Monday, June 1, 2015

Hansen-Iron Street Rental Megaplex Planned for York Neighborhood

Three lots in the 1600 block of Iron St. York Neighborhood
 [Note: This article first appeared on NWCitizen]

In what could be an appalling and game-changing precedent for many of Bellingham’s single-family neighborhoods, a megaplex of three seven-bedroom (five bedrooms plus two “bonus rooms”) single-family homes is planned for three adjoining lots on Iron St (1623, 1625, and 1627) in the York Neighborhood by local developers David and Jon Hansen under Cottonwood Units, LLC. A recent, but since removed, Craig’s list advertisement had listed the yet-to-be-built homes for rent (beginning in September) at $3,500 per month plus a security deposit of $250 per adult. The intent to peddle these houses as rentals and not as single-family homes is clear – and illegal. 

One small home, built in 1910, currently sits on the middle lot of the three adjacent properties. The plan, according to a demolition request submitted by the owners, is to raze the existing structure to pave the way to build the three “single-family” homes. This request has occasioned a SEPA (State Environmental Protection Act) review process since the house is within a national historic district. However, it is unlikely the review will result in anything but a DNS (Determination of Non-Significance). The neighborhood is protesting the demolition of the home due to the intrinsically adverse consequences of the destruction of old homes within historic areas.  

More strikingly obvious, though, is the immense damage done to neighborhood character by creating three outrageously oversized houses solely for the purpose of renting each of them to seven or more persons. This is a violation of the Growth Management Act, which mandates the maintenance of neighborhood character. Imagine the effect of having 21 or more tenants on three adjacent single-family lots. This is little more than multi-family housing being created in a single-family-zoned area and is a clear warning sign of a potential domino effect, reminiscent of “block busting,” in which other older homes in the York Neighborhood are bulldozed for the purpose of building other “McMansion” rentals that are nothing but small apartment buildings. It is not lost on the local residents that the Hansens own 33 properties in the York Neighborhood, any of which can subsequently and similarly be targeted for “renewal.” Other single-family neighborhoods ought to be paying close attention, watching to see if the city decides to allow such blatantly inappropriate construction.

As for legality, renting these homes to more than three unrelated people is a violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code 20.08.020(F)(1) - definition of family. Like it or not, the code is currently on the books and was used as legal justification by the Hearing Examiner to limit the size of units in the now-defunct University Ridge project in which the developer illegally proposed four-bedroom dwelling units. The ordinance was the subject of a paper for the Bellingham City Council several years ago in which the so-called “rule of three” was reviewed by the city attorney. As indicated in the Agenda Bill of the time, aside from some federal and state exemptions, such codes are constitutional, having been declared so by the US Supreme Court in 1974 in Belle Terre v Boraas

One might also ask about the number of parking spaces that are necessary for three seven-bedroom houses.  The total is 18. Given the very narrow alley at the rear of these lots, the only viable method to provide parking would be to pave the entire back portion of the lots to accommodate the vehicles, not only adding to the footprint of impervious surfaces even beyond the footprint of the “McMansion” rental structures, but also removing any vestige of existing greenery. Moreover, the size of the lots and the calculations for a parking area for 18 vehicles will not pencil out. It will become a parking blivet*. The argument that the tenants will not have cars because they will bike or take public transport has scant basis in fact, although planners will regularly cite use of alternative transport to support infill, however inappropriate - think of the recently approved Forest Garden dormitory project that is to house over 400 students at the former site of the Adventist Church. Taking a bus to work or school does not rule out vehicle ownership for other activities. Not surprisingly, York residents did not just fall off the turnip truck. [Note photo below. These four five-bedroom snout-houses on the 100 block of Ashley St. were built in 2002 solely as rentals. There are regularly 20+ vehicles parked at or around these homes which are located several hundred feet from the WWU Lincoln Park and Ride lot. So much for the contention that the tenants will not have vehicles.]
Four 5-bedroom snout-houses in the 100 block of Ashley St.

