Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sound of Silence - The City Speaks

“And no one dared…
Disturb the sound of silence”

It is the end of 2008 and time to take stock of the “progress” on the issue of illegal rooming houses in Bellingham. The refrain from the Simon and Garfunkel song above seems to bring it all together.

It has been over a year now, more precisely October 2007, since Council Member Terry Bornemann asked for (See my blog entry on that action here) and the council subsequently voted for a “pilot program” to enforce the Bellingham Municipal Code with respect to illegal rooming houses. The sole city official who seems to have actually done anything on the subject is our Chief of Police, Todd Ramsay, who set up the program of enforcement which now falls under him, or, more precisely, the Neighborhood Compliance Officer. (Click here to read about that) The only problem is that, with the exception of its exposure on my blog, the process is virtually unknown. The Planning Department website, where the program used to lie, much like a wet towel on the locker room floor, has posted nothing to indicate that the Police Department is now the action agency. Perhaps, Tim Stewart will read this and take appropriate action to have his web pages reflect the change.

As for the City Council, the subject of illegal rooming houses was last discussed in early August when Council Member Jack Weiss proposed that which I call the Six Legged Stool for dealing with the issue. (Click here to read my blog on that meeting) The task of working on the six topical areas was given to Mark Gardener, the new Legislative Policy Analyst from whom the public has heard nothing, probably because the council has not resurrected the subject in 5 months in spite of my continuing comments on Jack Weiss' proposals in this blog (click here, here, here, here, here and here to read about each one).

I wrote Mayor Pike in September (Click here to read my letter) asking him to fulfill his campaign promise to enforce the code and to step out in front of the issue. His disappointing reply to me (click here to read this reply) outlined those actions everyone else was taking on the matter, thus missing my point completely. His preferred method of leading on the subject of illegal rooming houses looks as if to be from the rear, leaving the council as the point so that they can trigger the booby traps. In the words of the inimitable Moe Howard (of Larry, Curly and Moe fame), “I’ll lead the way. Go ahead!” Instead the city leadership whirls around like so many dreidels (I would have said “tops” or “Dervishes” but it is Hanukkah.) on the waterfront, which is going nowhere fast since we are headed with much greater rapidity for a depression (That’s right, you read it here first.). Then nobody will have any money to do anything except for the Terraquarium (read about that here) which might eventually have to serve as alternative affordable lodging (a true housing bubble!).

With the virtual silence of the city government, briefly I turned toward the beacon on the Hill at Sehome, Western Washington University, thinking that, perhaps, the new president, Dr. “Call me Bruce” Shepard might meet with me in the spirit of openness which he projected on his arrival. My September letter to him (Click here to read it) outlined several areas tangential to illegal rooming houses and of interest to the university. Seeing him, in fact, proved to be more difficult than expected as I was contacted by an individual in the university’s chain of command about five links down, who had been given the task to respond to me. I managed finally to clamber up the chain, eventually to meet with the Vice President for Student Affairs and Academic Support who graciously spent an hour with me chatting about my letter to Dr. Shepard. I will report on that encounter separately, however, I can characterize the meeting as “a frank exchange of views” which, in diplomatic-speak means we did not agree on much but left open some areas of discussion.

If we want to go back even further than this past year for silence on the subject, there is the abortive love-in at the Cruise Terminal four years ago when we were promised action on a landlord licensing law with the Council President proclaiming to the assembled group "We have heard you tonight!" Unfortunately, the night had largely been taken over by the horde of landlords who, we found to our shock and awe, were only mouthing the words to the chorus of Kumbaya. (Read here for a bit of history on the promises made and then forgotten.)

So, here we are in December and nothing is happening. In the words of the great philosopher W. T. Pooh, who knew when things were at a standstill…

“The more it snows

Tiddly Pom

The more it goes

Tiddly Pom

The more it goes

Tiddly Pom

On Snowing

And nobody knows

Tiddly Pom

How cold my toes

Tiddly Pom

How cold my toes

Tiddly Pom

Are growing”

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Crap Shoot Zoning – Predictability Loses Out and So Do You

When talking about the subject of illegal rooming houses the other day with a Bellingham resident, the matter of predictability arose. When we zone particular areas for a particular purpose, the objective is to separate incompatible uses. One would be shocked to find someone trying to build a gas station at the end of a residential cul-de-sac or for that matter to build a home in the middle of an industrial park. One might also think about the effect of such incompatibilities on the values of the properties.

