Monday, August 13, 2007

Single Family Zoning is the Issue

The candidate for any city office who wants my vote will have to provide some concrete solutions to end this mess the City of Bellingham calls zoning. Someone has to get out in front of this issue for once and for all. Who will be the one to lead? All the candidates are speaking to the issue of growth but none is bringing up the subject of the lack of enforcement of the "single family" residential portion of the Bellingham Municipal Code. Everyone wants to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya. The problem cannot be solved as long as the city nibbles about the edges of the issue. By nibbling I mean treating the single family home matter as if it were a case of bad rental property owners, alcohol abuse, littering, public urination, parking, etc. These are all symptoms of a more basic problem regarding the approach to zoning enforcement in the city. We spend inordinate hours reviewing, rewording, revising and restructuring our neighborhood plans. Density issues remain a top subject among the citizens and the candidates. All of this becomes meaningless when the basic definition of what constitutes a single family (which is at the core of what constitutes a single family zoning area)purportedly remains elusive. Lack of enforcement has turned parts of this city, zoned single family, into rooming house districts.

I have heard countless times that the current code is unenforceable as it is somehow "unconstitutional." My suspicion is that this mantra of "unenforceability" has been repeated so many times that the assumption is that it is, indeed, valid. Would that someone prove me wrong. Yet, I found after only 5 minutes on the web that Bloomington, IN; Allentown, PA; Lincoln, NE; Binghamton, NY; and Ann Arbor, MI, to name a few, have prevailed in court appeals on their definition as to the makeup of a single family for zoning purposes. If I found these references after only 5 minutes on the Internet, would it be too difficult for candidates to determine if their solutions would be applicable to Bellingham?

Additionally, which candidates will ask that Western Washington University, Bellingham's 800 pound gorilla, step up to the plate in a much more substantial manner? The university just received $47 million dollars for renovation and expansion of their facilities. What role is the university intending to play in the housing of all the students they plan to attract to the expanded university of the future? Who is talking about that? What about the thousands of students each year who are forced by lack of dormitory space tofind affordable housing? Not being stupid, they make the economically viable choice, forming group houses. Unfortunately, however, that practice violates the municipal code. Landlords turn a blind eye as do our enforcers. Even if there were no violations of related codes (noise, litter, parking, etc.), the mere footprint of 5-10 people in a single-family home creates a substantiallydifferent footprint in a neighborhood where the norm is a familywith a few children. The efforts of the Campus Community Coalition are laudable and should continue as an educational process for the students, but to pretend that this will solve the problem of zoning and density within the city limits is to bury one's head in the sand.

Which candidates will stop wringing their collective hands over the issue of the city enforcing its own laws? If candidates are convinced that the current code is unenforceable, will they havethe courage to ask that the council remove it from the books so that city will not continue to play with the minds of the citizenry? If we then need something to replace the definition, which I assume must be done to preserve a basic description of "single family zoning", will candidates, once in office, compel the city's legal "experts" to do their homework and reach out to jurisdictions where zoning is a meaningful concept? This cannot remain in the too-hard-to-do column.


Larry Farr said...

Dick, thanks for the blog...every piece of information helps.

You state in your blog..."Everyone wants to sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya."

For the record... my voice would put out the fire, so I choose not to sing at all. People in church in front of me turn and look at me with this sickend look in appalled disbelief when I open my mouth to sing.... so I am not there....

Nor am I in the camp of not doing anything. I have stated repeatedly that I believe that elected officials should stand up for the rights of those who elect them and that opinion remains true... if we put laws and ordinances on the books then they must be upheld and enforced. To ignore them is not acceptable.

If elected, and even if not, I will continue to push the city staff into following the requirements and established ordinances. The zoning regulations need to be adhered to, and enforced in order to maintain our neighborhoods and you are correct, Single Family Zoning is the issue, one of many.

Anonymous said...

Good morning Dick
Your profile does not say how long you have lived in B'ham, where you came from, or if you knew when you moved into the Samish Neighborhood, that it was a college area. I think you would have found my house, in 1974, not to your likeing either.

Anonymous said...

I'm very glad to see the discussion of this topic elevated, as it is one of the most common complaints that I hear as a neighborhood rep, and one we've been at a loss to help resolve. I hope that the conversation here will be productive and non-inflammatory, because we need real progress on understanding the complexities.

A few items I would like to submit for comment:

1) There are two potentially distinct flavors (maybe more) of single-family housing being used for multiple unrelated residents. In one, an existing single-family house is rented by a group of people. The other, more troubling to me, is brand new single-family zoned "houses" that are clearly built with the intent of being used as multifamily (typically student) housing. The first kind is a use issue, but the second kind adds permitting issues. Neither seem easy to resolve, but I think the distinction is important to make when seeking resolutions, as different City departments will have oversight and input.

2) There are also two issues that I hear raised about single-family houses being used as multifamily housing. The biggest one is parking, as the photo on the home page of this blog demonstrates. Secondly, a very small minority of these houses are occupied by the few students create noise and safety concerns with large parties. These two issues also would seem to deserve separate conversations, as the resolutions for each may be very different.

3) A factor that is easy to overlook from the neighborhood perspective, but is a critical part of the conversation, is the question of where all the "excess" people in these houses will live if not where they are now? I haven't seen estimates, but I think most of us feel it's a large number of people. Many of them need to be near the school. If there were only a few hundred (and I wouldn't be surprised if it is many more), someone is going to get some large new developments in their neighborhoods, possibly at the cost of some of the historic single-family houses in the multifamily zones.

4) On the flip side of the same coin, this will leave a lot of single-family homes open for rent - who will live in them? Are there enough people waiting for a $1000 - $1500/mo rental home to fill these houses?

The elephant in the room is that the current use reflects the housing needs of our population. When we talk about moving a large number of people from one zone to another, we will need additional multifamily capacity, and will have some single family vacuum.

I raise this point not to suggest that nothing should be done, but to recognize some of the complexities to the issue that we will have to address to resolve it. We can't simply say "that's not our problem, just enforce the laws." Well, we can, but without everyone pulling together on all fronts, it makes it that much less likely that we will find a solution.

Anonymous said...

Don't fault the kids. Blame the landlords. Bellingham has over 50% rentals....that makes the market quite competitive. Most of the people that has or will comment on this blog probably at one time in their lives has rented a room in a single family home - be it for college or just having a place to stay once you left your parents home. If it was OK then why is it not now? If it was OK for you why not for the current bunch of young adults?

Look, we live in a college town. This kind of thing has been around since before you were even here - be it born here or moved here. It is a by-product of the scolastic envionrment. Remember a lot of students and some young adults cannot afford their own place and need to rent a room to live. Are you suggesting they sleep in the woods? The best thing you can do is talk to the kids and get them to mellow out after hours. Remember they will be the ones runnig the country when they are older and you a just old. Hopefully they will be more simpathetic to the plight of the young than you are.