement of noise, parking, and littering to be an appropriate response, and I believe a landlord accountability ordinance will be a valid legal tool to enforce these laws and to punish transgressors. You might also consider the fact that the incumbent, Louise, actually opposed the landlord accountability ordinance when it was brought forward. She favored a "voluntary system," but then never acted on it.

Thank you for taking the time to care about our quality of life issues.

-Michael"

"I certainly understand your frustration with the long-standing,
ongoing abuses and disturbances. It is a problem that needs fixing.

At this point, without any authority to act or investigate, I will just have to say that I agree that the City needs to take legal action.

Yours,

Michael"

Sigh!

And Louise? Where are you?


Mr Buchanan, Candidate for Ward 3 Council Seat, Replies

Candidate Buchanan replies to my request for comments on the single family zoning non-enforcement issue.


His comments are in italicized blue.

"I have an idea on a start to enforcing our Single Family Zoning and the rooming house problem. Let me know what you think.

1. We need to make sure the code is written such that it is enforceable and has a substantial financial penalty. I would sponsor this effort on the Council.

2, Establish a new process in which to submit a complaint and educate the public on that process through the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission and then on to the Neighborhood Associations.

3. Use the Bellingham Police Department Officer assigned as the representative for the specific Neighborhood as the point of contact and coordinator of the effort.

4. Use your volunteers in the Retired Senior Volunteers at the Bellingham Police Department as the investigative resource to collect evidence of a violation (Note to Dick: I think this is where we fall short as a resource constraint with the BPD. Could your volunteers perform this function and are there enough resources?).

5. Issue citation to the Landlord and proceess through Municipal Court

These are just some pragmatics steps to the enforcement issue. We need a good long-term solution to address housing the WWU students.

Barry Buchanan"

My comments:

Thanks for your reply and your plan.

As you asked, point by point, here are my reactions. Your first point assumes that the current code is not adequate when it has never been tested in a court of law. Until that time, for what reason would we change it? What leads you to believe that the legal minds of the city would do any better this time in producing a single family zoning code which is guaranteed to pass judicial scrutiny? Statements by the city attorney, the mayor and others are not judicial reviews but executive declarations and advisory in nature. At some point you have to test what you have in court. What has the city been waiting for, Godot?

With respect to number 2, there does not seem, at this time, to be a problem with process except that it does not go anywhere beyond the Planning Department. The procedure beyond that is shrouded in mystery as nobody I know has ever had a complaint about single family zoning violation move forward beyond Planning. Discussions with the city attorney’s office become kafaesque – trust me - I have gone that route. If you know of any complaints which moved beyond Planning, I would be delighted to hear about them.

As for number 3, I would have to defer to Chief Randy Carroll but I do know that we already have a code enforcement officer at the Bellingham Police Department. The role, that you suggest, for the neighborhood police officers is unclear.

Although I am the coordinator for the Senior Volunteers, I certainly would not be able to commit those resources for anything other than their current services nor is it appropriate for me to promote their use in this blog. There are also questions of guild and union prerogatives not to mention that the current number of volunteers is woefully insufficient. Such a vital function should be exercised by paid city employees whose availability and accountability are assured.

Number 5 sounds fine to me.

Farr/Buchanan in Ward 3

At the moment, Larry Farr is the sole candidate for the Ward 3 council seat to have responded to my emails. He has spoken to me on several occasions at Samish Neighborhood meetings and appears interested and engaged. I have had no response from Barry Buchanan on this issue. Perhaps he would like to respond now.

I received the following from Candidate Farr on 7/25/2007. He is responding to the concerns of a resident of the Samish Neighborhood whose questions appear below in light green italics. Mr. Farr's comments are in blue italics.