When it comes then to illegal rooming houses, somehow the incompatibility issue is forgotten or brushed off for the sake of convenience or perhaps the dollar – pick which. The result is that your street can be partially rezoned without the slightest warning and without consultation. There is no predictability here. All depends on the whim of a homeowner or a landlord or a property manager who decides that she wants now to rent the place legally, according to the Bellingham Municipal Code or illegally, turning the home into a rooming house.

Several months ago I read an article on the subject of the art of selling a home in today’s market. The essence of the piece was that a real estate agent must now be much more familiar with the neighborhood, even the street, on which the sale home is located in order to present the home in its best light. Moreover, the agent must also know about those facts which may cause problems with a sale, such as rentals, especially those which do not conform to code.

Were I to have a need to sell my home now, what sight would greet a prospective agent and a potential buyer? Since a good number of people tend to look for homes on weekends and a good number of real estate agents tend to hold open houses on weekends, the picture would be a bit off-putting. A typical Sunday across from my house, the illegal rooming house would be the host of 8-10 automobiles instead of the normal 5 during the week which belong to the 5 students who now rent there. The cars would be parked helter-skelter, according to the relative sobriety of the drivers who parked them the night before. Down the street would be the same sight at another rooming house with assorted trucks, cars and SUVs.

Houses are being sold at a rate greatly reduced from that of the past several years. Your home may be a gem among the others but the condition and use of the homes around you count. Now is the time to take action. Click on the form at the right and complain at this very instant about that illegal rooming house on your street. (Send the completed form to Darren Sandstrom, Neighborhood Compliance Officer, Bellingham Police Department, 505 Grand Avenue, Bellingham, WA 98225) It is your neighborhood. Do not let the scofflaws gain control.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Business as Usual - A Fellow Blogger Speaks

From time to time the Zonemaven runs across writings on the subject of illegal rooming houses and rentals in general that are especially well written, to the point and worthy of repeating. Dennis Duross of Lexington, Kentucky has a blog similar to Twilight Zoning in Bellingham. Here is his latest post, entitled “Business as Usual”, quoted in its entirety.

"If you’re a public official in Lexington, the real issue, should the discussion ever turn (don’t worry—it rarely does) to the topic of what to do about rental properties in town, is health and safety.

All the rest of it—the complaints about noise, trash, over-crowding, traffic, zoning and enforcement, the slow physical decline of the housing stock in an area of town that logically ought to be among the strongest in town, the lack of affordable housing for those of modest income, the unGodly sums local landlords extract from their tenants each month, the unfair advantage that LLC’s enjoy in terms of their ability to outbid potential homeowners for properties as they come on the market, the illegal conversion of these properties to lodging houses, the resulting dwindling number of single-family houses (1) in the affected areas, and the intrusion of business into low-density residential neighborhoods—is by comparison small potatoes.

But health and safety? That ought to be keeping people up at night, because God forbid it should ever happen here, but the internet is full of stories about rat traps and hell holes masquerading as rooming houses, boarding houses, lodging houses, apartment houses—call them what you want—burning to the ground and taking some poor unfortunate along for the ride.

And all too often, that’s when the teachable moment arrives. Only after such a tragedy shakes public officials from whatever stupor it is that immobilizes them, that insulates them, that locks their common sense tight in a box and keeps it from intruding on the business of the day, do they see what needs to be done and act accordingly. Apparently it’s human nature. (2)

We’ve been lucky to have avoided this type of tragedy in Lexington, but make no mistake about it—it’s nothing more than dumb luck standing between where we are now and where we hope to never be. For years and years, we’ve debated about what has come to be called the student housing problem, more properly called the illegal lodging house problem, and we’ve come up empty. No concrete action. And in the absence of meaningful change, the problem has gotten worse. Entropy has a way of doing that, especially when it’s fueled by greed.

So our fallback position is to keep our fingers crossed that nothing terrible happens in one (or more) of our city’s countless uninspected rental properties, because at the moment, that’s about all we can muster the courage to do—hope nothing goes wrong. We’re getting by on a wing and a prayer.

