Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Uconscionable State of Our Rentals

 [Note:  This article first appeared in NWCitizen.]

The statistics from the first round of rental inspections in Bellingham were quite sobering, a 50% failure rate upon first inspection of rental units in the Sehome neighborhood. That is pretty bad and now the inspectors have moved on to the York neighborhood where more than 50% of the single family housing stock has been transformed into rentals. The city has released no statistics on the present round of rental inspections but the planning department did provide a 166 page document that lists all the inspections to date with descriptions of the violations found. Some are enough to gag a rat while others would give sleepless nights to parents of the predominantly student renters.

All this as the background echo of the real estate industry and the landlords false claims of “a few bad apples” reverberate in City Council chambers. One is forced to ask upon reading these violations, “Who are these landlords and just what are they thinking?” How can such obvious neglect be countenanced by a human being? The registration and inspection ordinance was passed about two years ago. Did these landlords ever give a thought to starting repairs? Or were they endangering their tenants by cynically waiting for their inspection so they would not over-correct violations and spend too much money? 

For your perusal I have culled, from the hundreds of reports, a few of the violation descriptions. You can find more at this link. Here we go: 

“14 days Most items not fixed. Please review list from initial inspection. **list from initial inspection**RB 8/26/2016 1:38:04 PM Upstairs unit. 60 days 1 - ceiling open to attic and roof (attic access hatch missing) 2 - south side bathroom, appears to be water under vinyl flooring 3 - seal openings in vinyl flooring in south side bathroom 4 - weather stripping at rear entrance door missing, open to the elements 5 - one window near rear door open the the elements, gap in frame 6 - floor sheathing outside north side bathroom soft and rotted from past leak, covered with vinyl flooring 7 - southeast bedroom, no operable egress window 8 - northwest corner of house, siding open to foundation 9 - couch on garage roof, garage likely not designed for live loads such as furniture or multiple people 10 - northeast corner of garage, ceiling joists rotted, not supporting roof, risk of collapse under body weight”

“Unprotected wiring above tub 2 - no light at rear entry 3 - provide one smoke alarm per sleeping room and one in immediate vicinity on outside of room, and one per level (mounting brackets present, did not see alarms) 4 - provide one CO alarm per level 5 - large openings in basement, garage/basement doors do not close securely or lock, Windows not secure and several areas open for rodent intrusion 6 - significant water pooling, clothes washer on pallets to keep above water pools 7 - un-terminated wiring near fuse box, unprotected wiring hanging below floor joists, worn through sheathing in areas 8 – switch hanging from wiring near chimney 9 - large opening in chimney in basement, gas room heater vented through chimney 10 - guard and handrail at basement steps 11 - clothes dryer not hooked up to vent 12 - dead bolt at rear entrance inoperable, knob lock only held in place by striker plate, door jamb compromised”

“Sewage leaking throughout basement in storage room and lower level bedrooms 2 - proof of adequate sanitation and mitigation of affected areas from specialty cleaning agency (basement storage area and lower level bedrooms) 3 - tenants should not be exposed to areas affected by sewage leak until properly sanitized 4 - inadequate ventilation in upstairs bathroom, walls are cracked and soft to touch 5 - upstairs bedroom windows not operable. Do not open far enough for egress, not weatherproof, do not close completely 6 - missing smoke alarm in upstairs bedroom 7 - missing smoke alarm in upstairs hallway 8 - CO alarms required on each level 9 - main level bath walls and ceiling cracked and soft to touch, inadequate ventilation 10 - storm windows over sleeping room windows do not meet egress window requirements”

“Significant rotting at rear deck. Deck boards, joists, rim and beam soft and crumbling provide smoke/CO alarms in missing locations 2 - evidence of closet being used as a sleeping room (bed, clothing, personal items) 3 - protect wiring at water heater 4 - missing junction box covers in basement.”

