Monday, March 31, 2008

On Borrowed Time?

An article on building dorm rooms appeared in the New York Times on 26 March. You can read the article, entitled Building Dorm Rooms Cheaper, Quicker and Quieter, by clicking here. Although I do not believe that the dorm construction as described can solve the problem this city has in housing 8,000 or more students each year, many in uncontrolled, uninspected and often illegal rooming houses, I understand that the actions of the university (in this case Yale) show some creativity that might well be emulated by our own WWU. Perhaps some of the in-house ingenuity of the faculty, staff and students of WWU can be brought to bear so that the health and welfare of thousands of students are not jeopardized each year. Will it take an incident of severe injury or loss of life in this largely illegal rental housing market to force the university and the city to do something meaningful? They will not be able to say that they have not been warned.

Herald Editor Arrives in the Twilight Zone

Scott Ayers, Editor of the Bellingham Herald, announced today that he has moved to the Columbia Neighborhood (click here to read his blog entry on his move). Even the Mayor congratulated him on the selection. I sincerely wish that he finds his choice a pleasant one, however, if experience is our best teacher, I fear he may soon know the real meaning of “character of our neighborhoods”. Alas, the Columbia Neighborhood is not immune to the ravages of illegal rooming houses - although to a lesser extent than in York, “Happy” Valley or Sehome. But at least Scott is renting (we note that he is in conformance with the law) and as a renter he can bail out in the event he finds himself surrounded by illegal rooming house rentals. Not so easy a task for those who have bought homes and who now have little recourse when surrounded by landlord-owned property of the worst kind. Here is a letter recently sent to Scott from a long time homeowner in the Samish Neighborhood. Copies were also sent to the Mayor Pike, members of the City Council, Linda Stewart of the Mayor’s Office, the City Attorney and Julie Shirley of the Herald.



Your comments in the Herald today referring to the no more than three rentals debacle.

You, as many do not understand fully or do not want to understand the problem: I will give you my perspective on this as I'm pushing hard for SOMETHING to be done to protect the right of the home owners who bought into a neighborhood, which they believed were going to be a family orientated (you know mom, dad, kids).

This code has been on the books for over 2 years [Note; this should likely read over two decades], put there by City Council to protect the Single Family Residential Neighborhoods. This code has not been enforced, has not been challenged in court, and currently is being talked to death. City appears to be scared to death of this. Why, you tell me? Now councilman Weiss is calling into question the definition of family. Recall the Charlie Manson family, Jim Jones, how about Wako Tex. All considered families. Get a group together, call it a family and live where ever you want, how you want, as long as you’re quiet.

My street, 52 houses, 30 - 40% rentals, problem houses, hardcore 2. Do I have a problem with rentals as such? No. Do I have a problem with more than three non-related living together? No. Do I have problems with an animal house rental that looks like trash? Yes, Lawn mowed once in 2 years? Yes. 6-8 cars parked everywhere? Yes, Steals water from the city because they are a ‘single family’ resident and pay the same rate as my wife and me? Yes. Drags down property values? Yes. Does the landlord live in town? No. Sell my house? No. I've lived here since 1965. Besides, who in there right mind, except another slum landlord wanting to have another rental for again another animal house would buy it. This is a cancer that is self feeding.

Have I talked with the students? Yes. Have I loaned students tools? Yes (each time having to get my materials back, as they “forgot”). Have I tried to tell the students what the neighborhood is like? Yes. Have I gone to WWU campus collation meetings? Yes. Each year a party(s) has to be shut down by BPD. Please don't say call the BPD for speeders or for trash. You and I both know that the police cannot/will not response as these needs are low priorities. Unless you can tell the police a narrow time window as to when the speeding is happening, it’s impossible for them to sit there for any length of time. So spare me that rhetoric, ok.

So my suggestion: leave the code as is, have inspections, enforcement be complaint driven. BPD is intelligent enough to see through frivolous complaints. Have a license required and a landlord accountable provision (including fines). Have rooming houses inspected just as apartment house/motels are. Make the tenants safe. I'm so sick of hearing our local politicians say ‘protect our neighborhood character and integrity’ then sit on their hands and tickle their own butts. Even Mr. Weiss during the campaign voiced protection of the neighborhoods.

How the stories change after elections. R-2 zoned areas are available for rooming and apt houses [so] why eliminate the R-1 zoned Single Family Residential Neighborhood? If Mr. Weiss get the no-more than 3 code removed, redefines the definition of family, any group that wants to live together and call themselves ‘family’ can. Kiss R-1 good by. Developers can build 9 bedroom homes, rent out bedrooms and call it the family of ‘up yours’ and it will be legal."

The author sent this to the addressees for information as he feared reprisals. Last week his home was vandalized. He has allowed me to publish it without attribution. Makes sense to me.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pike and Stewart at Samish Neighborhood Meeting

Mayor Dan Pike and Planning Director Tim Stewart spoke at the Samish Neighborhood annual meeting last night at the Elk’s Lodge in Bellingham. Unfortunately, the Mayor’s time was abbreviated as he had to leave for yet another meeting. Accordingly, there was not much opportunity for him to speak or for the Samish residents to quiz him on single family zoning. The few comments he did make merely repeated the notions which he put forth in his interview with the Whatcom Indy last week. You can read more about that by clicking here to go to my blog entry on the interview.