And speaking of wings, consider the following—the Lexington Fayette County Health Department conducts restaurant inspections every 6 months. Inspections that yes, represent a burden on local businesspeople. Inspections that yes, sometimes force restaurants to close and remedy the problems noted onsite. But inspections that protect the health and safety of the population. Inspections that inform the public about an establishment’s conditions, and that are posted both in the newspaper and in the restaurants themselves. Inspections that we all take for granted as necessary and valuable.Does anyone doubt that absent these inspections, public health would be adversely affected? Would anyone in their right mind propose putting an end to them simply because they rub the business community the wrong way?

I would argue that local landlords should be held to standards comparable to those that we expect of the local pancake house. I would argue that this is a matter of public health and safety—just as making sure there isn’t rat poop in the walk-in cooler, or that cross-contamination hasn’t turned the kitchen into a biohazard are matters of public health and safety.

I would argue that if the Health Department can do it, so can Building Inspection. That if local restauranteurs can bear the burden of twice-yearly inspections, so can local landlords bear the burden of once-yearly inspections. That if dinner patrons can bear the cost that is surely passed on to them, so can (and must) those who live in rental properties bear the modest increase in rent (3) that would doubtless be passed on to them.

Take a look at the long list (in the sidebar) [Zonemaven has posted the same list on the side bar of this blog - at left] of cities all across the country that have established rental licensing and inspection programs. Normal, everyday places both big and small that have made a commitment to public safety ahead of us. Places where the concerns of the business community regarding unfettered profit and zero oversight have been put in their proper place—second to public health and safety.

There’s no excuse for ignoring this modest and common sense level of safety.

1. God I hate that term.
2. I blame Robert’s Rules of Order and public comment equally, but that’s just me.
3. Rental licensing fees typically cost a landlord between four and eight dollars per month per unit. Don’t let them tell you otherwise."

Well said, Dennis. Bellingham, are you listening?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Homeowners To Be Hammered by Infill Tool Kit

As expected, the “infill toolkit” has reared its unattractive head again in the form of an article in the Herald (click here to read the article) by Jared Paben, who seemed to find all sorts of folks to talk to for the article (the mayor, council members, builders) except single family homeowners. The Zonemaven has already cautioned his readers on the pitfalls awaiting the neighborhood residents who might foolishly allow these benign-sounding "tools" where they live. (Click here, here and here to read some previous blog entries on the subject.) So let us look at the comments from these folks who would have you believe that they have only your best interests at heart.

The Mayor: “ ‘I think well-designed infill adds positive value to a neighborhood over time,’ he said. But no matter how good the housing types, if the city were to force them on a neighborhood there would be a huge pushback, he said.” Such a statement deserves some explanation, some backup, some proof but, no, it just lies there, like verbal road-kill, for the public to accept at face value. Speaking of value, just what is that value about which the Mayor is speaking? Perhaps if the Mayor explained that value, the “pushback” might be replaced by welcome banners and a band. When the citizens do push back, they get responses from the Mayor such as I received several weeks ago. Click here to read that blog entry and click here to read my letter to the Mayor which prompted his reply.

Planning Director Stewart: “The mayor's comments came after city planning Director Tim Stewart told the Planning Commission in September he would recommend against automatically allowing toolkit homes in single-family areas.” This is probably the only sensible comment coming from the city government on the “tool kit”, however, such talk disturbs (guess who?) ….. the developers!

Mr. Developer: “Developer Ted Mischaikov … said that the toolkit items, which were drafted after a series of public Planning Academy meetings, are intended to be sensitive to the character and enhance value of single-family areas.” Bellingham Herald reader “fl!pbreskin” caught this one right away with her astute comment on the Herald article: “Two things: 1. The Toolkit may have been ‘drafted after a series of public Planning Academy meetings’ but was not locally generated as implied by that statement. Instead, it appears to have been adopted directly from a Washington Association Of Realtors submission (as stated on the front cover of the Toolkit). 2. State of Washington regulations specifically require (not suggest) the preservation of single family neighborhoods as such.” Thank you, Fl!p. Mr. Mischaikov also stated, “ ‘It's tough for me to see that this toolkit can't be more approachable and applicable in existing neighborhoods,’ he said.” Sure. Right in Edgemoor, land of rentals, where he lives.

Council Member Barbara Ryan: “Some neighborhoods have large lots that could accommodate the so-called "infill toolkit" homes but residents don't want infill, said council member Barbara Ryan, an Edgemoor resident” You betcha! The Mayor would have a hard sell with the “tool kit” in Edgemoor where there is space aplenty… and some great views. But then again, Mr. Mischaikov would welcome such infill, no?