“Several large openings exist in structure. Repairs were attempted but not made in a workmanlike manner. Home not sealed to weather and rodents. Evidence of rodent intrusion still present in home. Provide rodent mitigation and seal structure.” “room in basement closest to furnace, large openings in walls and ceilings, with exposed framing and insulation 2 - basement room near exterior door, light fixture hanging from wiring in ceiling 3 - no trap, no air gap in clothes washer standpipe 4 - downstairs tenant reports strong sewer gas smell near bathroom 4 - large opening in basement bath ceiling, unprotected wiring and open to framing 5 - basement toilet not sealed at base, installed on blocks on uneven floor 6 - unprotected wiring at water heater, wiring insulation frayed and worn. Replace wiring and protect with conduit 7 - one smoke alarm per sleeping room and in hallway in immediate vicinity of sleeping rooms required 8 - one CO alarm per level require 9 - upstairs room to left of stairway, exposed/unprotected wiring at light switch 10 - upstairs room to right of stairway, light fixture hanging from wiring, exposed wiring 11 - leak in ceiling by range, gets wet when it rains 12 - exterior light under rear porch broken, exposed wiring 13 - chimney leaning, mortar joints deteriorated, gas appliances venting through chimney 14 - basement window near side stairway broken, exposed glass.”

This article will be updated as the city provides the statistical breakdown of inspection pass/fails.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hearing Examiner Halts Seattle’s ADU Ordinance

[Note:  This article first appeared at NWCitizen

In a decision that may have an impact on the planned update of Bellingham’s accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance in 2017, Sue Tanner, the hearing examiner in Seattle, remanded to the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) for further work their environmental impact Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) on the SEPA Environmental Checklist prepared for an update to Seattle’s ADU ordinance . Although the decision is not binding on Bellingham, aspects of the hearing examiner’s decision should have an indirect effect on the decision process on ADUs here.

As reported in the Seattle Times, “Seattle must halt a proposal to allow more and larger backyard cottages in order to conduct a more thorough review of potential environmental consequences, including the possibility that it could lead to gentrification.” Tanner’s decision states, ““The record demonstrates that the challenged DNS (determination of non-significance) was not based on information sufficient to evaluate the proposal’s impacts…” In fact, most of the questions in the SEPA checklist are answered “not applicable”. To think that the SEPA statement provides any useful information whatsoever in determining the long-term effects of the creation of ADUs in all of Seattle’s single family zoned areas is a risible notion.

As in Bellingham, certain ADUs are already allowed in the city of Seattle. The Seattle ordinance would greatly expand their use by allowing ADUs on smaller lots and even allow building of a cottage and an ADU on single lot, thus creating three dwelling units on a single family zoned property. The hearing examiner also found that the OPCD was not only the proponent but also the decision maker on the DNS, a clear conflict.

Not surprisingly, the same issues raised by Bellingham citizens during the Comprehensive Plan update this year were in play in the Seattle decision. These issues are the impact of parking, affordability, gentrification, public services/utilities, height/bulk/scale and lifetime effects. The examiner found that these aspects were not sufficiently studied.

Here, the city can expect a substantial push-back by citizens who, although generally supportive of carefully planned use of ADUs, suspect that Bellingham’s ADU ordinance update may be used to effectively eliminate single family zoning creating severe negative effects on the character of neighborhoods. The year 2017 may prove to be an interesting one for housing and land use decisions.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Misleading/Incomplete Report on Rental Inspection Results

Pass/Fail Rate Misrepresented
[Note: This article first appeared at NWCitizen

Before the committee of the whole of the Bellingham City Council on 26 September, the planning director presented a "correction" to the figures on the pass/fail rate of rental units inspected over the previous three months in the Sehome neighborhood.  In fact, the figures presented differed little from previous reports. (see my prior column on these statistics here)  The new figures were 242 passed and 239 failed  with a fail rate of 50%.  [The minor differences from previous figures of 231 and 237 respectively are due to constant updates as new units are inspected each day.] The director's report (see pie chart) goes on to say that after a SECOND inspection, another 142 units passed.  The claim then was that 80% of our rental stock inspected to date passed!  Woohoo!  This is true but terribly misleading since the initial failure rate was 50%.  With the logic of the pie chart pictured above, the passing on a second inspection of the remaining 95 failed units would bring the failure rate for our rental stock to 0% when, in fact, the initial go around was a miserable 50% pass rate demonstrating the true condition of the rental units before any inspections whatsoever. This wretched failure rate should bring a collective gasp of dumbfoundedness to the city of Bellingham.

