Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Business as Usual - A Fellow Blogger Speaks

From time to time the Zonemaven runs across writings on the subject of illegal rooming houses and rentals in general that are especially well written, to the point and worthy of repeating. Dennis Duross of Lexington, Kentucky has a blog similar to Twilight Zoning in Bellingham. Here is his latest post, entitled “Business as Usual”, quoted in its entirety.

"If you’re a public official in Lexington, the real issue, should the discussion ever turn (don’t worry—it rarely does) to the topic of what to do about rental properties in town, is health and safety.

All the rest of it—the complaints about noise, trash, over-crowding, traffic, zoning and enforcement, the slow physical decline of the housing stock in an area of town that logically ought to be among the strongest in town, the lack of affordable housing for those of modest income, the unGodly sums local landlords extract from their tenants each month, the unfair advantage that LLC’s enjoy in terms of their ability to outbid potential homeowners for properties as they come on the market, the illegal conversion of these properties to lodging houses, the resulting dwindling number of single-family houses (1) in the affected areas, and the intrusion of business into low-density residential neighborhoods—is by comparison small potatoes.

But health and safety? That ought to be keeping people up at night, because God forbid it should ever happen here, but the internet is full of stories about rat traps and hell holes masquerading as rooming houses, boarding houses, lodging houses, apartment houses—call them what you want—burning to the ground and taking some poor unfortunate along for the ride.

And all too often, that’s when the teachable moment arrives. Only after such a tragedy shakes public officials from whatever stupor it is that immobilizes them, that insulates them, that locks their common sense tight in a box and keeps it from intruding on the business of the day, do they see what needs to be done and act accordingly. Apparently it’s human nature. (2)

We’ve been lucky to have avoided this type of tragedy in Lexington, but make no mistake about it—it’s nothing more than dumb luck standing between where we are now and where we hope to never be. For years and years, we’ve debated about what has come to be called the student housing problem, more properly called the illegal lodging house problem, and we’ve come up empty. No concrete action. And in the absence of meaningful change, the problem has gotten worse. Entropy has a way of doing that, especially when it’s fueled by greed.

So our fallback position is to keep our fingers crossed that nothing terrible happens in one (or more) of our city’s countless uninspected rental properties, because at the moment, that’s about all we can muster the courage to do—hope nothing goes wrong. We’re getting by on a wing and a prayer.

And speaking of wings, consider the following—the Lexington Fayette County Health Department conducts restaurant inspections every 6 months. Inspections that yes, represent a burden on local businesspeople. Inspections that yes, sometimes force restaurants to close and remedy the problems noted onsite. But inspections that protect the health and safety of the population. Inspections that inform the public about an establishment’s conditions, and that are posted both in the newspaper and in the restaurants themselves. Inspections that we all take for granted as necessary and valuable.Does anyone doubt that absent these inspections, public health would be adversely affected? Would anyone in their right mind propose putting an end to them simply because they rub the business community the wrong way?

I would argue that local landlords should be held to standards comparable to those that we expect of the local pancake house. I would argue that this is a matter of public health and safety—just as making sure there isn’t rat poop in the walk-in cooler, or that cross-contamination hasn’t turned the kitchen into a biohazard are matters of public health and safety.

I would argue that if the Health Department can do it, so can Building Inspection. That if local restauranteurs can bear the burden of twice-yearly inspections, so can local landlords bear the burden of once-yearly inspections. That if dinner patrons can bear the cost that is surely passed on to them, so can (and must) those who live in rental properties bear the modest increase in rent (3) that would doubtless be passed on to them.

Take a look at the long list (in the sidebar) [Zonemaven has posted the same list on the side bar of this blog - at left] of cities all across the country that have established rental licensing and inspection programs. Normal, everyday places both big and small that have made a commitment to public safety ahead of us. Places where the concerns of the business community regarding unfettered profit and zero oversight have been put in their proper place—second to public health and safety.

There’s no excuse for ignoring this modest and common sense level of safety.

1. God I hate that term.
2. I blame Robert’s Rules of Order and public comment equally, but that’s just me.
3. Rental licensing fees typically cost a landlord between four and eight dollars per month per unit. Don’t let them tell you otherwise."