“Currently there is a code on the books to protect the integrity of the single family neighborhood from group/rooming houses, put there by the city council. The city administration now claims it is unenforceable and refuses to do anything. My neighborhood (R1 zoned, single family residential) is being destroyed with rooming houses and a clean and safe house. Property values are dropping (who will knowing moved their family next to a rooming/group house), long term neighbors are putting their homes up for sale to get away. When you have a group of folks moving into a neighborhood who have no interest, loyalty or ownership in a neighborhood, its apparent what happens. In many cases animal house
arrives.

Question is: What will you do as a city administrator to protect the integrity of the single family zoned neighborhood?

Thank you for allowing me to better explain the question. I will await your response. Good luck on your campaign.”

(Note Mr. Farr’s response begins here.)

"In response, the quick answer is, that we must protect the integrity of the single family zoned neighborhoods unless the neighborhoods provide input into where this should/could be changed. This is your neighborhood and you purchased your property in an area zoned for single family residents – the only way this should change is if you provide input into this change. Without your approval as a neighborhood, the residential zoning should not be changed.

Now the longer answer… that goes after your situation.

Each neighborhood is currently zoned for a specific purpose and density. Your neighborhood was zoned R1 residential for the reason of (and I am just guessing at this point) when it was laid out the specific lot size minimums and maximums were established and put into law that this would be a residential area for the current and future use. Any changes or exceptions to the current code would require, (as established by the code itself), that a conditional use permit be sought and obtained by due process. The conditional use permit process includes having neighborhood input to seek the desires of the neighbors who live in the area and are impacted by the change.

(Here is the code statement showing the process)

Changes in the boundaries, general use type (also called the "zone" in BMC 20.00), use qualifier or density of each "Area" shall be considered through the rezone procedure in BMC 21.10. Changes in permitted uses and/or density rules that modify the general use type, use qualifier or density shall be considered a rezone, regardless of the topic category in which they appear in the BMC 20.00. All other amendments to BMC 20.00 shall be considered through the development regulation amendment procedure in BMC 21.10.

Now back to your question, As a member of the city council, when you came to me to tell me that your neighbors were running a business out of the home, and they were in violation of the city code and zoning regulations, then I would follow up with city staff

- to see if there was a conditional use permit in place,

- how was this process determined

- and if the neighborhood were informed

Secondly, if there were no permit in place, I would seek out the mayors office, as they are the management side of our government, and hound them to take action against the violation. Seeking a position on the Council, (as I am), if elected, will be a part of the legislative body of government and my role is to represent you in the establishment of the policy, procedure, and laws that protect and serve the citizens. I would not have the power to do the “enforcement”, but have the authority to establish the rules by which we provide for the citizens. If the staff is not compliant to the regulations, then this needs to be addressed, and basically my tenacious personality would be a part of bringing this issue before the bodies that do have the power to enforce this. This is my role as your elected representative.

I did find a case that is similar to yours… on the records you can read the opinions of a case that went through the state supreme courts if you cut and paste the following web address into your computer.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/index.cfm?fa=opinions.showOpinionTextOnly&filename=565605MAJ&printOnly=y

… you need to know that as an administrator for the city, I represent you and the other neighbors. And I would/will do everything in my authority to maintain the zoning codes as established. With the understanding that as a community we are growing, but the changes do not just “happen” without the input of those who live in the neighborhoods and your voice must be heard.

Hope that answers a bit for you, if not, then fire me back another question.

Thanks

Larry”

My comments:

We should not confuse enforcement of the single family zoning code with compliance with the Fair Housing Act, a federal statute which speaks to housing for the disabled and includes those recovering from substance abuse. As unnerving and irritating as it may be, such group homes may appear on your block without warning and there is precious little you can do. See http://www.mrsc.org/Subjects/Legal/gathe.aspx for additional information. Nor is the issue that of in-home businesses, which the city seems to be able to enforce occasionally, as far as I have been able to determine. A complaint I registered with the city regarding such a business in a home on my street was promptly and effectively acted upon and the business was shut down. The issue remains non-enforcement of the single family zoning code. I “hounded” the last mayor on the subject and was told that my only recourse was a civil suit (on my dime, of course) based on some poorly written covenants on the properties on my street. Most homes in Bellingham have no such covenants, so those deprived homeowners are effectively left with no recourse. So much for city hall's enforcing the laws for those properties not under covenant. A latter day version of semi-apocryphal "Let them eat cake."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Jack Weiss Flies Solo in Ward 1 - Icarus Redux

Jack Weiss is the sole candidate for the Ward 1 council seat. Nonetheless, I think it is instructive to read his take on the issue.