This leads us to the incomplete.

Even more alarming was that there was no specification that 310 rental units (35%) of the 880 units in Sehome are being inspected by private inspectors.  The use of private inspectors is allowed by state law, however, at the moment there appears to be no means by which the city can compel the private inspector to turn over the actual inspection sheet.  All the city receives is a "pass" document, attested to by the inspector.  There will be no indication about the number of failed inspections made before the pass attestation is given to the city.  This not only paves the way for shenanigans on the part of the landlord (inspector-landlord collusion) but it also deprives the city and, more importantly, the tenants of vital, detailed information regarding the problems found within the rental units.  [To date there has been no indication of any collusion.]  Nevertheless, the 310 units (35%) in Sehome to be inspected by private inspectors leaves an enormous lacuna in the information on deficiencies available to the city.  Furthermore, the city is finding that landlords using private inspectors tend to be the large management/real estate firms, many of which have checkered histories in dealing with tenants.  This is unacceptable.  The planning director indicated that the city is awaiting a legal case now in Seattle that may clarify the private inspector issue and its consequences.

As the inspections wind down in the Sehome neighborhood, the city will fix its attention next on the York neighborhood with its 575 rental units, a mix of single and mutli-family zoned areas.  54% of York's 479 single family homes are rentals.  In fact, 31 of those individual homes are owned by Dave and Jonathan Hansen.  At total of 27 other single family rentals are owned variously and separately by four landlords.  The number of landlords who will use private inspectors in the York neighborhood remains to be seen but the situation should give any thinking person pause
After the York neighborhood the city will move south to Happy Valley and then finish the south end with South Hill, Fairhaven, Edgemoor and South neighborhoods.  An explanatory map of the inspection zones can be found here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The War Has Just Begun

Quality Rental in Bellingham (photo: Dick Conoboy)
 [Note: This entry was first published on 16 Sep on NWCitizen.]

 [Note:  September 28, 2016 - the percentage figure of failures was initially reported at 42%.  In fact, the correct failure rate was 50% (227 of 458 inspections.]

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
— Winston Churchill

Bellingham's war on slum housing has just begun and in the first round of rental inspections since June 1 in the Sehome neighborhood the enemy has been rousted. Out of the dark corners, hidden from the public eye emerges the truth about Bellingham's dirty little secret: Slum landlords are alive and thriving.

Although landlords have had about two years to fix up their units since the rental inspection ordinance was passed, a shocking 50% [corrected]of the units (according to the city's preliminary figures below) failed their initial inspection.  Even the ones that passed had some "conditions" at the initial visit.  This demonstrates  the arrogance of landlords who, knowing that inspections were coming, did nothing.  After years of ignoring basic health and safety standards they, as business owners, are now being held accountable to business standards for the very first time!

Here is the preliminary breakdown for the Sehome neighborhood where inspections officially wrap up at the end of September.

Between 6/1/16 and 9/13/16 a total of 267 properties (or approximately 458 [corrected] units) have been inspected:
• 231 units passed or passed w/ conditions at initial inspection
• 227 units failed at initial inspection
• 78 units were marked as missed appointments at initial inspection (these are scheduled again as "initial inspection" and would show back up in the passed or failed categories)
• 115 units passed or passed w/ conditions at 1st re-inspection
• 7 units failed at 1st re-inspection
• 19 units were marked as missed appointments at 1st re-inspection  (these are scheduled again as "1st re-inspection" and would show back up in the passed or failed categories)
• 2 units passed or passed w/ conditions at 2nd re-inspection

Advocates for the new rental inspection program challenged the city and the rental industry to prove us wrong. Local anti-inspection landlords said their industry was better here. They promoted that myth during a long 15-year battle against implementation of inspections and registration. Unfortunately, the claims of those supporting rental inspections for the last decade or more were born out in this first round of code enforcement.  Fortunately the Bellingham City Council finally, albeit for some members very reluctantly, bit the bullet two years ago and created an ordinance to inspect rental units and ensure the health and safety of half of the city's residents, tenants.

