Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Knutson and Lilliquist Get It Right on Rental Home Licensing

Gene Knutson and Michael Lilliquist are correct in their assessments that now is the time for licensing of rentals in Bellingham. Michael suggested his support in a recent comment appearing on the NWCitizen site (click here to read that article with Michael’s comment) Michael states, in part, Licensing would be a funding mechanism precisely so that nuisance problems would be investigated and enforced by the City, not by neighbors. This would make it so that it is not neighbor against neighbor, which is what we have now. We are talking about trained civil employees of the Police Department following up on parking problems, noise and litter problems, and unsafe living conditions and fire code violations that threaten both tenants and neighbors.” Although the Zonemaven has always contended that nuisance violations are only a part of the totality regarding code enforcement in Bellingham, there is the additional problem of unwanted, uncontrolled and unregulated infill caused by illegal rooming houses. Zoning enforcement by nuisance control is nonsensical. A rental licensing program would serve as a tool to control both nuisances and adherence to zoning codes.

In the current Cascadia Weekly (click here), Gene indicates that the city will “have to go there (licensing)." He continues, “You know, when this first came up the landlords went ballistic. We had a meeting over at the ferry terminal [read the Zonemaven blog entry on this fiasco by clicking here] and everyone was yelling and screaming and hollering, but landlords are operating a business and I think we need to hold them accountable as business owners. I’m hearing a lot of horror stories out there from single-family neighborhoods that are impacted by this. In terms of the costs of addressing those concerns, we’ve heard anything from $250,000 to $500,000. But even if you added $25 per year on to the cost of a rental unit, we would probably generate enough money to put four or five inspectors on this issue.”


Gene is running for re-election, unopposed for his Ward 2 Council seat. Michael Lilliquist is a candidate for the Ward 6 Council seat. Both deserve your vote on November 3rd.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Excellent Exchange at Citizens’ Forum on Infill, Density, Enforcement and Neighborhood Character

Last Saturday’s forum on infill, density and neighborhood character drew a respectable number of homeowners, city and WWU officials, landlords, and students. The discussion was at times lively but always civil. The fact that there was give and take on many topics was in contrast to the stilted and mechanical process of municipal and county hearings in which “testimony” is a one way street. Any expectation of meaningful exchange at these venues is very limited.

The Zonemaven provided an initial overview of the topic, borrowing from his own blog on the second anniversary of Twilight Zoning in Bellingham (click here to read that entry). Steve Swan, WWU’s Vice-president for University Affairs also spoke briefly about the university’s concern about its role and relationships with the city. Anne Mackie of the York Neighborhood described the problems encountered year after year in her neighborhood with uncontrolled rentals and lax code enforcement affecting the neighborhood character. Unfortunately, the Bellingham Herald was not present but a reporter for the Western Front managed to write an article over the weekend which appeared today in the web version of the newspaper (click here to read that article).

As with all Citizens’ Forum discussions, no position on any of the issues was taken by the group as the forum is meant to be a place for the exchange of ideas and information in an atmosphere of true dialogue.

The Zonemaven urges his readers to attend future events offered by the Citizens’ Forum.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Reminder - Citizens' Forum Event on Saturday, 10 Oct

This is a reminder for the Citizens' Forum event on 10 October, this Saturday.


This promises to be a lively discussion on topics such as infill, density, neighborhood character, zoning & code enforcement, rental property licensing and the role of Western Washington University with respect to these issues.

Click on image of flyer to enlarge it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

WWU Students Fight Back in the Rental Market - And with Reason

A recent article in the Western Front, the student newspaper for Western Washington University, (Click here to read the article) described the frustrations of student renters in dealing with landlords. So much so that a student, Kamran Rahman, created a website entitled* where exasperated renters are to post comments about their (mis)adventures with their landlords. The article then goes on to provide anecdotes of un-refunded security deposits, court cases, court continuances, attorney fees, etc. while only hinting at other problems.

Zonemaven suggests that it is precisely those other problems that need to be brought into the naked light of day, not only by posting them on this new website, but also by organizing students to support a rental licensing law in the City of Bellingham. Each year thousand of students are dumped into a rental market consisting largely of homes rented by owners who submit to absolutely no control or regulation. The City of Bellingham leaves its renters to swim in a sea of unknowns.