Council Member Stan Snapp: “ ‘If I were a developer or I were a homeowner and wanted to put a carriage house in the back of my house ... I wouldn't want to wait 11 months to even apply for it,’ said council member Stan Snapp, a Silver Beach neighborhood resident.” Some aphorisms come to mind. Haste makes waste. A moment on the lips, forever on the hips. Act in haste, repent at leisure. Once one of those tool kit “items” lands next door to you, it is, for all practical purposes, permanent as will be the problems that stem therefrom.

Council Member Jack Weiss: “Council member Jack Weiss, a Birchwood resident, said a process of allowing them in single-family areas has to balance addressing neighborhood concerns with ensuring the process isn't onerous for landowners.” So here we have a one-time process that should not be onerous but whose result can have virtually permanent effects. Not the balance the Zonemaven would be looking for.

The Zonemaven might be more accepting of the “tool kit” items, if not for the poor record of enforcement of the zoning codes which resulted in the uncontrolled infill we already know about in the form of illegal rooming houses. Once these ADUs, and carriage houses are allowed in an area, the push for their proliferation will overwhelm the city’s ability to control it in spite of our city managers’ protests to the contrary. The dollars (cha-ching!) will drive the infill train and without adequate enforcement, live-in homeowners will eventually bow to those dollars (cha-ching!), move into the ADU or carriage house and rent the “big house” (cha-ching!) to a gaggle in violation of the city code on single family rentals. You can take that to the bank. (cha-ching! cha-ching! cha-ching!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Got Illegal Rooming Houses? Appeal Your Assessment.

In September, 2007, I wrote about illegal rooming houses and the effect they have on the value of your home in my blog entry entitled “Are Rooming Houses Lowering Your Property Values?” (Click here to read that entry.) Today's blog entry is a call for action.

For those readers who live within the city limits of Bellingham and just received their real estate valuation notices (click here to read the Herald article), you can appeal the phenomenal increases if your street is plagued with illegal rooming houses. Even one illegal rooming house next door or across the street affects your home’s value. Earlier this year, a Samish Neighborhood couple heeded my advice and had their home’s assessment decreased by more than $20,000 based on the proliferation of illegal rooming houses on their street. These illegal rentals effectively turn your neighborhood into rooming house districts which are, in effect, multi-family, high density housing. If you wish to sell your home, the presence of these illegal rentals devalues your property and makes it more difficult to sell.

It is time to take this de facto rezoning home to the city management (which shares in the Whatcom property tax collection) and to tell them that there is a cost to ignoring illegal and uncontrolled infill. You can get your valuation appeal form by clicking here. To read more about the appeal process, click here. Ask your neighbors to join you in the appeal process. All of you must file separate appeals but the basis, illegal rooming house-ification, will be common to each appeal.

I would like to hear your appeal stories. Send me an email at zonemaven AT hotmail DOT com. (Replace AT and DOT with the appropriate symbols.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Opportunity Knocks - Mayor Pike's Answer Lacking

Two months after my letter (click here to read my missive) to Mayor Pike on illegal rooming houses and his campaign statements on the subject, I received the disappointing response you can read by clicking on the image at left. I suggested bold action and leadership on Mayor Pike’s part but found little of either in his largely bureaucratic response.

The Mayor states that he has been working more closely with his staff and counsel to more fully understand the issue but then states that “this is not simply a matter of counting people in their homes” and that “Problems typically arise around over-parking, litter and noise.” Unfortunately, illegal rooming houses remain a problem precisely because the Mayor and his staff continue to misapprehend the issues. Illegal rooming houses represent uncontrolled infill, which the Mayor has not acknowledged, thus undermining his statements that he is committed to the quality and character of our neighborhoods. Rooming houses, born of greed and scofflaw attitudes, are the equivalent of multi-family housing and therefore are incompatible with single family neighborhoods. Focusing on litter, noise and parking, although important aspects of quality of life in our city, does not address one whit this unregulated and illegal infill and belies our city government’s concern over controlling infill of other kinds produced by zoning changes, urban villages, infill tool kits, etc.