Well said, Dennis. Bellingham, are you listening?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Homeowners To Be Hammered by Infill Tool Kit

As expected, the “infill toolkit” has reared its unattractive head again in the form of an article in the Herald (click here to read the article) by Jared Paben, who seemed to find all sorts of folks to talk to for the article (the mayor, council members, builders) except single family homeowners. The Zonemaven has already cautioned his readers on the pitfalls awaiting the neighborhood residents who might foolishly allow these benign-sounding "tools" where they live. (Click here, here and here to read some previous blog entries on the subject.) So let us look at the comments from these folks who would have you believe that they have only your best interests at heart.

The Mayor: “ ‘I think well-designed infill adds positive value to a neighborhood over time,’ he said. But no matter how good the housing types, if the city were to force them on a neighborhood there would be a huge pushback, he said.” Such a statement deserves some explanation, some backup, some proof but, no, it just lies there, like verbal road-kill, for the public to accept at face value. Speaking of value, just what is that value about which the Mayor is speaking? Perhaps if the Mayor explained that value, the “pushback” might be replaced by welcome banners and a band. When the citizens do push back, they get responses from the Mayor such as I received several weeks ago. Click here to read that blog entry and click here to read my letter to the Mayor which prompted his reply.

Planning Director Stewart: “The mayor's comments came after city planning Director Tim Stewart told the Planning Commission in September he would recommend against automatically allowing toolkit homes in single-family areas.” This is probably the only sensible comment coming from the city government on the “tool kit”, however, such talk disturbs (guess who?) ….. the developers!

Mr. Developer: “Developer Ted Mischaikov … said that the toolkit items, which were drafted after a series of public Planning Academy meetings, are intended to be sensitive to the character and enhance value of single-family areas.” Bellingham Herald reader “fl!pbreskin” caught this one right away with her astute comment on the Herald article: “Two things: 1. The Toolkit may have been ‘drafted after a series of public Planning Academy meetings’ but was not locally generated as implied by that statement. Instead, it appears to have been adopted directly from a Washington Association Of Realtors submission (as stated on the front cover of the Toolkit). 2. State of Washington regulations specifically require (not suggest) the preservation of single family neighborhoods as such.” Thank you, Fl!p. Mr. Mischaikov also stated, “ ‘It's tough for me to see that this toolkit can't be more approachable and applicable in existing neighborhoods,’ he said.” Sure. Right in Edgemoor, land of rentals, where he lives.

Council Member Barbara Ryan: “Some neighborhoods have large lots that could accommodate the so-called "infill toolkit" homes but residents don't want infill, said council member Barbara Ryan, an Edgemoor resident” You betcha! The Mayor would have a hard sell with the “tool kit” in Edgemoor where there is space aplenty… and some great views. But then again, Mr. Mischaikov would welcome such infill, no?

Council Member Stan Snapp: “ ‘If I were a developer or I were a homeowner and wanted to put a carriage house in the back of my house ... I wouldn't want to wait 11 months to even apply for it,’ said council member Stan Snapp, a Silver Beach neighborhood resident.” Some aphorisms come to mind. Haste makes waste. A moment on the lips, forever on the hips. Act in haste, repent at leisure. Once one of those tool kit “items” lands next door to you, it is, for all practical purposes, permanent as will be the problems that stem therefrom.

Council Member Jack Weiss: “Council member Jack Weiss, a Birchwood resident, said a process of allowing them in single-family areas has to balance addressing neighborhood concerns with ensuring the process isn't onerous for landowners.” So here we have a one-time process that should not be onerous but whose result can have virtually permanent effects. Not the balance the Zonemaven would be looking for.

The Zonemaven might be more accepting of the “tool kit” items, if not for the poor record of enforcement of the zoning codes which resulted in the uncontrolled infill we already know about in the form of illegal rooming houses. Once these ADUs, and carriage houses are allowed in an area, the push for their proliferation will overwhelm the city’s ability to control it in spite of our city managers’ protests to the contrary. The dollars (cha-ching!) will drive the infill train and without adequate enforcement, live-in homeowners will eventually bow to those dollars (cha-ching!), move into the ADU or carriage house and rent the “big house” (cha-ching!) to a gaggle in violation of the city code on single family rentals. You can take that to the bank. (cha-ching! cha-ching! cha-ching!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Got Illegal Rooming Houses? Appeal Your Assessment.