Here are his comments to me on 7/25/2007. My comments can be found inserted in red.

“...First, let me copy you a response I wrote a few days ago to one of your neighbors also expressing this problem:

"Thanks for the clarification. Yes, this issue is a mess for some neighborhoods throughout town that are impacted by excessively modified uses of zoned property such as outlined in Mary's letter. The impacts from university students are by far the worse.

I would not say "excessively modified" but "illegally modified." And yes, the university needs to step up to the bar on this. You can find my suggestions on the WWU role in my comments of 8/17 and 8/23 below.

I agree and am supportive of the efforts of your neighborhood to bring this to the attention of the City Council and to legislate some tools to help correct this situation. Early on in my campaign, I posted on my web site (jackweissforcouncil.com) a bullet as part of a long list of what I labeled as a Neighborhood Bill of Rights. This language said:

"A Property Owner/Renter Accountability Ordinance must address responsibilities and consequences of inappropriate impacts on the surrounding neighborhood such as noise, litter, excessive parties, etc."

This is pretty much what I have been hearing from some Samish neighbors. Others have labeled it a "Landlord" ordinance, but I feel that renters also must be held accountable in ways that can effect change.

This is another case of being hijacked by the tangential issue of landlord accountability when the root cause is lack of enforcement of an existing code, i.e., single family zoning. We already have legislated “tools” on parking, noise, litter, public urination, disorderly conduct, etc. One more “tool” will not solve the issue as long as the root cause of non-enforcement of existing zoning codes is the status quo.

I would be curious to know what Terry Bornemann's response has been to this issue and what he has agreed to do as your representative to cure it - as he should. Terry's ward has the most impact from university students and as such, it is his turf to come up with solutions to fix it. At this point, of course, I cannot help out other than to encourage you to continue to expose the problem. If Terry or other council members are unwilling to help out this year, I would be willing, after being sworn in in January, to talk to next year's council members and to your neighborhood to determine the best remedy to quickly resolve this problem."

I have every intention of continuing to expose the problem and to press Mr Bornemann (Ward 5 candidate) on the subject. I have already had an email exchange with him which you will be able to read here soon. However, my home is located in Ward 3, not Ward 5 in spite of the fact that I am in Samish Neighborhood. I am disappointed though that you would wait until January to develop some plan to resolve the issue, especially since you have the luxury of time while running unopposed. I would suggest you start at the several web site links on this blog (see right-most column below the photo) to discover the proven efforts of other jurisdictions.

Adding on to this previous response, I would say that outgoing Councilmember John Watts also has a role in addressing this problem in the areas on 34th Street you are speaking of. I say this because of I am sensitive to council protocol, but only up to a point - neighborhoods cannot be saddled with unacceptable problems just because of a unresponsive councilmember.

Too late to address this issue to John Watts who has already had his time to take a whack at the piƱata of non-enforcement.

Specifically to your concerns of "unforceability," my experience with the City in the past is that they took the issue seriously and promptly investigated problems once a complaint was issued. I have been unaware, until now, that complaints are not being addressed in your neighborhood. As I said above, I am more than willing to meet with the neighborhood to determine the extent of the problem and design an acceptable solution. As you may know, I am unopposed and will start in January.