The York Neighborhood Association has sent a letter to the Planning Director asking for review of this project on several issues, not the least of which are among those I mentioned above. The neighborhood has also initiated a petition to the city council to request that it, "(1) direct its attention to and investigate this project, (2) provide direction to the Planning Dept. as to appropriate infill for this property located in a Single-Family zoned and National Historic District, and (3) direct the Planning Dept. to begin work on development of Design Guidelines for new construction in residential historic districts."
*An impossible thing that will not fit; ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Student Housing Project Revived for Lincoln St. Development Site

CA Student Living Building at the University of Washington, Seattle

With the failure of Campus Crest last year to move forward with its plans to develop a student housing complex south of the Fred Meyer store, the Puget neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief. Neighbors who expressed the most concern, and rightly so, were the residents of the mobile home park on the east side of Lincoln St. just opposite the planned commercial/residential mixed-use site. The reprieve was predictably temporary as CA Student Living, a subsidiary of CA Ventures, plans to build a similar apartment complex but with somewhat less capacity than the Campus Crest group had planned. An article by Oliver Lazenby, entitled National Real Estate FirmRevives Apartment Project Near Fred Meyer, on the sale and project plan is available on the site of the Bellingham Business Journal. 

Lazenby writes that the new developer "plans to construct housing for hundreds of students by fall 2016, [according to] John Diedrich, CA Ventures’ VP of Investments. [Detdrich] said in late March that the company hopes to start construction in a couple weeks on 13 buildings with 230 units and about 640 bedrooms." You can read my previous articles on the Lincoln St. development plans here, here and here.

I have been in touch with the planning department. They have not as yet received any officially submitted plans. As I mentioned in several of my previous articles (linked to above), there were two residential developments/approvals plus a commercial component for the entire site. CA Ventures has purchased both residential sites. The planning department indicates that their discussions revealed the buyers intend to modify their design review approvals and make minor changes to the overall site plan. In the meantime, as indicated in the Bellingham Business Journal piece, the developers will continue work on portions of the approved design while going through a review process for the modifications.

Under the original approvals there were a total of 391 dwelling units. Under Campus Crest, 216 were slated just south of Fred Meyer with an entrance onto Lincoln and another 175 further south with an entrance on Maple St. near the carwash. The new developers may be submitting a modified plan that will create approximately 230 units for both sites, but without officially submitted plans there is no confirmation. Planning has informed the applicant that it will need to resubmit for amendments to the original design review approvals. After this material is submitted, the planners will be able to determine what public process (neighborhood meeting, public notices, etc.) may be needed.

Given the previous meetings with the public on this development, the city is well aware of the concerns expressed by the surrounding residents and neighborhood groups. It is somewhat encouraging that the new owners may actually build out a smaller overall project than previously considered. There does remain the question of the fate of the acreage known as University Ridge at the corner of Nevada and Consolidation. An attempt to build a dormitory-like complex there for 500-600 students was rejected by the neighborhood and eventually, and luckily, strangled by the Hearing Examiner. Also nearby is the nearly two acres on Ashley St. just to the east of the Lincoln St. parking lot. If rezoned to Commericial Planned (the City Council hearing is on Monday, 4 May), another mixed-use apartment/retail complex, albeit much smaller, could be built on that site. The problem is the cumulative effect of all these plans, and the ability of the public to understand and the city to react to the overall effect on the neighborhoods. 

[Note:  This article also appears on NWCitizen]

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Brief History of Bellingham's Rental Ordinance

This month's Whatcom Watch published my account of the events surrounding the development and passage of Bellingham's rental registration and inspection ordinance.  The article, entitled simply Rental Inspections in Bellingham, traces the ordinance from recognition of the problem of unsafe rentals, even as far back as the 1990s.  Click on the title (in blue) above to read the article.

