Thursday, November 29, 2007

Front and Center Pike and Snapp

For those of you who did not hear Mayor Dan Pike’s inaugural address, urbi et orbi, you can read it by clicking here. During his talk he made several proposals among which was: “Establish Neighborhood Code and Character Task force to develop recommendations for resolving inconsistencies between zoning code and neighborhood character.” This follows, I assume, from his 11 point action plan (see my blog entry of 12 November by clicking here.) . I encourage you to write to him at to remind him that under the rubrics of zoning code and neighborhood character lies the illegal rooming house issue. There is no real growth planning until the city government takes into account illegal rooming houses and their effect on densities. Regrettably, ridding the city of the blight of illegal rooming houses is not a subject appearing on the mayor’s list of immediate goals for 2007 (click here to read the goals). There are several goals regarding waterfront development, which, although an important issue, do not rise to such immediacy when the quality of life in our neighborhoods deteriorates. Would the mayor and the council be as attentive to an existing problem as to a project which will have little effect on the “character of our neighborhoods.”

Unless there are plans to build massive amounts of affordable housing at the waterfront, we need to take care of growth issues first. It is also time to remind our newest council member, Stan Snapp, that, although he did not show much appreciation for the subject of illegal rooming houses during the campaign (see my blog entries here and here) it is time for him to step up to the bar and confront the issue. He says he is for responsible growth, however, much is to be done to reverse the irresponsible infill which has produced the rooming-housification of our neighborhoods. At his council web site (click here to read his statements), he avers that he is prepared to meet challenges, to wit: “revision of current codes to support the Comprehensive Plan and protect the character of each neighborhood.” You can write Stan at

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Blog Comments

Don't miss the various comments appended to some of my blogs. These missives, sent by my readership, often contain interesting and valuable information. To read these observations, click on the word "Comments" at the end of each blog. At times I will republish a one of these notes as a blog entry, if it has special merit or an unusual slant on the subject.

Monday, November 19, 2007

WWU - The Good...and The Bad

The following is a response by former mayoral candidate Doug Karlberg to an opinion piece authored by WWU President Karen Morse which appeared in the Bellingham Herald on November 18th. (Read the article by clicking here.) The response, which appeared on the Herald site as a comment to Dr. Morse's article, dovetails with my blog posting, The Real Rental Economy (click here to read it), of November 15th.

“Western's President Morse is great at pointing out the benefits that Western brings to Bellingham, but does not recognize any of the burdens. Honest policy decisions require that she balances the good with the bad. Western places an enormous burden on the lowest paid folks (which there are many), that need housing. Western by not providing housing for all their students forces these young people into our neighborhoods, which is not all bad, but drives up the cost of housing, especially to those who can least afford it.

As the article in today's Herald points out[…], one study puts Bellingham as one of the least affordable places to live in the US. (click here to read the article) Hopefully we can end the debate that we have an affordable housing crisis in our town.

Western is quietly planning a housing project for professors, retired professor, and alumni, like our new Mayor. This project has been quietly planned and the Herald has not picked up this story. To plan view condominiums for professors that cannot afford housing in Bellingham, only reinforces the point that we have a housing crisis. This project is also self-centered as it only takes care of the needs of Western, completely ignoring the impact on housing that Western creates.

Western should be honest about the project, and then the new Mayor should point out to Western that if Western wants housing on the waterfront that it needs to reduce its impact on Bellingham's housing market and provide housing for a higher percentage of their students.

Western brings kids here to get and education, and then many move on. The residents of Belingham are here to stay, and they need Western to remember not only what Western brings to Bellingham, ... but also what Bellingham brings to Western.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Real Rental Economy

I received the following from Common'Tator a few days ago and decided that his thoughts deserved highlighting. My comments following pertain mainly to the economic impact.

“Nice website, I like the idea. I live in York neighborhood and think that some sort of enforcement would be nice.

I should point out though that this issue is backed up against a ton of money. As most owners own more than one or two properties, at least in our neighborhood and they fight tooth and nail and in force against anything they see as hurting their bottom line. Just look at the re-zone in York last year, sheesh, slum-lords versus people who live in the n'hood.

I would be interested in enforcement of this code, more or less as a tool to keep renters in college housing neighborhoods in check. I really like the idea of a rental house permit, as for the love of goodness it is an income source and should be regulated...

I also would be interested to see if you could make an economic argument for the increase in rentals if this code was enforced. I.E. a correlation in the demand increase as houses can have less occupants, thus more rentals on market.

Anyway nice site, nice topic. Will be back.”