The city does react promptly to complaints of violation of the single family zoning ordinance. The problem is the utter lack of follow-through. A complaint is made. A letter is sent to the landlord or property manager. They present a lease with 3 names on it. The city says “dandy!” End of story. All those other cars, people, etc. must be visitors. The acceptable solution is already present. Enforce the law. As I have said below in previous posts, similar statutes have been enforced in other jurisdictions and their legality has been upheld in state supreme courts.

That said, a suggestion that might be useful is to invite the candidates - now - from Ward 3 (Barry Buchanan and Larry Farr) and Ward 5 (Terry Bornemann and Bill Geyer) to a neighorhood meeting to further discuss this issue in more detail. Get more from them than a simple written response by meeting face-to-face as they are running against each other. Do this while it is still campaign season. I will come too.

This subject has been brought to the Samish Neighborhood board. They agreed it was not feasible to move forward on such a gathering largely due to the lack of personnel to handle the logistics of such an event. This activity is not in the realm of just saying “y’all come.” Perhaps something might be possible at the level of the Association of Bellingham Neighborhoods.

As a current neighborhood association president (Birchwood), I must say that unfortunately, many things like this problem are only solved by neighbors collectively being the squeaky wheel. I will help where I can and where it is appropriate. I will lead if other councilmembers from your neighborhood drop the ball. Let me know. Thanks. Jack-“

How about just leading?

Dan vs Dan for Mayor and the Single Family Zoning Issue

Prior to the primaries, I wrote to the candidates to alert them to this issue and to solicit their support in rectifying the problem of non-enforcement of the Bellingham Municipal Code with regard to single family zoning. In my next several blogs I intend to present the position of each of the candidates for the various public offices of mayor and city council member.


Let us examine the stances of the mayoral candidates.

Here is the response from Dan Pike on 7/25/2007:

"
I am committed to addressing this problem. As it stands, the consequences are devalued neighborhoods, a lack of social cohesion in the affected neighborhoods due to excessive residential (e.g., student renter) turnover, and a dispersal of some enforcement issues (parties, etc.) which create more, and more expensive, challenges to effective policing.

I have been told that the current code is unenforceable on constitutional grounds. When elected, I will have that looked at. If it proves to be true, I will remove that law from our books and work on other means of solving the problem; if untrue, I will begin enforcement of the code.

Thanks for sharing your concerns with me. I look forward to working productively on election.

Yours for Bellingham,

Dan Pike"

Here is another response from Mr. Pike on 8/14/2007:

"Below is my reply to an inquiry you sent a couple of weeks ago. I have also received phone and email comments on this issue from others concerned about this issue, and reiterate my intent to address this--early--if elected. As you have noted, an unenforced law is worthless. In fact, it is worse than no law at all.

I have begun reviewing some of the many sites you forwarded; due to time constraints I have only begun, but it certainly appears that other areas have managed to address this issue. Frankly, one of the many reasons I am running is because of issues like this, where a lack of proactive action by the City has left us reacting to a crisis. This particular issue has been simmering since my days as a student at WWU in the early 1980s. I cannot help thinking that a joint, proactive effort among the City, the University, and affected neighborhoods and property owners could have borne fruit by now, if someone at City hall had demonstrated a little leadership.
While I cannot guarantee what solution will work for Bellingham, I will commit to working with you to find and implement an acceptable solution, so this is not a campaign issue in four more years. If you have specific ideas, concerns, or possible solutions, please send them to me at dan@pikeformayor.com. I promise to give this issue the attention it should have had years ago.

Yours for Bellingham,
Dan Pike"

I think Candidate Pike sounds like he appreciates the issue, for which I am very gratified. Lest we forget, however, the constitutionality of these zoning laws has already been upheld in various venues across the U.S. That fact should encourage the City of Bellingham to press forward with enforcement action. Until the code is upheld in court or we learn the specifics of any deficiency, we will continue to flail about. It is this collective hand-wringing posture that has allowed us to sink into the present morass, which Mr. Pike indicates has been evident since the early 1980s. I invite Mr. Pike to add further comments with regard to his ideas on code enforcement. Is he willing to take this to court?