The war on slum housing has just begun. The faulty wiring, bad plumbing, infestation of rats, leaky roofs, mold and unsafe structures are finally being exposed. Bellingham's liberation from its dirty little secret has just begun.

It will be interesting to see how the "rental industry" leadership responds to this, if at all.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Durham, NH, - Surprise! - Rental Inspections Worked

Durham, NH Where Rental Inspections Worked!
[Note: This article first appeared in NWCitizen]

In 2013 Durham, NH, passed a rental registration and inspection law over the objections of the "rental industry."   Within a year, the results demonstrated the need for inspections by unearthing problems the landlords denied existed, especially among professionally managed units.  In a report issued by the city of Durham only three months after passage of the law we find this:
"The DLA [Durham Landlord Association] has also argued that it is the non-owner occupied, single family rentals managed by non-professional landlords that represent the problem properties in terms of safety concerns in Durham.  The new inspection program does not bear out that contention.  Rental properties of all types have been found deficient in meeting fire/safety standards."
The report also indicated:
"Inspection results have substantiated the long-held concerns of the Town’s Code Enforcement Department, Fire Department, Assessing Office, and some members of the Rental Housing Commission – that many rental properties in town do not meet basic health and safety standards as required by state statute putting young and inexperienced, largely college-aged tenants in harms way."
Two years later, the city website reported this to the citizens of Durham:
"Between 2013 and today, a total of 1,784 inspections [bolding mine] have taken place within off campus rental dwelling units (apartments) by the inspection division at the Durham Fire Department.  The Fire Department staff has found 4,021 violations [bolding mine] to date, of which 3,213 have been addressed by owners.  There are 808 outstanding issues for which re-inspections are required/pending. 
The top five life/safety/health deficiencies include:
    Detection/Alarms (smoke/co)
    Electrical violations
    Separation from hazards
    Fire Protection Systems not being property maintained (fire alarms/sprinklers)

Durham's Housing Standards Ordinance is serving the purpose for which it was intended -- to make living conditions much safer for inexperienced students as well as adult tenants living off campus in the broader community."

That sounds like a successful program in a university city.

As in Bellingham, landlords tried unsuccessfully to fight inspections by creating uncertainty about the legality under the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution that spells out the need for warrants for searches and seizures.  This specious argument has nothing to do with entering dwelling units for safety and health reasons.  In Washington state, landlords already have the right to enter rental units after giving notice. It is ludicrous to posit that a city health and safety inspector operating as an agent of the municipality does not have a similar ability to enter a rental unit with notice.  Washington state law also allows issuing administrative warrants to enter units where a tenant or a landlord has refused access.  Rental inspectors are just not breaking down doors to find a tenant in his skivvies.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Stop the Rental Fires Now!

Ellis St. Duplex - Note Red Condemnation Sign and Protective Fencing

 [Note:  This article first appeared in NWCitizen on 8 Feb 2015] 

City inspections of Bellingham rentals are due to begin in the 2nd quarter of this year.  Over 18,000 rental units have so far been registered for the first round of an inspection regime to take place over the next three years.  And none too soon!  Since 2011 we have chalked up seven rental fires that have displaced about two dozen young student renters.  These fires must be stopped before someone is seriously injured or killed.

Most recently, on 14 December 2015, a fire broke out in an 85 year old duplex rental home on Ellis St.   The home is the property of the notoriously ubiquitous landlord Dave Hansen of Lakeway Realty who owns property citywide.  Most of the female occupants (three upstairs and three down) were on holiday break from WWU and WCC, however, one of the remaining young women was at home upstairs when she was alerted to the fire by a next door neighbor.  Smoke alarms failed to sound due to “discharged or dead” batteries according to the fire marshal’s report.  Unfortunately, this is not the first fire in a Hansen rental.  On January 11th, 2011 a fire in another of his rentals on Grant St. displaced student renters.  In December 2011 a fire in a Hansen rental on Maple St. left five young women renters from WWU homeless. 