In September, 2007, I wrote about illegal rooming houses and the effect they have on the value of your home in my blog entry entitled “Are Rooming Houses Lowering Your Property Values?” (Click here to read that entry.) Today's blog entry is a call for action.

For those readers who live within the city limits of Bellingham and just received their real estate valuation notices (click here to read the Herald article), you can appeal the phenomenal increases if your street is plagued with illegal rooming houses. Even one illegal rooming house next door or across the street affects your home’s value. Earlier this year, a Samish Neighborhood couple heeded my advice and had their home’s assessment decreased by more than $20,000 based on the proliferation of illegal rooming houses on their street. These illegal rentals effectively turn your neighborhood into rooming house districts which are, in effect, multi-family, high density housing. If you wish to sell your home, the presence of these illegal rentals devalues your property and makes it more difficult to sell.

It is time to take this de facto rezoning home to the city management (which shares in the Whatcom property tax collection) and to tell them that there is a cost to ignoring illegal and uncontrolled infill. You can get your valuation appeal form by clicking here. To read more about the appeal process, click here. Ask your neighbors to join you in the appeal process. All of you must file separate appeals but the basis, illegal rooming house-ification, will be common to each appeal.

I would like to hear your appeal stories. Send me an email at zonemaven AT hotmail DOT com. (Replace AT and DOT with the appropriate symbols.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Opportunity Knocks - Mayor Pike's Answer Lacking

Two months after my letter (click here to read my missive) to Mayor Pike on illegal rooming houses and his campaign statements on the subject, I received the disappointing response you can read by clicking on the image at left. I suggested bold action and leadership on Mayor Pike’s part but found little of either in his largely bureaucratic response.

The Mayor states that he has been working more closely with his staff and counsel to more fully understand the issue but then states that “this is not simply a matter of counting people in their homes” and that “Problems typically arise around over-parking, litter and noise.” Unfortunately, illegal rooming houses remain a problem precisely because the Mayor and his staff continue to misapprehend the issues. Illegal rooming houses represent uncontrolled infill, which the Mayor has not acknowledged, thus undermining his statements that he is committed to the quality and character of our neighborhoods. Rooming houses, born of greed and scofflaw attitudes, are the equivalent of multi-family housing and therefore are incompatible with single family neighborhoods. Focusing on litter, noise and parking, although important aspects of quality of life in our city, does not address one whit this unregulated and illegal infill and belies our city government’s concern over controlling infill of other kinds produced by zoning changes, urban villages, infill tool kits, etc.

Were it not for Terry Bornemann, who asked for a pilot project over a year ago to enforce the zoning code on single family rentals, there likely would have been no action on code enforcement. No such initiative sprung from City Hall which merely reacted to a push from the City Council. Yet again this summer, Jack Weiss asked for a six part approach to the issue of illegal rooming houses (click here, here, here, here, here, here and here to refresh your memory on his suggestions). Again, the city management found itself in a mode of reacting to Council and, after nearly 4 months, has still not returned to Council with its ideas on implementation. The creation of a Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team, if approved, may address with greater vigor some of the nuisances about which the Mayor spoke (litter, noise, parking, etc.). The team as described in the 2009 budget (click here to read the proposal – see page nine) does not appear to be one which would engage illegal infill by rooming house.

As for landlord licensing, the Mayor merely states that the City Council’s Legislative Policy Analyst has been researching options. Again, this stems not from any initiative from City Hall but from Council Member Jack Weiss. My letter asked for some leadership from the Mayor on this and illegal rooming houses but this was lacking in the Mayor’s response. What does the Mayor want with regard to landlord licensing? We hear many statements regarding the development of waterfront where nobody lives but we have little notion of the Mayor’s thinking on landlord licensing which deeply affects our neighborhoods. Maybe it is time for some benign neglect with respect to the waterfront and a more intense focus on the issues which affect the daily lives of our citizens. Tear down the ugly structures, plant grass and revisit the waterfront in 5 or 10 years.

To his credit, our Police Chief, Todd Ramsay, moved quickly to establish the position of Neighborhood Enforcement Officer, which was the card dealt to him by the City Council members, who, instead of approving a full time Code Enforcement Officer, decided to opt for the cheap fix of adding duties to the position of Litter Control Officer even though a modest licensing program with fees for landlords of the 15,000 (plus) rentals would have provided more than enough money to fund a full-time position. Bellingham’s population has doubled over the decades but the city believes it can still operate with only one Code Enforcement Officer. Similar towns across the nation have 3-5 employees doing code enforcement.