From my blog entry (Click here) on June 4th last year:

"Well, what is known about rentals of single family homes here in Bellingham?
Have landlords added or modified bedrooms? We do not know.
Do all bedrooms have fire exits? We do not know.
Do these rentals have smoke detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have carbon monoxide detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate wiring? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate plumbing? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate heating? We do not know.
Do these rentals have mold or mildew problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have insect infestations? We do not know.
Do these rentals have gas leaks? We do not know.
Do these rentals have structural problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have other safety or health issues? We do not know.
Is there overcrowding in these rentals? We do not know.
Are necessary repairs made by landlords? We do not know.
Is there price gouging by landlords? We do not know.
Is there a system of inspections of rental homes in Bellingham? We do know. None.
Are landlords of rental homes licensed by the city? We do know. None.
Will it take a death or serious injury to spur the city to action? Do we want to know?"

It is in the best interests of the students themselves to see a municipal code which speaks to their health and welfare. There has been a de facto tyranny in the market place by landlords for many decades. Now is the time, not only for students, but also young wage earners and families of modest means to tell their city that they are tired of rental housing that undergoes no inspections or controls of any kind.

*Not to be confused with (click here to see that site), which has been in existence now for several years and serves a nation-wide audience. There is a place to enter data on rentals by WWU students.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Campus Community Coalition Turns Ten - Time for Renewed Efforts


Several days ago the City of Bellingham and Western Washington University celebrated the 10th anniversary of the formation of the Campus Community Coalition (CCC) at a ceremony at City Hall.* (Click here to find out more about the CCC). There are some encouraging signs that the CCC may become more effective. Mayor Pike and President Shepard signed a document affirming their commitment to the CCC.

From the city’s website comes this: “The Coalition, which has a longstanding “home” in Prevention and Wellness Services of Western’s Student Affairs Division, is changing its approach somewhat. It will continue its primary focus of addressing health and safety issues, especially challenges related to student alcohol use. However, it will also be positioned to assist with some other student/community related issues and to strengthen community partnerships through its new involvement with the WWU Office of University Relations.” (Click here to read full text.)

The expanded mission of the CCC reads as follows: “The Campus Community Coalition promotes working relationships and communication among the colleges and community to enhance shared responsibility through collaborative education and problem-solving to improve the health, safety, and quality of life of the entire community.” This new statement flows from the realization that the CCC’s mission was usually viewed by the public as going beyond the control of alcohol abuse by students. Now that the mission reflects the expectation we can, perhaps, anticipate more from WWU. I think we can also look for increased participation by Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College as members of the Coalition.

It is unfortunate, however, that the President of WWU did not use his “bully pulpit” during his annual talk to the faculty and students on 16 September to speak to the community. The talk (click here to read it), which rightly spoke to some of the severe problems that WWU is facing, said little about community ties except in the context of education and the Waterfront. I think WWU would obtain a more enthusiastic response to its desire to have a place at the Waterfront, if the issues regarding the impact of students on the quality of life of the community were dealt with more forcefully. When you are “educating a parade”, as Dr. Shepard put it, you have to get their attention.

I am also encouraged by the arrival earlier this year of Steve Swan, who is the Vice-President for University Affairs. We have had several meetings since his arrival and we regularly exchange emails. I find him most receptive to new ideas. Recently, I sent him a paper on actions taken by the University of Florida at Gainesville. This could serve as a model for WWU and the City of Bellingham. Here is the Executive Summary:

“The University of Florida Town/Gown Task Force was appointed by the University of Florida President Charles E. Young in response to an initiative of the University Faculty Senate. The Task Force met from April to September 2002 to develop an action plan that addresses university impacts in the neighborhoods around campus. The Task Force identified critical issues, defined countermeasures, assigned responsibility and set priorities for implementing change. This university effort was paralleled by a similar process sponsored by the City of Gainesville involving multiple citizen committees and a consultant report, ‘Analysis of Issues Regarding Student Housing Near the University of Florida.’ ” (Click here to read the entire report.)

The consultant report for the City of Gainesville can also serve as a point of reference for the City of Bellingham. You can read that report by clicking here. A similar study for this city would be a major investment in the future of the neighborhoods and the preservation of their character, which, by state law, the city is obliged to do. It would seem prudent to invest as much in this area as the city is dispensing for the future of the Waterfront. The Bellingham City Council ought to take a hard look at these studies to serve as start for the council’s decision in August 2008 to: “Initiate discussions with the University to allow the University to understand city and neighborhood concerns about the impacts of increased enrollment on the community and what we would hope that the University would do in a cooperative manner with the city.”

Now is the time.


*For the record I have been a member of the CCC for the last several years.