This is the reply from Dan McShane on 7/26/2007:

"Thanks for the question. I live in the York neighborhood so this is certainly something that we've grappled with here as about half the homes are not single family. I am well aware of the issue but don't have a solution at this time.

You'll see on my website under neighborhoods this statement: "Ensure that city codes are enforced and actively monitored within the neighborhoods. Planning will have little meaning if neighborhoods are frustrated with problem properties and repeated code violations."

As mayor, I'll be speaking with the city attorneys about how we go about enforcing these codes. I agree, to have codes on the books that we then declare unenforceable isn't right. I will also bring back up a landlord licensing ordinance. It's a business, it should be licensed. You may recall that Mayor Mark brought it before the City Council immediately after the last election based, in part, on what he heard while doorbelling my neighborhood. The City Council didn't pass that. We greatly regret that, as do other neighborhoods with similar problems.

I've been doorbelling all over and I'm hearing this problem in every neighborhood. It's growing and I agree it needs to be tackled.

I appreciate the information you've provided regarding other university cities who've addressed this problem. I'd be more than willing to see how they approached this from both the code and enforcement perspective and to see if they've had measurable success.

Best regards,

Dan McShane"

And a follow-up on 8/16/2007:

I greatly appreciated the links your page has. Keep pushing this. It is an issue in many areas of Bellingham. I know that from door to door campaigning.

The great thing about elections is that issues get raised and sometimes action does follow.

That was true during my every campaign for County Council and I suspect it will be this time as well.

Regards

Dan

Candidate McShane appears to appreciate the question from a personal point of view, living in the York Neighborhood which is replete with such rooming houses. I also urge Mr. McShane not to lose focus by falling into the tangential issue trap of landlord licensing. This is a necessary follow-on, I repeat follow-on, to enforcement of the code. Licensing may serve as an enforcement tool but should not be confused with decisive enforcement of the single family zoning code. Code enforcement precedes landlord licensing or noise control or litter control or parking control or you-name-it control.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Who is Looking Out for Student Safety?

From another concerned reader:

"First I would like to thank you for taking this on.

I am a Samish homeowner & I have been concerned not so much by the particular students’ behavior on my street (mostly good kids), but by the risk that Western has put them in. Currently, without adult supervision, there is no barrier between the kids (and they are under age) and either the police or the paramedics.

If I were a parent sending my kid across state to live on their own for the first time, I would not allow Western as a choice. No matter the quality of academic experience, the risk of harm is simply too great! It seems to me that parents are entrusting the futures of their children to an institution that has very little regard for their safety."

My comment:

I would like to invite input here from representatives of the university.

Nevertheless, I do suggest that the university should take more responsibility in the control of off-campus behavior by way of expanding the student code to cover off-campus activities. This is done at other universities acrosss the country. The University of Washington has been considering such a code. Click here for information. Penn State has such a code, click here to see. Likewise the University of Minnesota. See their policy here. Gallaudet University, the premier university for the deaf in Washington, D.C., has this as part of its code:

"An off-campus violation(s) by a student of Gallaudet University of a criminal law or the Student Code that brings the University into disrepute, adversely affects the University’s educational mission, objectives, and/or interests of the University community, or seriously affects the ability of the University to continue its normal activities, for example, are considered to be of legitimate interest to the University. Inappropriate behaviors in our surrounding neighborhood such as public urination, public intoxication, disruptive conduct to neighbors, loud and unruly gatherings, violations of the alcohol and/or drug policies, and misconduct demonstrating flagrant disregard for any person or persons would be in violation of the Student Code of Conduct and may be subject to appropriate disciplinary procedures."

