Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bellingham Rental Licensing - A Lesson From Lexington, Kentucky?

As the City Council receives a briefing on rental housing licensing from Mark Gardner, its Legislative Policy Analyst, at the 7 December 09 City Council meeting, it may wish to take into account information from the City of Lexington, KY. which is confronted with many of the same issues on rental housing. You can read the article on the City of Lexington website in its entirety by clicking here, however, I will provide my readers with some salient quotes from the article. [These findings confirm the importance of the questions in my blog entry of 4 June 2008 entitled We Do Not Know, But Do We Want To Know?. Click here to read that entry.] From the City of Lexington:

“Recent inspections of housing in the neighborhoods surrounding the University of Kentucky by city fire inspectors revealed an alarming number of life safety fire code violations, Mayor Jim Newberry said today.”

“Inspections revealed five times the incidence of serious life safety issues as are normally found in comparable inspections of apartments or businesses. Serious life safety issues included no smoke detectors or inoperable smoke detectors in bedrooms, people sleeping in attics with no outside exit and hasp locks on the outside of bedroom doors.”

“…50 percent of the properties inspected had serious violations.”

Lamentably, we do not know a lot about our rental housing stock. Given it comprises more than 50% of single family rentals in Bellingham, we are very likely running a great risk with the lives and safety of renters. The news from Lexington is disconcerting, to say the least, and demonstrates that the possibilities are high that uninspected rental housing is also dangerous in Bellingham.

I have urged the City Council members to consider this health and safety issue as they decide the manner in which it proceeds with the issue of rental housing licensing. I urge you, my readers, to write to the City Council at ,with a copy to Mayor Pike at More importantly, you can speak to the council directly for 3 minutes during the public comment period at the start of the City Council meeting on 7 December and tell them that you support landlord licensing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Landlords Continue Mis-information Campaign

In the November 24th issue of the Cascadia Weekly (Click here to read that issue.), there appeared a letter from Van and Barbara Hudson that contained a "warning" about a pending action of the City Council with regard to rental housing licensing. For the most part, the letter contained inaccurate and misleading information. Here is the letter:


Do you own rental property in Bellingham? Are you aware there are a few people pushing the City Council to pass a rental licensing ordinance that includes mandatory inspections? This has been discussed in the past, but now the council has put it on the agenda for Dec. 7 and it could possibly be voted into law that evening. It would mean a yearly fee for a license and inspections of all rental properties. This license will then be used as leverage against a property owner in a variety of ways that will affect both landlords and renters. For example, the cost of the licensing and inspections will raise rents, and renters’ privacy will be affected by inspections. Plus, property owners could be held responsible for tenants’ behavior and have their license revoked. Bellingham does not have a rental property problem. There are laws already in existence to address every issue. But if you don’t contact your City Council person right now and find out what is going on, there could be a new layer of bureaucracy we will all have to deal with.

—Van and Barbara Hudson, Bellingham”

Here are the facts. The City Council is to receive a briefing on a study on rental housing licensing on December 7th. I had previously confirmed this on November 23rd with Mark Gardner, the Legislative Policy Analyst of the City Council. Although the Hudsons claimed that a licensing law could be voted into law on December 7th, nothing could be further from the truth. The decision by the Council on December 7th will pertain to direction to staff. The Council may decide to proceed with formulating a licensing code or may take other actions as it sees fit.

Since there is no draft law to be presented that evening, it is disingenuous for the Hudsons to claim that there is a proposed law that will do this or that. There are many options open to the Council based on the study prepared by Mr. Gardner. “Tea party” tactics with regard to license fees, inspections and other options for a rental licensing law is not a healthy or productive form of debate. Reasonable minds may differ on the subject of rental housing licensing but let us adhere to the facts. You can read more on the subject of inaccurate and specious information on the part of the landlords on my blog entry of 24 November (click here).

The Hudsons suggest that you “contact your City Council person right now and find out what is going on”. I second the motion that the Hudsons do just that - and get it right.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rental Licensing "Я" Not Us - Landlords and Supporters Speak (Round Two)

Last week an email was sent to rental owners indicating that the Northwest Rental Owners Association was organizing a committee in Bellingham to fight the rental “licensing ordinance”. No ordinance yet exists, even in draft, and the 26 page document attached to the email was a study done last year by Mark Gardner, the city council’s Legislative Policy Analyst. The Zonemaven reported on this document months ago. (Click here to read the draft study) The email further encourages members of the rental association to attend the 7 December 2009 City Council meeting at which Mr. Gardner will make a presentation of the core of his findings and ask the Council for further guidance. (The Zonemaven confirmed this plan during a telephone call with Mr. Gardner on 23 November.)