Were it not for Terry Bornemann, who asked for a pilot project over a year ago to enforce the zoning code on single family rentals, there likely would have been no action on code enforcement. No such initiative sprung from City Hall which merely reacted to a push from the City Council. Yet again this summer, Jack Weiss asked for a six part approach to the issue of illegal rooming houses (click here, here, here, here, here, here and here to refresh your memory on his suggestions). Again, the city management found itself in a mode of reacting to Council and, after nearly 4 months, has still not returned to Council with its ideas on implementation. The creation of a Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team, if approved, may address with greater vigor some of the nuisances about which the Mayor spoke (litter, noise, parking, etc.). The team as described in the 2009 budget (click here to read the proposal – see page nine) does not appear to be one which would engage illegal infill by rooming house.

As for landlord licensing, the Mayor merely states that the City Council’s Legislative Policy Analyst has been researching options. Again, this stems not from any initiative from City Hall but from Council Member Jack Weiss. My letter asked for some leadership from the Mayor on this and illegal rooming houses but this was lacking in the Mayor’s response. What does the Mayor want with regard to landlord licensing? We hear many statements regarding the development of waterfront where nobody lives but we have little notion of the Mayor’s thinking on landlord licensing which deeply affects our neighborhoods. Maybe it is time for some benign neglect with respect to the waterfront and a more intense focus on the issues which affect the daily lives of our citizens. Tear down the ugly structures, plant grass and revisit the waterfront in 5 or 10 years.

To his credit, our Police Chief, Todd Ramsay, moved quickly to establish the position of Neighborhood Enforcement Officer, which was the card dealt to him by the City Council members, who, instead of approving a full time Code Enforcement Officer, decided to opt for the cheap fix of adding duties to the position of Litter Control Officer even though a modest licensing program with fees for landlords of the 15,000 (plus) rentals would have provided more than enough money to fund a full-time position. Bellingham’s population has doubled over the decades but the city believes it can still operate with only one Code Enforcement Officer. Similar towns across the nation have 3-5 employees doing code enforcement.

As for my suggestion to the Mayor that he “notify a heretofore unconcerned Western Washington University that our city is not a de facto sponge created to soak up their student renters each year…” there was no response. Jack Weiss has urged a dialogue with WWU as part of his proposals tangential to illegal rooming houses but we have little idea of the Mayor’s take on the initiative. If our Mayor has been talking to the new university management on this subject, I have found nothing communicated to the citizenry. My letter would have been an opportunity for the Mayor to tell us about his talks with WWU. The new university president, regrettably, has his eyes focused on the waterfront and, blinded by the glare of Bellingham Bay, has yet to answer my 17 September letter to him (click here to read that missive).

It is disheartening to see that the Mayor missed an opportunity to place himself in front of an issue having to do with maintaining the quality of our neighborhoods. My counsel to the Mayor is that, the next time he gazes at that desolate waterfront, he turn around and look at the neighborhoods and think about the folks living there.

Additions to Twilight Zoning Blog

The Zonemaven has added two features to the Twilight Zoning blog. At the left of the blog entries, along with links to other blogs and links to various sites about illegal rooming houses, there is now a list of cities (with links) that have landlord licensing. (The list is courtesy of Dennis Duross of Lexington, KY whose Pigs in the Parlor blog is championing the rights of homeowners in that university town.) Click on the city name to go to the relevant web sites on the list. Our city council and city attorney ought to be reviewing such sites which may serve as models for a Bellingham landlord licensing program. Just below this list of cities, Zonemaven readers will find some links to sites related to rental safety issues. Again, our city council would do well to see what is available to protect the health and safety of renters, many of whom are inexperienced students and young workers, who are renting for the first time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

WWU Reneges in Part on Rental Advertising

While out of town the past several weeks, I received this message from Mr James Schuster, the Director of Viking Union Facilities.

-----Original Message-----
From: Jim Schuster []
Sent: Monday, October 20, 2008 3:55 PM
To: richard conoboy; Daniel Larner
Subject: FW: "3-unrelated" ads

We have decided to continue posting ads for multiple bedroom housing. We wish to continue to meet the needs of those families requiring more than three bedrooms. We will also post, both on the bulletin board and on-line, reference to the "Rule of Three" zoning ordinance and that renters should be aware of their liability under the ordinance.


James H. Schuster

Director of Viking Union Facilities

My readers may remember my post of 29 September entitled WWU Action on Rental Advertising (click here to read that entry) where I explained that the responsible official, Mr. Schuster, told me that the university would eliminate advertising of illegal rooming houses. The message above announces an effective reversal of that decision.