Nearly half of the rental fires in Bellingham since 2011 have been in Hansen rentals, although the word out on local campuses is, “Do not rent from Lakeway Realty.”   Yet young student renters continue to rent from Lakeway because there is little to no choice.  The women who rented the home on Ellis St. had about 15 minutes to inspect the house prior to signing the lease even though they were aware of the reputation of Hansen and his property management firm.  They described mold on the crumbling ceiling of one of the bathrooms that had been painted over.  A window broken out after the move-in was not repaired but was finally replaced by the tenants themselves at their own expense.  At least one smoke alarm was beeping during and after the move-in but the tenants were not aware of the source of the warning signal which finally stopped.  Another smoke alarm in the downstairs unit was also not working.  In addition, nobody informed the renters of the separately rented upstairs unit that the heating system for the entire house had one thermostat control and that was located in the lower unit of the duplex (also separately rented) to which they had no access.  Notwithstanding the condition of this house, the landlord charged the tenants $1450/mo rental for the downstairs unit and $1200 for the upstairs unit. 

As in the Grant St. fire, the cause of the Ellis St. fire was electrical, in an attic space.  Contributing to the cause according to the official report was an “installation deficiency.”   The tenants also told of old, deteriorated electrical outlets.  There were no ground fault interrupters (GFI) in the bathrooms, but the tenants only realized that after having been given a description of the outlet that should have been installed.  At one point the stove caught fire.  It took two weeks to replace the stove while the tenants were advised to buy a camping stove to do their cooking.  These small stoves are notorious for giving off carbon monoxide, an odorless and deadly gas. 

To date, the renters of the Ellis St. duplex have not received their security deposit from the landlord.  The house was tagged as condemned by fire and city officials and some windows were boarded up.  The photos below show the second floor just after the fire.  This may have well been a scene of death.   Unfortunately for the renters, who had no insurance, the house was almost immediately broken into resulting in some property loss and additional trashing of the interior.  Inexplicably some of the electrical outlets were missing.   The young women received no assistance from the landlord after gathering a few belongings from the house.

The Bellingham rental registration and inspection ordinance may, at last, do away with these dangerous rentals.  Additional efforts are being made by WWU's Campus Community Coalition to educate incoming students about entering into rental agreements. This long time landlord tyranny in the rental market should eventually be eliminated.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Accessory Dwelling Units - There Is No Rush

 [Note:  This article first appeared on NWCitizen on Nov 16, 2015]

Over the past year, various groups (primarily a focus group, the Planning Commission and the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission) have met in work groups to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and the need to update the current ordinance.  The last version of the ordinance was passed by the City Council in 1995 but has not been updated since and has largely been ignored, especially the requirement to register such units with the city on a recurring basis.  Notably, the city has been complicit in not actively pursuing landlords who are not in compliance except as the result of a complaint.  The result is unregistered and likely unpermitted dwelling units that put occupants at risk. 
For example, the ADU pictured at left was condemned several years ago and declared uninhabitable after a long struggle between the tenant and the landlord to effect repairs.  Only about 94 ADUs are registered in Bellingham although in neighborhoods such as South Hill, York and Sehome, there are, according to neighborhood residents and association officials, dozens of unregistered and therefore illegal units of poor or unknown condition.

The current attention being paid to ADUs comes about primarily as a result of the requirement to review the ordinance once there are 200 registered ADUs city-wide or any specific neighborhood exceeds 20 ADUs.  The South Hill neighborhood is nearing this number of registered units, although as noted above, the proliferation of illegal units means that quite likely South Hill already has many more than 20 ADUs.