As for my suggestion to the Mayor that he “notify a heretofore unconcerned Western Washington University that our city is not a de facto sponge created to soak up their student renters each year…” there was no response. Jack Weiss has urged a dialogue with WWU as part of his proposals tangential to illegal rooming houses but we have little idea of the Mayor’s take on the initiative. If our Mayor has been talking to the new university management on this subject, I have found nothing communicated to the citizenry. My letter would have been an opportunity for the Mayor to tell us about his talks with WWU. The new university president, regrettably, has his eyes focused on the waterfront and, blinded by the glare of Bellingham Bay, has yet to answer my 17 September letter to him (click here to read that missive).

It is disheartening to see that the Mayor missed an opportunity to place himself in front of an issue having to do with maintaining the quality of our neighborhoods. My counsel to the Mayor is that, the next time he gazes at that desolate waterfront, he turn around and look at the neighborhoods and think about the folks living there.

Additions to Twilight Zoning Blog

The Zonemaven has added two features to the Twilight Zoning blog. At the left of the blog entries, along with links to other blogs and links to various sites about illegal rooming houses, there is now a list of cities (with links) that have landlord licensing. (The list is courtesy of Dennis Duross of Lexington, KY whose Pigs in the Parlor blog is championing the rights of homeowners in that university town.) Click on the city name to go to the relevant web sites on the list. Our city council and city attorney ought to be reviewing such sites which may serve as models for a Bellingham landlord licensing program. Just below this list of cities, Zonemaven readers will find some links to sites related to rental safety issues. Again, our city council would do well to see what is available to protect the health and safety of renters, many of whom are inexperienced students and young workers, who are renting for the first time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

WWU Reneges in Part on Rental Advertising

While out of town the past several weeks, I received this message from Mr James Schuster, the Director of Viking Union Facilities.

-----Original Message-----
From: Jim Schuster [mailto:Jim.Schuster@wwu.edu]
Sent: Monday, October 20, 2008 3:55 PM
To: richard conoboy; Daniel Larner
Subject: FW: "3-unrelated" ads

We have decided to continue posting ads for multiple bedroom housing. We wish to continue to meet the needs of those families requiring more than three bedrooms. We will also post, both on the bulletin board and on-line, reference to the "Rule of Three" zoning ordinance and that renters should be aware of their liability under the ordinance.


James H. Schuster

Director of Viking Union Facilities

My readers may remember my post of 29 September entitled WWU Action on Rental Advertising (click here to read that entry) where I explained that the responsible official, Mr. Schuster, told me that the university would eliminate advertising of illegal rooming houses. The message above announces an effective reversal of that decision.

I am curious about those families described as having a continuing need for more than three bedrooms. Just who are these families? Perhaps there are some faculty members who might want to seek such housing, however, I have searched the WWU website for mention of the availability of the housing referral list to faculty and have found no indicators to faculty, save at the the entry to the housing list through the Viking Union portal. Were I a faculty member, I would probably not seek out a housing referral site listed by the Student Union and established primarily for students when there exists an abundant number of rentals that can be found through reputable real estate agents and the Multiple Listing Service.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Schuster did make good on his commitment to post warnings on the Viking Union bulletin board (click on the photos at left) and the on-line housing referral site at the Viking Union web page. (click here to see that admonition to student renters). Homes with more than three bedrooms are now to be hidden under the general rubric of larger family homes. (click on the image at right) Unfortunately, the portion of the site at which the landlords post their on-line listings, there is no such admonition regarding illegal rooming houses although it does warn that the landlord be aware of local laws regarding discrimination. The university should make the local law clear to landlords as well. Notably, WWU is keeping its legal distance from the housing rental referral list by disavowing responsibility for the reliability of the information, for the condition of the housing or for contractual agreements. (Click on photo below to read this disclaimer) Perhaps the uncontrolled, unregulated and unlicensed rental market in Bellingham has given them pause – as well it should.

The practical effect of WWU’s retreat on this issue remains to be seen as this is not the high rental season and the number of actual rental offers posted on the Viking Union bulletin board and on its web pages is negligible. My sense is that the students, as well as the landlords, will continue business as usual, although I remain open to being surprised.