Enforcement of the city codes regarding illegal rooming houses is bound to have an economic effect, as well it should. Over the past several decades, the city has, either by omission or commission, allowed renters of single family homes to form groups to reduce the per capita cost of renting. This created a hidden subsidy of renters to the detriment of the neighborhoods. Instead of paying 1/3 of the rent for a single family home (based on a maximum of three renters), the three lessees would seek out additional, sub-rosa renters whose participation then lowered the cost to all the home’s residents.

This provided a tremendous advantage to the owner leasing his property. The owner could maintain a relatively substantial rental rate since he knew that that rental rate would be “affordable” once the three individuals (legal maximum) on the lease found other “renters” to lower their individual costs. This is a distortion of the real demands of the rental market where the sub-rosa renters represent a large number of illegally housed individuals thus falsifying the actual number of individuals requiring affordable housing.

The city tells us, somewhat naively, that it is dealing with growth by attempting to manage the influx of some 1,500 individuals per year (growth estimates) when there is already an existing backlog of illegally and, likely, unsafely housed individuals among the 8,000 or more students who are not in dormitories on-campus. Code enforcement will bring reality to the rental market and a pressure to build sufficient affordable housing for low-income and student renters.

Unfortunately, it is the owner-occupied, single family home residents who have had to pick up the cost of non-enforcement which allows illegal rooming houses on their streets and thus changes the very character of the neighborhood that the city is charged to protect through proper zoning.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pike's Picks - Action Plan Requires Citizen Vigilance

I would like to call your attention to our Mayor-elect's Action Plan as found on his website. Of special note is number 9 on his list which reads " Ensure zoning codes and neighborhood plans work to preserve neighborhood character." Although encouraged by these words, I will remain vigilant as these words can mean different things to different people. I am sure that the homeowner-occupied residents of Happy Valley would not want to preserve the present character of their neighborhood already suffering from illegal rooming house blight. Our city must take active measures to rid the neighborhoods of these malignant growths and return the neighborhoods to that which is intended by single family zoning.

Message to Our New Neighborhood Services Coordinator

I sent the following missive to Linda Stewart, the newly hired Neighborhood Services Coordinator. I urge all my readers to write to Ms. Stewart ( as a call for action in ridding this city of the blight of illegal rooming houses.

Dear Linda,

The purpose of this email is to call your immediate attention as the new Neighborhood Services Coordinator to a long-standing problem regarding the lack of enforcement of the single family zoning code in Bellingham. By way of my blog ( ), I have kept this issue in front of the recent candidates for office. Your next boss, Mayor-elect Dan Pike, has stated that he will enforce the code once in office. Time will tell. On October 8th, the City Council voted a pilot project for enforcement of the code. The jury is still out.

In spite of all that I have written in my blog and all the emails that have been sent to candidates and current office holders, there remains a sentiment among some that this is an issue of enforcement of nuisance ordinances, such as, noise, litter, parking, etc. Unfortunately, these are but symptoms of a problem of overcrowding due to illegal rooming houses within areas zoned for single family residences.

Illegal rooming houses have provided a convenient covert method to absorb large numbers of renters, most of whom are students. Yet, WWU, aside from establishing the Campus Community Coalition (CCC), shies from definitive actions to attenuate the effects of the thousands of students who seek off-campus housing each year. The university continues to expand its campus facilities without regard to the impact of additional students on the community. The CCC can assist in educating students to be good citizens but the CCC can neither provide housing nor can it enforce city code. Because WWU is a large neighbor, it must make a large contribution to the solution of problems its presence creates.

Now the homeowners have begun to resist decades of enforcement avoidance which has turned their streets into rooming house rows, degrading property values and changing the much vaunted “character of our neighborhoods.” This phrase has become a cruel joke to those homeowners who, day after day, are faced with uncontrolled, unregulated and uninspected rooming houses and all that such neglect suggests.

If you truly want to make a difference in our neighborhoods, I call on you to support the homeowners of this city in their efforts to roll back the blight of illegal rooming houses. Otherwise, the catch-phrase “character of our neighborhoods” remains an empty slogan.

I would be happy to meet with you at any time to discuss this topic

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

My Email to the Winners

I sent the following email to each of the winners in yesterday's elections. I also sent a modified version to the two council members whose terms continued through this election.

"Congratulations, you have won! You probably do not need me to tell you that the hard part now begins, but I will indulge myself, especially on the issue of illegal rooming houses.

We cannot effectively deal with the problem of growth in Bellingham without addressing the single family zoning ordinance which is the basis for determining densities in our neighborhoods. We cannot speak to maintaining the character of our neighborhoods when illegal rooming houses are allowed to proliferate within them. We cannot speak to law enforcement when certain laws are ignored because they may be perceived as too hard to enforce or too unpopular. We cannot argue for providing affordable housing when thousands of young students and workers collect in illegal rooming houses. We cannot argue for a safe and healthy community when rental properties go unlicensed and uninspected. We cannot manage growth when a major employer (WWU) does not provide adequate housing or join in the effort to provide such for the students it attracts.