The city is exploring ways to increase infill and density within the city limits.  Although the planning director himself has said on several occasions that ADUs, in and of themselves, cannot substantially add to density or cure the problem of insufficient affordable housing, the city is moving ahead with the review process.  There is nothing inherently wrong with ADUs.  There are, however, problems when the number of existing units is unknown and the current density of neighborhoods is not well understood or quantified.  A proliferation of ADUs in the York Neigbhorhood is not the same as an equal number in Cordata or Edgemoor.

Increased density brings with it the inevitable nuisances of noise, insufficient parking and litter.  The city poorly manages and mitigates these problems in that they are low on the list of priorities for the police, code enforcement and public works.  Problems linger for weeks, months or even years.  In some areas near the university, there is no longer room for additional vehicles.  This situation begs for some sort of control on the number and spacing of ADUs as people who rent them cannot be expected to just get rid of their vehicles.  Statements to the effect that ADU residents will for the most part take public transportation, walk or bike are unsuppported and go against the everyday experience of those now living in crowded neighborhoods, replete with ADUs, many of which are not yet identified by the city in spite of complaints.  The limit of three people occupying an ADU also says the possibility exists that three additional vehicles will be brought into a neighborhood.  In some cases both the main house and the ADU are rented out, thus ignoring the code requirement that the landlord live in either the house or the ADU.  This further aggravates issues related to noise and parking since the landlord is not present as a calming agent and the house may well be stuffed with 5 or more renters, most of whom have cars, who are seeking to lower their individual costs. This is understandable economically, however, if allowed to continue and proliferate, will radically change the character of a neighborhood.

Although there is no reason not to eventually bring ADUs back into the realm of housing possibilities, a current inventory is essential.  The recently adopted ordinance on rental inspections may uncover some units that have not yet been known to the city, however, the rollout of inspections under this ordinance will play out over three years.  What mechanism will the city then use to identify (prior to enacting an ADU ordinance) all existing units?  Without that knowledge an ordinance that specifies the number of ADUs allowed in a particular area will be ineffective and destructive.

The city has to answer these questions before proceeding.  Saying that mitigation of problems will take place later and that present density is not an issue are not acceptable responses.

A work session on this topic will be held before the Planning Commission on Thursday, 19 Nov 2015 at 7pm in the city council chambers of city hall.  Agenda and materials here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Hansen’s Giant Rental Megaplex - Part 2

[Note:  This article originally appeared in NWCitizen on August 4, 2015.]

The saga continues.  

Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood

Local lawyers Belcher and Swanson threw the legal equivalent of a hissy fit while representing Cottonwood Units LLC - otherwise known as David and Jon Hansen of Lakeway Realty. This tantrum was in response to the city's "delay" in permitting the Hansens' Iron Street rental megaplexes, even though under code the city has until September 28th to respond. Without a hint of embarassment at having been caught with their hand in the rental-unit cookie jar, the Hansens, through their attorneys, demanded in high dudgeon the immediate issuance of building permits for five-bedroom plus two bonus room "homes." The owner's claim that these homes are five bedrooms plus two bonus rooms is also a ruse to circumvent parking requirements. The houses had already been advertised for rent to seven (or more?) individual tenants on craigslist earlier this year. You can read reports of this attempted sleight of hand in my article of June 1st entitled Hansen-IronStreet Rental Megaplex Planned for York Neighborhood.  

We are witnessing nothing less than an attempt at code-busting which will destroy single family zoning. This is a direct violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) regarding the creation of rooming houses in single family neighborhoods. Initially, the city wrote to the Hansens saying the permits would be contingent on the owner's agreement to separate covenants on the property that would preclude turning the megaplexes into rooming houses. Later, the city requirement devolved into "restrictive language" within the permits themselves. Here is that language:

"The residential building and use approved under permit #CMB 2015-00XX was applied for and reviewed as a single family residence as regulated under the International Residential Code and Beliingham Municipal Code (BMC)  Title 20- Land Use Development.  Use of the building as a boarding or rooming house or congregate living facility as defined by the International Building Code and the Land Use Code shall be prohibited.  The use of the property shall be resticted to one single family dwelling unit and at no time may more than three unrelated persons reside in the single family dwelling unit as defined under BMC 20.08.020.  Violation of this condition shall be subject to enforcement action as allowed under City of Bellingham adopted building and land use codes."