I am curious about those families described as having a continuing need for more than three bedrooms. Just who are these families? Perhaps there are some faculty members who might want to seek such housing, however, I have searched the WWU website for mention of the availability of the housing referral list to faculty and have found no indicators to faculty, save at the the entry to the housing list through the Viking Union portal. Were I a faculty member, I would probably not seek out a housing referral site listed by the Student Union and established primarily for students when there exists an abundant number of rentals that can be found through reputable real estate agents and the Multiple Listing Service.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Schuster did make good on his commitment to post warnings on the Viking Union bulletin board (click on the photos at left) and the on-line housing referral site at the Viking Union web page. (click here to see that admonition to student renters). Homes with more than three bedrooms are now to be hidden under the general rubric of larger family homes. (click on the image at right) Unfortunately, the portion of the site at which the landlords post their on-line listings, there is no such admonition regarding illegal rooming houses although it does warn that the landlord be aware of local laws regarding discrimination. The university should make the local law clear to landlords as well. Notably, WWU is keeping its legal distance from the housing rental referral list by disavowing responsibility for the reliability of the information, for the condition of the housing or for contractual agreements. (Click on photo below to read this disclaimer) Perhaps the uncontrolled, unregulated and unlicensed rental market in Bellingham has given them pause – as well it should.

The practical effect of WWU’s retreat on this issue remains to be seen as this is not the high rental season and the number of actual rental offers posted on the Viking Union bulletin board and on its web pages is negligible. My sense is that the students, as well as the landlords, will continue business as usual, although I remain open to being surprised.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Editorializing - Western Front Style

The Western Front Editorial Board was also busy on the subject of illegal rooming houses. Their editorial entitled Western Housing Crisis Hits the Streets, hit the WWU "newstands" on October 6th. You can read the editorial in its entirety by clicking here.

Here is my response to their editorial which I found long on opnion and short on facts.

Unfortunately, any crisis in housing of students is one of poor planning and neglect on the part of WWU and the City of Bellingham. WWU has not built a new dormitory in decades while the city has poorly addressed the problem of affordable housing.

Students may want to ask the university administration the reason for which so much time, effort and money are being spent to gain a foothold at the waterfront while student housing takes a place down the priority list. Instead, the university is complicit in an atmosphere of neglect which dumps students into a rental market which is not controlled, while asking the residents of our neighborhoods to absorb thousands of students in an unplanned and unregulated infill. The city, for its part, neglects to enforce its own zoning codes. Single family, live-in homeowners are now complaining about this infill and, perversely, are being labeled the “bad guys” because they want the law enforced.

As for the legality of the ordinance, the Editorial Board may want to back up its assertions with some facts. Ordinances such as we have in Bellingham have been upheld across the country by various state supreme courts. As early as 1974, the US Supreme Court in Belle Terre vs Boraas has upheld such zoning laws. The majority decision in this case was written by Justice William O. Douglas, champion of individual liberties. On my blog at I have provided links to other such court cases and I invite the editorial board to review those. Even Bellingham’s City Attorney has done research on this topic and found that our ordinance is compliant and reported that information to the City Council and the Mayor earlier this year.

Nonetheless, the Editorial Board states, “Not to mention, this ordinance is illegal. According to an article in The Western Front from spring 2008, if the law doesn’t discriminate against everyone, it can’t discriminate against anyone.” To be honest, I have no idea what this statement means. Furthermore, I caution the board about citing as a basis for argument an assertion made in its own newspaper by an uninformed writer.

The board also states that Washington State passed RCW 49.60.030 in the summer of 2007 which states people cannot be discriminated due to race, creed, color, national origin and many other factors, according to the Washington State Legislature Web site.” This notion was surfaced by one local attorney who provided his opinion on the matter. Since the Bellingham ordinance contains no mention of race, creed, color, or national origin, I am at a loss to understand its applicability. In any case, only a court can decide the issue.

As for the effect of thousands of students on the rental economy, the Editorial Board is correct. There is a distortion of the market that takes place when groups of individuals can pool their money to afford a rental which is out of the reach of a single family. This summer, a family was essentially forced out of a rental on my street when the landlord raised the rent to $2,200 per month, an amount unaffordable by the couple and their son. Inevitably, five students rented the home at $440 each.

