Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ward 5 Candidate Bornemann Replies. Candidate Geyer Missing-in-Action.

Mr. Bornemann wrote the following in response to my initial email in July 2007. Mr. Geyer has yet to respond.

Candidate Bornemann Comments 7/25

"I have asked the Mayor and City staff to bring back a landlord accountability ordinance that will address many of these issues. I was really hoping they would have it ready to bring before the council soon. I check this past week with Malcolm Oliver and Katherine Hanawell about the progress and was disappointed to hear it was progressing slower then I hoped. I told them that I want to see this before us as soon as possible. I will keep pushing to bring back this ordinance and this time get it put in place. As soon as Katherine gets an initial draft I want to get it sent to the planning commission for hearings and input from the citizens. We need to get better legislation and much better enforcement of zoning codes. I share your frustration in the lack of enforcement. I will work with the neighborhoods to provide the kind of protection that is needed. Houses zoned single family should be just that(,) not boarding houses. Terry"

To which I replied

I believe that the landlords (even of single family homes) should be licensed and inspected but I don’t want that issue to cloud the very basic problem we have here, zoning enforcement. The landlords have shown themselves to be organized opponents as you saw when they hijacked that meeting at the cruise terminal a while back. They will yell and scream and meanwhile the zoning enforcement issue will be ignored.

Is anyone contacting any of these other jurisdictions (Bloomington, IN; Allentown, PA; Lincoln, NE; Binghamton, NY; and Ann Arbor, MI) where they have already struggled with and won on these zoning issues? Are we re-inventing the wheel here when all we have to do is copy a winning strategy?

And on 7/27 his reply on other jurisdictions with effective zoning enforcement

"I will find out if those jurisdictions are included in the research that is being done. If there are not, I will ask that they be looked at. I know I have looked into Ann Arbors when we first tried to bring forward the Landlord Accountablity Ordinance. Terry"

And again on 8/27

"I agree that a simple landlord accountability ordinance will not solve all the problem(s) but hopefully what comes forward will also address the issues of enforceability and not just landlord accountability. I share your frustration with the inability to get the City to enforce the regulations on the books. I have been pushing for that as well and unfortunately have been unable to get the 4 votes necessary to move the administration to action. I have asked that the 3 unrelated rule be enforced and if it is challenged, so be it, we defend it. Unenforceability should be determined by the courts not a city attorney. I will bring the issue up at the next council meeting to get a response on the record about where the administration is on bringing a new ordinance forward that will address the issue being raised. I will see if I can get it on for the Planning Committee agenda if not, I will bring it forward on Old and New Business. Thank you for pushing us. With so many issues coming forward it is too easy to bring a(n) issue forward assume it is being worked on and move forward with other issue."

I am not hoping for anything as hope is an illusion. What matters is action. What “comes forward” depends on our pushing the issue. We cannot be diverted from the essential question which is the lack of enforcement of the Bellingham City Code regarding single family homes and the consequential turning of these homes into rooming houses. Landlord accountability at this time is a red herring. The root cause of the problem remains non-enforcement of existing code.

As you have recognized, Terry, other jurisdictions have been able to prevail in court with similar ordinances. (see such references on the right hand side of my blog) If we do not deal with the code issue, all else becomes moot, especially the hard work that neighborhoods are doing in updating their neighborhood plans. I sent the following to the Samish Neighborhood board with regard to its draft plan:

“I would like to encourage all the (Samish) board members to keep in mind that one of the major defining terms within this neighborhood plan, and indeed, every neighborhood plan is low density. This means single family zoned areas. Unfortunately, our city officials are unwilling to enforce the codes which prevent homeowners from converting single family homes (low density) into rooming houses (medium/high density depending on how many you can cram into a house). As a consequence, a good part of our planning and your hard work becomes a moot exercise where terms have little or no meaning except to present a nicely thought out plan that cannot be enforced.