Final consideration (third reading) of the ordinance will take place at tonight's (9 March) city council meeting at 7pm.  Earlier in the day (1:25pm)  the Committee of the Whole will discuss the measure with staff.  See the agenda bill here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dealing with Meth Contamination - A Race to the Bottom in Whatcom County

 [This article by me first appeared on 25  February 2014 on NWCitizen.]

Methamphetamine contamination of homes in Whatcom County is a serious problem that can affect all housing: private homes, rental units and motel rooms. One need go no further than the recent condemnation of the Aloha Motel which had severe meth contamination of many of its rooms, some of which were occupied by families with small children. Just one year ago a rental home on Myrtle St. was condemned as unfit for human habitation due to meth contamination. A short while ago I asked the Bellingham City Council to add inspection for meth contamination to the checklist for rental inspections that is being developed in conjunction with a rental registration program. Council demured.

With this as a background, the Whatcom County Health Department approached the Whatcom Health Advisory Board last May and June asking them to modify the county ordinance on meth contamination of illegal use sites (as opposed to meth manufacturing sites) such as hotel rooms and dwelling units. The Public Health Advisory Board agreed and the County Council is scheduled to consider these changes in a hearing on 3 March. (You can read the agenda bill from 10 February with the draft ordinance here.)

Presently, the mitigation of a contaminated site is the same regardless of whether the site was for manufacture or illicit use of meth; contamination levels are contamination levels in either case. Under current law, the supervision of a mandatory cleanup costs the Health Department about $1,000, and because the department supervises about 15-20 of these remediation efforts per year, they were feeling the fiscal pinch after losing grant money that previously covered the cost. As awareness of possible contamination rises, whether for manufacture or illicit use, the county is on the hook for managing an increasing number of cleanup sites.

The idea behind the new recommendations is to “decrease financial and enforcement barriers to self reporting and cleanup” of these illicit use units - which includes rentals. The changes would substitute “technical assistance” to property owners versus the mandatory cleanup regimen currently used for meth manufacturing. It is not clear how this substitution will encourage property owners to come forward.

The revised county ordinance would also increase permissible levels of meth contamination from .01mg/100 square centimeters to 1.5mg/100 square centimeters, although no level of contamination has been proven to be safe.  Those who have compromised health to begin with can indeed be at greater risk than the general public. [Note: This change in contamination levels is not optional for the county since it must conform to levels stated in the RCW.]

The landlord of the Myrtle St. rental refused to pay for testing of the home when the student tenants reported health problems.  (Read more on this here and here)  The students paid for the tests themselves and discovered a contamination level of 1.4 mg/100 square centimeters, well above the .01mg/100 square centimeters which was the minimum acceptable level at the time. By raising the minimal levels to 1.5mg/square centimeters as in the proposed ordinance, the Myrtle St. property would not be considered contaminated. Not surprisingly, further testing at Myrtle St. at the time by a contamination abatement contractor found levels at 4.2mg/100 square centimeters, well above even the expanded levels proposed to the County Council. Under the current changes, these extremely high levels would never have surfaced and the women would have been left to their own, limited devices.

So who loses under this proposed scenario? The tenants, the hotel room occupier, the purchaser of a home.  With contamination considered anything over 1.5mg/100 square centimeters, the property owner, landlord and hotel management get a pass. Nothing will cloud the property title with respect to meth use sites under the new regime. Furthermore, it all comes down to money: the county will save on abatement management costs and the landlord/home owner will save with more lenient clean up rules. The home purchaser, the tenant and hotel guest will take on more risk. This is a race to the bottom in health management.

Note to readers:  An agenda bill for the proposed 3 March hearing is now posted on the county council's website

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Rental Inspections - Start-Up Funded - Now Consider the Inspection Checklist

With the start-up funding for the rental registration and inspection program approved at the 26 January city council meeting, the council will soon take up one of the most important aspects of the new ordinance, the inspection checklist.  A draft checklist was provided by staff to the council at the last council meeting, however, there was little discussion at that time and council deferred consideration of the item until February.  You can find the proposed inspection list among the agenda items here.

