Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Look at the Illegal Rooming House Issue as Presented to the City Council by the Landlords - Myths R Us

Three individuals spoke against action by the council on the landlord/tenant issue at the city council meeting on 8 October: Mr. Van Hudson, a representative of the Northwest Rental Owners Association; Mr. Aaron Lukoff, self-described as an attorney dealing in landlord issues; and Ms. Maggie Hanson, a landlord with 5 houses in Bellingham. I have synthesized some of the main points brought up during their comments to the council. Most of these issues have been discussed, in one form or another, in prior blog entries here, yet the myths continue. Unfortunately, many are perpetuated by the members of the city council.

Myth #1: The problem is student rentals.

The problem is illegal rooming houses, whoever the occupants are. The reality is that students comprise the largest number in a recognizable category. Group renters can also be young wage earners or low paid workers from the service sector. It is the large footprint of these rooming houses which produces the problem. Average single family homes simply do not have 5, 6, 7 or more adult occupants.

Myth #2: Complaints about rooming houses come from a vocal few.

Absence of complaints does not equal absence of complainants. In any event, I am hearing from homeowners all over the city, many of whom have given up on the complaint process as they realize that it goes nowhere. There seems to be some collective numbness amongst the homeowners who have been told all sorts of nonsense by city officials over the years. Surprisingly, the supposedly “unconstitutional” zoning law has now been declared “constitutional” by city officials (we heard it from the mayor during the city council meeting) but renamed “hard/impossible to enforce.” The home owners are now waking up as they find they are not alone.

Myth #3: We should go after the “bad apple” landlords who are few in number.

By all means, however, that will not solve the problem of illegal rooming houses which are omnipresent in the city. Not all of these illegal rooming houses are problems in the sense that they produce noise, litter, etc. They are problems in that they change the character of the neighborhood by their innately larger footprint (see Myth #1 above) and their distortion of the densities for single family neighborhoods. At one time, I had four illegal rooming houses on my street of 12 homes and I can say that the nature of the neighborhood was drastically affected by their mere existence regardless of the presence or lack of nefarious behaviors of the occupants.

Myth #4: We should use other city code violations to deal with the problem.

This is a corollary to Myth #3. The problem being illegal rooming houses, I hardly see the effectiveness in giving disorderly conduct, noise and litter citations to the renters as the solution. The illegal rooming house remains even though the renters, sufficiently chastised and fined, may be quieter and more circumspect in the future. The citations do nothing to reduce the excess number of individuals living in the house.

Myth #5: Enforcement of the code on illegal rooming houses is too difficult.

This is an interesting concept since real enforcement has never been attempted. At present, the enforcement falls on the police department, which, as the Chief of Police has pointed out (and rightly) has a lot of high priority police actions and not enough personnel and money to get it all done. If we change the primary objective from enforcing noise, litter, parking and drinking violations to the elimination of illegal rooming houses, the burden on law enforcement is reduced. It also allows us to use code enforcement personnel or inspectors who are not police officers and really do not need to be under the police department at all. However, I do believe it is incumbent on the Chief of Police, as well as the heads of all city departments, to work together to find creative solutions to the enforcement issue. The mayor should be the driving force behind this.

Myth #6: The single family zoning law is discriminatory, illegal, unconstitutional…

This is just not so, in spite of the pap that the citizens of this city have been fed for the last umpteen years. In a miraculous epiphany, the mayor made a pronouncement during the meeting by declaring the law to be constitutional. Many cities across the US have successfully defended their zoning laws in court, which, by the way, is the ONLY way a law can be declared discriminatory, illegal, unconstitutional… All else is pure speculation.

Myth #7: Illegal rooming houses exist because there is little low-cost housing.

Well, they got this one right, partly. They exist because the city has allowed them to come into being instead of enforcing the code. This certainly takes the pressure off serious movement toward creating low-cost housing. The city has treated its low density neighborhoods as de facto sponges, allowing them to absorb more and more residents to ease the housing crunch. This acts as a kind of a larger, stealth version of the accessory dwelling unit (ADU), another bad idea whose time should never have come. At some point, notably now, the resident homeowners realize the ploy and object to the surprise of nobody but the city executives, candidates for office and some council members. One commenter opined that we needed these rooming houses for our low income renters, such as the elderly and single mothers with children. I have yet to hear of any illegal rooming house with four or more retirees or single mothers.

Myth #8: The Campus Community Coalition (CCC) can solve the problem of group rentals.

As much as I believe the Coalition has provided an excellent educational venue, it cannot resolve the issue of illegal rooming houses in Bellingham. (For the record again, I am a member of the CCC.) Its efforts may attenuate some of the problems associated with drinking and other objectionable student behaviors, however, to look at this as a major means for dealing with housing is extremely problematic. Even the statistical measures of the CCC’s achievements can be called into question. I have spoken about these data with the director of the CCC on several occasions. The group relies on many statistics, made available primarily by the police department. These figures were never designed to provide statistical support to or confirmation of reaching the objectives of the CCC. For example, a reduction in the number of 911 calls for loud parties could indicate that there are fewer bacchanalia or that fewer neighbors chose to call in, knowing that the likelihood of enforcement is low due to higher priority calls. Without reliable, relevant numbers, you are swimming in a miasma of information.

Myth #9: Enforcement/licensing will increase the bureaucracy.

Perhaps. The degree depends on the manner in which you structure the response to enforcement of the code on illegal rooming houses. In 1980, there were only about 46,000 residents in Bellingham. Today we are over 70,000. Although we do not have to see a proportional growth in city government, it stands to reason that in some areas we must accept a larger municipal structure to deal with issues that were not present a quarter of a century ago.


Terry said...

Zonemaven said:

"At one time, I had four illegal rooming houses on my street of 12 homes and I can say that the nature of the neighborhood was drastically affected by their mere existence regardless of the presence or lack of nefarious behaviors of the occupants."

Just curious, how exactly does this work? Is there anything that can be changed - short of regulating them out of existence - to mitigate the problems?

You typically don't see families in rooming houses because generally, they have (meager but) sufficient resources to avoid them, plus low-income parents probably go to great lengths to avoid this type of housing.

A co-worker at one of my low-wage jobs did a little research and found several registered sex offenders living in a rooming house around the corner from our workplace.

As our economy transforms into one skewed toward low wages with constrained government resources, the housing needs of low-income childless adults will continue to increase.

Do NIMBYs have a solution other than NIMBY?

Terry said...

Zonemaven said:

"he citations do nothing to reduce the excess number of individuals living in the house."

Where exactly would you have "the excess number of individuals" live?

Anywhere but in illegal rooming houses? Whether or not they can afford it?

How to distinguish liberal NIMBYs from conservative NIMBYs:

Liberal NIMBYs regulate poor people out of their neighborhood and are happy to tax you to house poor people in Someone Else's Neighborhood.

Conservatives regulate poor people out of their neighborhood, won't tax you to house the poor elsewhere, and just shrug when you ask where poor people should live.