Safety concerns can also be met in part by enforcement of existing municipal codes and, subsequently, by creating a law that licenses landlords and provides for inspection of rental property.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

In for the Long Term

From a reader earlier this week:

“To start, I would like to answer a couple of question raised within earlier comments. I have live in Bellingham since the 40's, so feel I have right to comment. Secondly, I don't care what color, age, gender you are. If you are violating the city code of 'no more then 3 non-blood related' (marriage not included) living within a single family resident, within a zoned R-1, Single Family Residential Neighborhood, you are in violation. Families chose to move into a single family residential area for obvious reasons. They want a safe, quiet neighborhood to live and raise their family. Who is going to purchase a home next to a rooming house where the tenants have no respect for the neighborhood or residents, care less what their rooming houses looks like, no respect for speed limits, generally a just let me live my life attitude. Knowing they will only be there a short period of time. What does this do to a neighborhood? Devalues other properties for one thing. Stress out the REAL families trying to live a normal life. The city of Bellingham offers multi use neighborhoods with apt, true boarding house, as the college offers Dorm rooms. Don't destroy a neighborhood for you own selfish needs and desires. We, the neighbors, are here long term, this is our home, your short term bed.”

My reaction:

I too believe that we should be able to move into a single family zoned neighborhood (like the ones that are mentioned in the neighborhood plans all the associations are working on at this moment) and find there single family homes and not rooming houses. Nor should we fear creation of a rooming house next door once we have bought a home.

Answer to Population Growth Crisis?

I recently received this comment in an email: “We have a global and local population crisis. How could more people living in the same household possibly be a bad thing? Sounds like the code itself needs to change to be more accepting of different options.” I responded by saying that the problem is that the status quo contravenes the zoning code for single family zoned areas. In turn, that subverts the very planning process used to manage the growth about which the writer speaks (not to mention all the hard work that goes into those neighborhood plans). The writer is correct in the assumption that to control sprawl, we ought to have higher densities in the city. These need to be planned, however. The accumulation of rooming houses in areas zoned for single family is not controlled and puts pressures on the infrastructure, not to mention on the quality of life of the residents, that those areas were not meant to bear. Additionally, the single family homes, which are rented by their owners, come under no control by the city. This invites price gouging by landlords and does not allow for inspection of the premises for health and safety reasons.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Not So Sunny in Sunnyland

A reader posted the following last week.

Dick, please include Sunnyland...especially south. We are surrounded by some of the worst rental homes which are owned and operated by Lakeway Realty (I'd like to know other neighborhoods who are having the same problems with this agency). We had an incident here last month that required the entire Bellingham police force to come to our neighborhood. This was after repeated letters and phone calls to Dave Hansen owner of Lakeway Realty and letters to COB Mayor Tim, COB Police Department for violations that are mentioned in the code as well as code violations with garbage. The litter control officer (who is a police officer and not in my opinion a code officer) apparently spoke to the renters and I do not know who ultimately cleaned up the HUGE (renter or owner) pile of garbage but it was nearly two months worth before anything really happened and that is a ridicules timeline for a health hazard. We found little help in this matter and no phone calls from any of the above until the police incident last month. Eight Neighbors met with Mr. Hansen in regards to his rentals and in my opinion he seemed to really not care...though he has cleaned up the properties a bit. As a neighborhood we have come to an agreement that if this continues we will continue to write the above people and as far as code enforcement...yeah right! Any more suggestions would be most helpful but I am doing this anonymously because I do not feel safe at times with some of the people in these rentals.

Dear Reader.