Nothing gets the collective heart of the landlords beating fast like the vision of being regulated in any way. The reason for which they should remain the only unregulated and unlicensed business in town has not yet been addressed by their association. An advanced party of the association made its appearance at the 23 November City Council meeting to speak their three minutes during the public comment period.

First up was Aaron Lukoff, who reminded all that he was Attorney Aaron Lukoff. He is, in fact, an attorney specializing in traffic cases and criminal matters. (His website is at Attorney Lukoff appears from time to time to speak before the council on housing rental issues. You can read about his previous “testimony” in my blog entries by clicking here and here. Attorney Lukoff’s main pitch is that the current Bellingham Municipal Code 20.08.020, that limits unrelated renters to three, is unconstitutional and violates certain portions of the Revised Code of Washington. This contention has not been determined by any court in Washington State. In fact, Attorney Lukoff should know that similar laws throughout the nation have been held to be constitutional by various state supreme courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1974 (Belle Terre vs. Boraas). Even the Bellingham City Attorney and staff reported on the legality of such municipal codes in Agenda Bill 018021 in June 08. (Click here to read this agenda bill) Nonetheless, the BMC on the definition of family has less to do with the entirety of the concept of rental housing licensing which speaks to much larger issues of health, safety and welfare of renters regardless of the status of the occupants.

Mike Barnes, the next speaker, lamented that the rental owners were not consulted in the process of developing the draft study on rental housing licensing. The landlords seem to forget that the study is supposed to be balanced and impartial to provide the Council members information from which to proceed. Once the Council decides, if at all, to continue to the stage of drafting an ordinance, then the various members of the public, to include landlords, will have their say in the matter. The idea is not to have special interests derail the study before it even begins. Mr. Barnes then went on to speak of laws already on the books for dealing with nuisances, overcrowding and health or safety issues, citing in particular, Washington State landlord-tenant laws already in effect. He also resurfaced the plaint that a licensing program will bloat the bureaucracy, cost too much and make it more difficult for people to rent homes. The Zonemaven has already dealt with these bugaboos in previous blog entries which you can read by clicking here and here.

A young woman, named Julie (my apologies, as I missed her last name), followed Mr. Barnes. She stated that a licensing law could have deleterious effects on non-traditional households (not further explained) and could lead to more foreclosures and increased rents. There is no reason for which non-traditional families, as recently recognized under Referendum 71, could not be included as an excepted group with a simple amendment to the Bellingham Ctiy Code 20.08.020. In fact, the Zonemaven has stated that in a previous blog entry. Julie did not further explain the manner in which a licensing law would produce further foreclosures or raise rents, thus leading to fewer options for affordable housing. The Zonemaven fails to see the manner in which a licensing fee of approximately $50 per year or less, as described in the Rental Housing Licensing Study, will break the bank for landlords or renters. Landlords have certainly not been above raising rents unilaterally at moments that suit their needs. Lastly, Julie states, “Face it, we live in a college town.” True, but that does not mean we have to have an unregulated and uninspected rental market for students and others who seek safe and affordable housing. Living in a college town also does not suggest that the permanent residents must endure boorish, illegal and uncivil conduct.

Last to speak was Dr. Daniel Larner, a professor at Western Washington University. Dr. Larner is a long-time civil rights activist and also a playwright and theater scholar. [Last June, I wrote an email to Dr. Larner, asking to meet with him to discuss the rental licensing program. He did not respond to my email.] He stated that he feared that the so-called “rule of three” of the BMC might be imbedded under legislation to license landlords and that renters might be placed in discriminatory situations and subject to invasions of privacy. He also said that the City of Bellingham may be at increased risked of lawsuits. The fact is that the City of Pasco has a rental licensing program that has undergone several court challenges and is operating quite well. Should the City of Bellingham adopt a similar rental licensing program, as suggested in the draft study, there is no reason to believe, as stated by Dr. Larner, that the city would come under increased risk with respect to court challenges. On the other hand, the Zonemaven sees an increased risk of a lawsuit against the city if it does not regulate rental properties. Should a renter die or suffer serious injuries or sickness as a result of the condition of a rental property, then the city would be hard pressed to explain to a court the reason for which it decided not to regulate rental properties. (Read more about this in my blog entry entitled We Do Not Know - But Do We Want to Know?)

I invite my readers to attend the City Council meeting on 7 December to speak support of a rental licensing program. Bellingham residents should reject attempts by the now unregulated business community (i.e. landlords) to sidestep their responsibility to provide a verifiably safe product.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bellingham, WA – Durham, NH. Sister Cities in Trouble?