I urge the SNA board to formally bring up this problem during discussions with the city. How does the Planning Department assure any sort of compliance with the plan when the terms are problematic and enforcement is not an option, save a perfunctory “investigation” which goes nowhere.”

I intend to push this issue very hard in this blog and in my communications with the candidates for mayor and the council up to and beyond the general election. I have sent messages to all the neighborhood associations and these organizations are beginning to react. Check out the Sehome Neighborhood newsgroup at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Sehome/ and read their stories.

Now if Mr. Geyer will send us his comments...

1 comment:

Bill Geyer said...

Thank you for your email regarding enforcement of the the "family" definition within Bellingham's single-family zones. I agree with your opinion that a violation of this code places a burden on the surrounding households that comply with our zoning laws. My opinion is that not only should this code provision be enforced, but also that it "shall be the duty of the Director to enforce the provisions of this ordinance" (please see Bellingham Municipal Code 20.50.010A). The current Bellingham code uses "shall", which leaves no room for non-enforcement. Although an enforcement action may touch off a public debate on the merits of this policy, perhaps it is time to have this debate so that enforcement occurs. For the reasons below, the current ordinance language should remain and enforcement should take place. Meanwhile, other steps should be taken to encourage additional student dormitories on campus and in nearby areas already zoned for multi-family uses.

How did this happen?
Conversions of single-family homes into rooming houses has occurred because owners can collect more gross rent from many tenants than can be collected from one tenant. Overcrowding results and unsafe conditions to the tenants, and surrounding home owners results. Preventing overcrowding was one primary reason zoning was confirmed by the US Supreme Court in 1926 (Euclid v. Ambler 272 U.S. 365).

Where did this come from?
Zoning definitions of "family" have evolved over the years with a primary focus on relations by blood or marriage with no occupancy limitations. However, limitations on the number of people not related by blood or marriage are typical. As different living arrangements have accelerated over the past 20 years, cities are struggling to keep a balance on their basic responsibility for safe neighborhoods without overcrowded conditions. Unfortunately the lines get blurred when market forces for student housing come into play. Our local market is healthy due to growth in the number of students and some property owners are exploiting this situation.

What should we do?
First, we need to uphold the current Bellingham law.

BMC 20.08.020 Definitions

D.11. Dwelling Unit: A single unit providing complete, independent living facilities for 1 family including permanent provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation.

F. 1. Family: One or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or not more than 3 unrelated persons, living together within a single dwelling unit. For purposes of this definition children with familial status within the meaning of Title 42 United States Code, Section 3602(k) and individuals with disabilities within the meaning of Title 42 United States Code, Section 3602(h) will not be counted as unrelated persons. "Adult family homes," as defined by RCW 70.128.175, 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.

BMC 20.30.030 Residential Single Development Permitted Uses
A. Uses Permitted Outright. No building or land shall be used within an area designated residential single, except as follows:
1. Single Family Dwelling Unit with less than 5,500 square feet of total floor area. (See Conditional Uses. Also see Section 20.30.050 H, for limitations on number of rooms in attached dwelling units.)

BMC 20.50.010 - Enforcement Officer

A. It shall be the duty of the Director (or authorized employee) to enforce the provisions of this ordinance, or any conditions properly imposed by the Hearing Examiner or Council related to the use of land, and see that any violations are remedied through proper legal channels.

As shown above, enforcement is required. It should be pursued at this time.

Second, the root cause is the lack of student housing on the WWU campus and the surrounding areas. The City should engage in constructive discussion with WWU to identify strategies to house the increasing number of students. WWU is a great institution of national and international prestige that will continue to attract the best and brightest students. I trust this will continue as WWU is a great cultural and economic benefit to the entire community. We should work towards meeting WWU's growth either on the WWU campus or in close proximity on WWU property or in adjacent multi-family zoned locations. Some opportunities for mixed-use urban villages along Samish come to mind.

Please contact me if you would like to discuss in greater detail.

Thank you,

Bill Geyer, candidate for
Bellingham City Council 5th Ward