Now that the election is over, I would like to know your plans to deal with each of the issues I raised above."

Time for Action - Keep the Heat on the Winners

You, the voters, have spoken. We now know who will lead our city for the next several years. Although the results are not entirely those that I would have preferred, it may be useful at this point to review the winners and their stands on the issue of illegal rooming houses in Bellingham.

Mayor: Dan Pike supported enforcement of the Bellingham Municipal Code on single family zoning from the very start. He stated, “To be clear, I believe in enforcing the codes we have, and am willing to go to court as needed.” Read the full text of Mr. Pike’s comments in my blog here and here.

Ward 1 Council: Jack Weiss ran unopposed. His response to me in July indicated that he did not fully appreciate the problem. Perhaps since then, he has had time to refine his take on the issue. Read his previous comments by clicking here.

Ward 3 Council: Barry Buchanan replied to me at the end of August. His main thrust was to rework the ordinance and then enforce whatever resulted. Since we never have tested the current ordinance, it did not make sense to me to create yet a new one to put to the test. You can read his full comments by clicking here.

Ward 4 Council: Stan Snapp exchanged several “lively” emails which I posted here along with my comments (click here and here and here to read the full texts). I was primarily disturbed by the fact that he was unaware of the current ordinances on single family zoning and rooming houses.

Ward 5 Council: Terry Bornemann has stated from the start that he would work to have the current code enforced. In August he stated, “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.” On October 8th he succeeded in introducing a motion at the city council meeting to “direct staff to prepare a pilot program regarding enforcement of complaints relating to more than three unrelated individuals living in a home.” You can read the council minutes on this motion by clicking here. You can also read Mr. Bornemann’s previous comments in this blog by clicking here.

At-Large Council: In spite of numerous requests from me, Ms. Bjornson never responded on this issue. To her credit, she did vote for Mr. Bornemann’s motion at the October 8th council meeting. Her comments were reported on the minutes as: “Council Member Bjornson appreciated the work of Campus Coalition and what a great job they have done. She would like the emphasis of enforcement on the few property owners that do cause a problem and appreciation of the property owners that work with their tenants and improve the neighborhood.” Unfortunately, the efforts of the Campus Community Coalition (of which I am a member) cannot address the issue of illegal rooming houses. Enforcement emphasis on the “few” problem property owners does not attend to the totality of the matter of illegal rooming houses.

I will be writing each of the winners over the next several days to remind them of the seriousness of the proliferation of illegal rooming houses and to insist they take a stand for enforcement of the current code. Only then will it be the moment to speak to tangential subjects, such as landlord accountability ordinances (which I support in general terms). I invite all my readers to contact the winners (email addresses provided below) and demand their support in eliminating illegal rooming houses throughout Bellingham.

Dan Pike -

Louise Bjornson -

Terry Bornemann -

Stan Snapp -

Barry Buchanan -

Jack Weiss -

Sunday, November 4, 2007

"On the Waterfront " - Hidden Script?

I received the comment below from Doug Karlberg, who is running for mayor of Bellingham as a write-in candidate. His remarks were offered in response to my blog entry of 31 October (click here to read it) in which I forewarned my readers about the apparent lack of planning by WWU with regard to housing for the hundreds of additional students who would be attracted by a WWU presence on the waterfront. Doug's comments tend to confirm my misgivings but shed a different light on the subject.

"I submitted a "public documents request" on Western and have received a bundle of largely undisclosed documents from Western and the Port. What is being planned for housing on the waterfront is as much as 100 units that are housing for Professors, visiting Professors, retired Professors, and alumni of Western. The college gives this proposal some fancy name that obscures the true intent, so the real plan is hard to discern.

Western helps create this housing shortage by attracting students without provisions for housing them, placing the burden onto the local citizenry. Then complaining of a housing shortage for professor, creates with tax money a large scale view condominium project for their chosen people.

Th[ese are] Western's plans, which I am sure ... are subject to change. What I object to is that Western is only concerned about their own problems, not the ones that the college places on the community. Now they want view condominiums, but they will not come out and simply tell us this. Why are they hiding, if they are so proud of their self-centered housing plans?

Its the view they are after. You think the President of Western will want one of the new condos?"

Such lack of transparency is troubling and invites uninformed commentary from any number of poltroons, poseurs and mountebanks. Lest we allow ourselves to fall into those three categories, perhaps a knowledgeable member of the university administration could provide an official comment to relieve our collective anxiety and quiet the rumor mill?