Below is a letter from a resident of Durham, NH by the name of Karen Mullaney that appeared in the 13 November edition of the Foster’s Daily Democrat. I spoke with Karen, along time resident, on the phone after reading her letter. (You can read the original by clicking here) My last blog entry (click here) was about the existence of a Rental Housing Commission in Durham and a suggestion that Bellingham may want to craft such a commission to deal with the totality of the issues around rental housing, many of which are mentioned by Karen.

Here is her story, whose contents you will find familiar. It is not only about students, but it is also about landlords, parents, city governments and university officials. You cannot tell the tale about rental markets in university towns without dealing with this cast list. Admittedly, there are other players, such as young wage earners, singles and couples, who have nothing to do with academe and contribute to the problem as well. However, when 8-10,000 or more students seek a dwelling for the school year, you achieve critical mass in that which becomes the “big enchilada” of the rental market.

The city of Durham's permanent population is about 12,000, however, it doubles during the school year. Although the university has almost enough housing for its student population (Is that not a novel idea?) the gradual elimination of fraternity and sorority houses, coupled with a desire by some students to live off campus unfettered by pesky rules, has begun the inevitable undesirable infill and nuisances that Bellingham knows too well.

While Durham is in 'big trouble,' few seem to care

Friday, November 13, 2009

Driving down Madbury Road in Durham early Sunday morning, I was once again reminded that this town is in big trouble. Front yards littered with beer cans where families once lived. This weekend was Halloween, but that is just this week's excuse. This is the norm for UNH students now.

Judging by the amount of cans in sight, this school has a drinking problem and Durham has a student problem. When I moved to Durham with young children in 1975, it was thought to be the ultimate place to live; a small pretty town with nice homes and good schools. Most students lived in dorms or Greek housing. Many people rented small apartments in their homes. Living in a college town was thought to be a plus. What happened?

I guess these things begin when there are more admitted students than available dorm rooms. Students move into existing apartment complexes, one by one renters leave, because of noise and negative changes in their previously comfortable homes. (Park Ct.) Duplexes, that once housed young families and faculty (Coe Dr.), are infected because out- of-state parents buy a unit for their child and fill it with several others, to make a profit, and the remaining duplexes fall like dominoes. As this process spreads, the surrounding neighbors can't sell their homes and have to rent and finally sell to someone who is going to make a buck with very little effort. Living in another state, using a corporate name on the deed, once a year hiring someone to do the repairs, they never have to see what is going on.

Durham has had some bad press lately. A previous commentary spoke about treating absentee landlords as businesses. These absentee landlords are usually paying low taxes because of the poor condition of these properties, while those of us who have invested in and improved ours pay some of the highest bills in the state.

The town government spends months debating bridges and dams, fighting business in various parts of town, while inviting more student housing in the middle of town because now the buzz word around here is tax base. — to ease the tax burden.

Maybe we can start picking up the beer cans and turn them in for cash to reduce that burden. The town actually thinks that "mixed use" (read student apartments above empty stores) and the 55 plus crowd are the answer. Well guess what? It's too expensive for most seniors and soon no one is going to want to buy a house here. I certainly have stopped recommending it. Not only do the current sellers have to deal with the economic housing crisis, they, they have to deal with the student sprawl. Everyone in town can point to once nice homes now destroyed by this virus.

Don't think it doesn't affect you if you live in the outskirts or on the bay. You won't want to come into town for anything because there will be only students and stores to fill their needs and the surrounding properties will be trashed Take a drive to Amherst, Mass. for a look into the future. South of Pleasant St., only Emily Dickinson's house is not a rental, yet! As for managed student housing; those owners are doing a good job and have made substantial improvement, but they still have vacancies midyear because some students want to be free to party and trash.

Does the university have a part to play? Sorry to report "Durham, It's where U live," friendly warnings to the incoming freshman and all the other idyllic responses aren't cutting it. The students don't care and their parents, who let them live like this, don't care.

The administration can't possibly look around on a weekend and think everything is OK. Are they so desperate to fill seats that they need this motley bunch? I know we can't go back to the good old days, but are there no rules or consequences anymore at UNH? Would they want the tours that are held for perspective students and parents to take place on a Saturday night?

I know I have repeated much that has been said before, but it is time for the town and university to get their heads out of the sand. The town must find some way to require these owners to be responsible for what they have created. In the meantime the surrounding owners should continue to complain to the police, town and University. Find the owners name on the tax list and call them repeatedly to complain.

We have a lot at stake.

Karen Mullaney