As of  yesterday, August 3rd, the building permits so vehemently demanded by the Hansens and their attorneys were still sitting in the permit center at city hall, even though it has been a week since the center notified the applicants that the permits were ready. Ironically, code enforcement action continues on another five-bedroom plus two bonus room home recently constructed by the Hansens on Humboldt Street - see a separate NWCitizen article I wrote on July 7th entitled Family Home for Rent:$44,000/year. The house on Humboldt Street was likely the beta test for the Iron Street megaplexes as the applicant maneuvered it through the permitting process by hiding the intention to use the bonus rooms as bedrooms.

The code enforcement complaint on these yet-to-be-built rental megaplexes has, of course, revived the polemic regarding the so-called "rule of three." That rule was discussed and then ignored by Bellingham City Council a few years ago in the hopes that it might magically disappear. No such luck. At the council meeting on July 27th, Dan Hammill and Terry Bornemann brought up the heretofore unspoken problem behind the five-bedroom plus two bonus room houses, and that is: more than three unrelated persons living together, or in other words, illegal rooming/boarding houses. The term family* - as in "single-family" -  was discovered by our former planning director, Tim Stewart, to be not so easily banished from the BMC since the term is used in other code titles. One way or another, it has to be defined - and therein lies the rub. Unless the council is actively looking to radically change the nature of single family zoning or eliminate it entirely, it must face and confront this direct and deliberate attempt to ignore city statutes.  

All of this may have an eerie ring to it because I wrote about the destruction of Bellingham's neighborhoods one house at a time nearly six years ago in an article on my Zonemaven blog aptly entitled How toDestroy a Neighborhood - The city's response to enforcement back then was ready, aim, aim, aim, aim...  Can't we do better now?

But now the neighborhoods are beginning to fight back. The York Neighborhood grabbed this bull by the horns and has not let go. On May 26th, the York Neighborhood Association board submitted a seven pageletter to our current planning director, Rick Sepler, about the "seven-actual bedrooms" illegal use intention. They then initiated a petition campaign and within three weeks had collected 250 signatures, which included 100 collected door-to-door by Sehome residents in that neighborhood. Then, on July 27th they turned in more, bringing the total to 300. The petition called for an investigation, which the planning department is conducting, along with "monitoring" of the situation on the other proposed rental megaplexes. The Sunnyland Neighborhood Association submitted a letter to the city in support of the York Neighborhood. For ALL neighborhood associations, and especially York, Sehome, and Sunnyland, this fight is about protecting single family neighborhoods and stopping the illegal up-zoning that has been going on for years, supported by the rental industry. It appears that we finally have people in city hall who are paying attention to the rules and listening to voices other than those of the developers, landlords and real estate agents.

The petition also called on the council to direct the planning department to begin work on design guidelines for single family historic districts. At its last meeting, the council unanimously approved directing the planning department to study and bring back an approach for design standards of neighborhood character in historic districts. You can watch the video of the Planning Committee's discussion at the city website here. The topic is a direct result of the petition and the aforesaid attempt by David and Jon Hansen, again under the guise of Cottonwood Units, LLC, to build these five-bedroom plus two bonus room homes on Iron Street in the York Neigbhorhood. While new standards unfortunately would not affect the lots on Iron Street, they would provide some future assurance that homes left to deteriorate in historic districts would not be razed in order to build the equivalent of mini-apartment/rental megaplexes. The concept is that any new home construction would have to fit with the character of the street or block's surrounding homes. The council opted to focus on historic areas, after which consideration might be given to expanding the concept throughout the city.

*“BMC 20.08.020 - Family” means one or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than three unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit. For purposes of this definition, children with familial status within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. 3602(k) and individuals with disabilities within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. 3602(h) will not be counted as unrelated persons. “Adult family homes,” as defined by RCW 70.128.010, 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.