Finally, the board states, “Students need to do their parts to be respectful of their property and neighbors. Students living in houses need to recognize their neighbors could be permanent Bellingham residents. Give them the respect you want in return; turn the music down, park correctly and pick up after yourself.” This is common sense advice but does not deal with the zoning issue which is one of density and infill.

Western Front on Advertising for Illegal Rooming Houses

The Western Front published an article on October 6th regarding the placement of advertising for single family home rental whose contents contravene Bellingham’s Municipal Code. You can read the entire article on the Front’s website by clicking here. As it contained numerous inaccuracies, I responded immediately in a comment to that article directly on the website of the Western Front.

My readers will remember I spoke to this issue earlier in my blog. You can refresh your memory of those comments by clicking here.

Zonemaven comments to the Western Front:

I am responding to the article … entitled “Housing ad censored.” Below I have quoted the relevant portions of the article by Mr. Cortes after which I have provided my comments.

“The Viking Union (VU) will no longer allow people to put up ads that do not comply with Bellingham’s three-person housing rule. The rule, which states no more than three unrelated people can occupy a single-family home, isn’t taken seriously and is seldom enforced, said Karen Walker, assistant director of housing.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Walker is correct in that the law has not been taken seriously. However, under a mandate from the City Council, enforcement of this portion of the Bellingham Municipal Code has now been placed directly under the Bellingham Police Department. The Neighborhood Compliance Officer is now authorized to respond to complaints of illegal rooming houses. The Planning Office is no longer involved in the process.

“The Bellingham code was brought to the attention of the director of VU facilities, Jim Schuster, by a blogger who gave him zzinformation (sic) about the three-person rule in Bellingham, Shuster said.”

Exactly. I have written several blog entries on this subject and have also written to the responsible officers of the Viking Union. You can read the blog entries at

“Schuster said he decided to wait and see what the Bellingham City Council was going to do about the code because there was talk among council members about it being changed. After the blogger again contacted Schuster to let him know the city council decided not to change the code he decided to take down ads that didn’t comply with the rule and put up disclaimers with information about the three-person rule.”

This summer, the council considered changing the code to allow 4 unrelated persons to rent a single family residence. This motion was withdrawn and the council agreed to consider a range of options to deal with the issue of illegal rooming houses. See my blog entry at: for more information on a proposal from Council Member Jack Weiss.

“Western is not going to fix the problem,” Schuster said. “It’s the city’s job to do that.” At the moment, the VU is waiting to get more information about the code and how the Bellingham City Council will handle it, Schuster said.”

Mr. Schuster is correct. It is the city’s ordinance. However, that does not exculpate WWU for its contribution to the problem.

“Problems arise when homes in generally quiet neighborhoods experience excessive noise due to houses containing more than three unrelated people, Lindsey Kershner from the Bellingham planning department said. Neighbors who get annoyed sometimes enforce the rule by calling the authorities, Walker said.”

This is a substantial misapprehension of the problem by Ms. Kershner and exemplifies the reason for which the city has dealt so poorly with the issue. There are two separate issues. One is zoning and density which is controlled by our codes and does not permit illegal rooming houses. The other issue is that of nuisances which are covered by other laws having to do with parking, underage drinking, noise, littering, public urination, etc. The nuisances can emanate from any dwelling regardless of the number of persons. The limitation on the number of persons prevents single family neighborhoods from becoming high density areas.

“ ‘The VU has banned ads that don’t follow the three person rule in an effort to stop the problem, but people will still find a way to fit more people in a single-family home because it makes rent affordable”, Western senior Brandon Love said. ‘I know people that live in a house with five other guys and rent is $300,’ Love said. ‘They can’t afford anything more than that.’ Bellingham has Western and Whatcom Community College students who need homes to live in, Western senior Troy Terry said. Like most college students around the country, money is tight and they are willing to do anything in order to save some money–even share a two-bedroom house with four people, he said. “I think that what the VU is doing is OK because they are just trying to enforce the law,” Terry said. ‘But I’m sure that no matter how many ads the VU turns down, the problem will still be there.’ ”

The VU cannot prevent the problem but it can stop adding to the problem by posting ads whose contents contravene the law. I understand and sympathize with students who cannot afford lodging, however, this is a crisis of affordable housing which has been poorly addressed by the city and which has been ignored by the university in spite of tremendous growth in the student population over the last few decades. Instead the city, which has not enforced its owned codes, has allowed illegal rooming houses to soak up the excess in single family neighborhoods. Now the single family, live-in homeowners are complaining and, perversely, have become the bad guys.