The list appears fairly comprehensive, however, there are still several large issues to be decided by the council.  Those issues have to do with mold, lead paint and methamphetamine contamination.  The recent events surrounding the condemnation of the Aloha Motel for reasons having to do with meth contamination of most of its rooms have brought into question the very real possibility that many of our rentals are similarly contaminated without the knowledge of either the landlords or the tenants.

Just one year ago a rental home on E. Myrtle St. was shut down by the health department for meth contamination.  The three female student renters had been sickened by the meth vapors but pleas to the landlord for meth testing were rejected.  In desperation, the women contacted the county health department and paid for meth tests.  The tests came back positive, showing a meth contamination substantially beyond any tolerable amount.  The house was condemned until remediation could be carried out.  My fear is that a substantial number of our rentals in Bellingham are similarly contaminated and renters are sickened but do not know the reason.  They may be courting long term, negative and devastating health effects.

For that reason, I would like the council to add to the requirements for inspection under this ordinance that every three years the landlord present a meth inspection certificate indicating that the rental unit is free of contamination.  For apartment complexes, a percentage sample of units would suffice, however, for single family, duplexes, detached ADUs, etc., all units would have to be tested.  Testing requirements, such as number of rooms to be tested in a unit, must be worked out to ensure that the sampling is meaningful.  Coordination with the Whatcom County Health Department must be effected to ensure such a requirement placed on landlords is feasible through that agency or other means.

Mold is ubiquitous in this region but not all mold is a health hazard.  I understand that there is no testable danger level for mold (CDC source)  and that mold is a symptom of issues with other systems within a rental unit such as inadequate ventilation, poor heating, plumbing leaks, etc.  Mold may also particularly affect certain people who suffer from lung ailments such as asthma while others individuals are fine.  Once these deficiencies are found and corrected the mold can be cleaned up and further contamination stopped. However,  mold contamination can produce a serious hazard if it long time neglect leads to undermining the structural integrity of a rental unit.  In that case inspection of and repairs to joists, studs, wallboard, siding, etc., will be necessary.   

Lead toxicity is a problem mostly with respect to lead-based paint used in homes prior to 1978.  There is no testable limit for lead-based paint except to note that it is present (CDC Source).  Finding lead in the paint of rental units can serve as a notice to tenants to get their blood tested (the only way to test lead exposure) but this assumes that renters have adequate medical coverage.  At the minimum, the council should advocate that rental inspections of units build before 1978 occasion a warning to landlords and tenants about the dangers of lead-based paint and that any indication that paint in these units is flaking, notice of such imminent danger of contamination also be provided to the same parties.

For the first time in the years I have been advocating on the subject of rental inspections, I feel that the council and the city management are fully on board with producing an effective program to ensure the health and safety of tenants. I have spoken about the problems above to our new Planning Director, Rick Sepler and to our City Building Official, Jim Tinner.  Both are approaching these issues with diligence.  I expect that the council will be provided with the best information available in order to ensure the adoption of an inspection checklist that will protect our renters.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

City Council Takes Up Rental Registration Start-Up Funds

The Finance and Personnel Committee (Pinky Vargas Chair/ Michael Lilliquist; Daniel Hammill) will review the Planning Department's proposed start-up budget for the rental registration and inspection ordinance This is scheduled for 2:15 next Monday, 26 January at the committee meeting in council chambers. In the agenda packet is a draft ordinance with the financial changes and a proposed inspection checklist for information only as the list is still under development.  The start-up budget is reasonable and the monies provided will soon be offset by the  fees as more than 8,000 rental properties (with 14,000 units) are registered later this year. 

I have reviewed the checklist and it appears to be fairly comprehensive. It seems to be long but most of the space is taken up by explanatory notes that reference various building codes. I do note the absence of the categories of mold, methamphetamine and lead paint. This link will take you directly to the agenda item materials on the city's website.