As I said in one of my earlier posts, no area of Bellingham is immune from becoming a rooming house district under the current atmosphere of lack of enforcement. According to the statistics I have as of 2005, Sunyland indeed is one of the most heavily populated areas with respect to students. Exactly how many homes there have been turned into rooming houses, we do not know. Nobody keeps tabs and, as you have found out, the rental companies and property owners may choose to be no help at all. You are doing the right thing by writing to city officials and calling the police. One correction, however, the litter control officer is not a police officer but an employee of the Public Works Department who works at the Bellingham police station and has limited enforcement powers to fine those who litter. Nevertheless, he is obliged to enforce codes. Remember to document your contacts with city officials. Get names. Follow-up emails and letters will keep the problem on the burner and provide a paper trail for future action. I can understand your feeling of not being safe. I also suggest you write the candidates for office. As of this entry in my blog, the results of the election are not yet known. You can find candidate emails at http://whatcomindy.com/candidate_watch.php. Tell them that you want the single family zoning ordinance enforced and that you want to see a licensing code for landlords. Even a dog needs a license in Bellingham but, if you want to become a landlord of the house you just bought, you need no permission, no license. Nobody inspects the home for habitability. If you, or anyone else, want to discuss privately this issue, write to me with your phone number at zonemaven@hotmail.com. I will call you and provide other information according to your specific situation.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Who's "Faulting the Kids"?

A reader yesterday wrote the following.

"Don't fault the kids. Blame the landlords. Bellingham has over 50% rentals....that makes the market quite competitive. Most of the people that has (sic) or will comment on this blog probably at one time in their lives has (sic) rented a room in a single family home - be it for college or just having a place to stay once you left your parents home. If it was OK then why is it not now? If it was OK for you why not for the current bunch of young adults?

Look, we live in a college town. This kind of thing has been around since before you were even here - be it born here or moved here. It is a by-product of the scolastic (sic) envionrment (sic). Remember a lot of students and some young adults cannot afford their own place and need to rent a room to live. Are you suggesting they sleep in the woods? The best thing you can do is talk to the kids and get them to mellow out after hours. Remember they will be the ones runnig (sic) the country when they are older and you a (sic) just old. Hopefully they will be more simpathetic (sic) to the plight of the young than you are."

Dear Reader,

If you read carefully my first post, you will discover that I did not at all "fault the kids." I said that, given the circumstances, the young adults (not kids) make the obvious, economically viable choice, which is to rent a house as a group. The issue is not about "renting a room" in a home. The issue is about more than three adults occupying a single family dwelling in violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code (20.08.020) which reads:

F. 1. Family: One or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than 3 unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit. For purposes of this definition children with familial status within the meaning of Title 42 United States Code, Section 3602(k) and individuals with disabilities within the meaning of Title 42 United States Code, Section 3602(h) will not be counted as unrelated persons. "Adult family homes," as defined by RCW 70.128.175, are included within the definition of "family." Facilities housing individuals who are incarcerated as the result of a conviction or other court order shall not be included within this definition.

If you have more than three unrelated people in a single family dwelling, it becomes a rooming house. Again, I refer you to the Bellingham Municipal Code (20.08.020) :

15. Boarding and Rooming House: A structure used for the purpose of providing lodging or lodging and meals, for persons other than those under the "family" definition. This term includes dormitories, cooperative housing and similar establishments but does not include hotels, motels, medical care facilities or bed and breakfast facilities.

Now do I blame the landlords? You betcha! Some are worse than others but the bottom line is that the provisions of the city code are violated time and time again with impunity. I have had as many as four of these rooming houses on my street, consisting of 12 homes, in the past 5 years. Moreover, I blame the city officials and the city council for not upholding the laws that they have sworn to execute or enact respectively.

And now a word about the students. I like the students. They come to my home for dinners and BBQs. I work at WWU sporting events. I am a member of the Campus Community Coalition. I have attended all the Let's Talk Forums to discuss just these issues you find in this blog. You may find it surprising, but I am involved with student life in this city. I certainly am concerned about their "plight." I want them to have affordable, decent housing. Living in a dilapidated home with 5 others is not an ideal. These young adults are at the mercy of the landlords as there is no control over single family rental units. Landlords renting single family homes do not have to have a license to operate. Even my barber has to be licensed. The city has not done any favors for the students with regard to housing.