“Students are always trying to find ways to cut costs, such as carpooling, biking, splitting meals and sharing rooms, Terry said. If the three person rule was heavily enforced many college kids would be in difficult situations, he said.”

Students ought to be protesting the raw deal they get by having to crowd together in living arrangements which are controlled by nobody but the market. The fact is that this individual home rental market is totally uncontrolled, unlicensed and unregulated which places renters at risk with respect to health and safety. There are no inspections of these dwellings where overcrowding and lack of safety devices, emergency exits and suitable heating and plumping cannot be addressed.

“Love said there’s more than one place to put up ads, and if the VU won’t let students put up ads then they will go to other places, like supermarkets or gas stations. Schuster said a notice was posted in late September warning that ads breaking the rule would be taken down and that VU off-campus housing registry Web site would feature a notice saying the same.”

The point is that the university should be correct in that which it presents to its students. While ads placed outside the university are beyond the control of WWU, the institution’s role should be instructive in promoting the rule of law and the common weal.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Town/Gown Talks - Time for the City Council to Act

At the August 4th meeting of the City Council, the members voted to take comprehensive action on illegal rooming houses and related issues. Jack Weiss identified these issues as:

-Decriminalization of parts of the Bellingham City code to ease enforcement.
-Landlord licensing.
-Changing, in some manner, the definition of family.
-Enhancing enforcement of code violations (upgrade of Litter Control Officer position).
-Upgrading the nuisance ordinances.
-Beginning a dialogue with the new WWU administration under its new president.

I have spoken to the first 5 of these issues (of this six-legged stool) in previous blog entries. (You can read those by clicking here, here, here, here and here.) The sixth item relates to the relationship between the city and the university. Many of the problems manifest themselves in that which the City Council and the Mayor call nuisances, e.g. loud parties, litter, drunkenness, illegal parking, etc. I separate the issue of illegal rooming houses, which is a zoning and density problem, from the issue of nuisances which do not necessarily stem from illegal rooming houses, although there are still those who confound the two. That being said, there is reason for the city to talk seriously to the university about off-campus student behavior.

I wrote to Dr. Bruce Shepard, President of WWU, in an as yet unanswered letter (click here to read that letter) on 16 September and brought up nuisances as his interview with the Herald implied that he would continue the university’s largely hands-off attitude and asked that the community keep student behavior “in context”, whatever that means.

It is interesting to note that student off-campus behavior is under increased scrutiny nationwide and rightly so. A recent article from the Associate Press mentions actions at Washington State University, Duke, Rutgers, Ohio State and Penn State (click here to read the article). Nobody is advocating taking a club to students, however, rules covering off-campus behavior by their very existence can send a powerful message to those living or playing off-campus. Perhaps Dr. Shepard might wish to talk to Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd whose student code contains the following:

Article II: Proscribed Conduct

WAC 504-26-200 Jurisdiction of the university standards of conduct for students.

The university standards of conduct for students shall apply to conduct that occurs on university premises, at university sponsored activities, and to off-campus conduct that adversely affects the university community and/or the pursuit of its objectives. Each student is responsible for his/her conduct from the time of application for admission through the actual awarding of a degree, even though conduct may occur before classes begin or after classes end, as well as during the academic year and during periods between terms of actual enrollment. These standards shall apply to a student's conduct even if the student withdraws from school while a disciplinary matter is pending. The university has sole discretion to determine what conduct occurring off campus adversely impacts the university community and/or the pursuit of university objectives. (Click here to read the original on the WSU website.)

So the City Council and the Mayor should talk to WWU, and soon, as part of Jack Weiss’ proposal. They may want to bring a few Bellingham residents along for the discussions to provide "context."

NB. Here is a postscript to my blog entry of 29 September (click here to read that entry) regarding WWU and rental advertising. I visited the Viking Union on 4 October to view the housing rental bulletin board. As promised to me by Mr. Schuster, Director of Viking Union Facilities, I found no advertising for single family homes in violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC). No ads were posted under the headings of “4 and 5 Bedroom Rentals” which is good but leaves one to wonder the reason for which these categories are still there. My understanding was that a warning regarding posting of ads violating the BMC would also be placed on the board, however, I did not find any such notice.