After some preliminary remarks came the questions, since Samish neighborhood has a lot of land yet undeveloped and its residents are rightly concerned about infill and tangential topics. One question produced an explanation from Mr. Stewart of the planning term “concurrency”, which is essentially that your infrastructure should keep pace with your development so one does not have too much infrastructure or too little. An example he gave was couched in quality of life terms wherein a child is faced with waiting in line to use the swing at the local park because development got ahead of infrastructure (the park and its amenities). The notion being that the child did not have to wait for a turn on the swing before increased development ruined his playtime and degraded the quality of life at the playground. However, the idea of concurrency still applies in existing neighborhoods in which there is no effective planning for infill because zoning codes are ignored and growth takes shape with silent infiltration in the form of rentals which do not adhere to the code – or to any other rules since they are never inspected. That kind of degradation of quality of life seems to be overlooked.

In response to another question about housing types, Mr. Stewart mentioned structures such as cottages, town houses, carriage houses and accessory dwelling units (ADUs), some of which the city has yet to define. Mr. Stewart opined along the way, that he liked the ideas of ADUs because he could see a time at which, if he owned a home with an ADU, he could move from the house to the ADU and make money by renting the house. Well, if you want to frighten homeowners, that was a good way to do it. I have spoken about this back door approach to creation of illegal rooming houses. Click here and here to read my previous comments.

Finally, came the question from a Samish homeowner who wanted to know the manner in which Mr. Stewart defined a single family home. This person knows about single family zoning and illegal rooming houses as he just received a $22,000 reduction in assessed value of his home citing the proliferation of illegal rooming houses on his street. An obviously uncomfortable Mr. Stewart cited the law but then began digging a hole for himself, some of which had already been dug by the City Council. He spoke to the alleged difficulty in enforcing the law and that we really needed enforcement of parking codes, etc. This is another version of treat-the-symptoms-and -not-the-disease approach to medicine being applied to zoning. As for code enforcement, it is not difficulty that determines whether or not enforcement takes place. For the record (yet again), I do support making the creation of illegal rooming houses a civil matter as opposed to a criminal one but you at least have to have a code to enforce. If you do not have a code, you have no zoning. If you have no zoning, density control is meaningless.

As I mentioned before in this blog, Bowling Green, Ohio seems to implement its code. See my blog entry on that by clicking here. In fact, you can call the planning department of the City of Bowling Green at 419-354-6218, just as I did. A nice chap explained their code enforcement procedures which he described as being labor intensive. I passed Bowling Green’s methodology to our police chief, Todd Ramsay but I knew that I was not telling him anything he did not already know. He is intimately familiar with law enforcement and investigation of violations. Nonetheless, he does not need yet another unfunded mandate to enforce the zoning code. He needs support from the Mayor and the City Council in the way of additional code enforcement personnel not to mention police officers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Birds Do It, Bees Do It, UW Trustees Do It....Why Can't WWU Do It?

The following was sent to me today by an alert reader. Excerpt: “The University of Washington on Monday unveiled an $850 million proposal to build a series of dorms and apartments on its main Seattle campus to house more than 3,000 students, a step it says is needed to relieve chronic overcrowding.” Click here to read the entire article in the Seattle Times.

It seems that if there is a will to increase on-campus housing in state institutions here, there is a way. Click here to read a strategic master plan to be presented at the UW Board of Regents meeting on 20 March 2008. You will note that UW has some types of public/private housing - see presentation page entitled: UW Housing System Capacity Summary Before and After Completion of Strategic Master Plan. I have suggested before in this blog such public/private partnerships as a means of housing WWU students in Bellingham instead of relying on the city to absorb them in a dance we have come to know as the illegal rooming house polka. While the accordion of government plays on, there is no control over these illegal establishments.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Indy Interview with Mayor Pike

The following is an excerpt from a Whatcom Indy interview of Mayor Dan Pike. You can read the entire interview by clicking here. My comments appear in bold black and the Mayor's in blue. Although I was disappointed with some of the answers of the Mayor in response to the question, I give him credit for his comments on landlord accountability which must be viewed in the light of single family zoning enforcement above all.

Q [From the Indy]: There are a few other issues that have come up since you took office, the three-person rule, the noise issue downtown, and parking issues. How do you see those things working out?

(My comment on the question) First of all the Whatcom Indy question is misleading. The issue of illegal rooming houses has been around for many, many years. That being said, I exchanged emails with then-candidate Pike early in his campaign. His response was that he would enforce the zoning code. Click here to read the text of his email message in my blog entry of 4 March 2008.

A: There are a number of folks that (sic) feel very adamantly that it’s the rule itself that needs to be enforced. I certainly understand their frustration if they’re living in areas where there are problems and there’s not adequate enforcement. I think the city has identified some mechanisms to address the real key issue, which are the symptoms: too many cars parked, people having loud parties, litter.

You bet we feel adamantly. And addressing parking, litter, noise will not solve the issue of enforcement of zoning codes with respect to densities. (Furthermore, you saw the outcry when the police enforced the parking codes up and down streets adjacent to the university a few weeks ago.) Unless the city comes to terms with defining single family zoning, we have effectively rezoned all single family areas to rooming house districts, more appropriate to multi-family/apartment housing zones. This is uncontrolled infill of a most insidious form. Treating a disease by alleviating symptoms is poor medicine bordering on malpractice.

The old code, which is still in place, was a criminal violation. There’s a higher standard of proof required for that. People are much more likely to fight it court as opposed to just paying a fine.

Old code”? “Was a criminal violation”? Did I miss something? Why is this being addressed in the past tense? The council just asked for information about the effects of changing the code two weeks ago. Nobody has had any time whatsoever to “study” the matter. So while the council pushes that noodle down the road, the problem continues unabated. Nor can we ever expect a quick resolution of the matter unless the council operates with an uncharacteristic rapidity. For the record, I support amending the code to reflect a violation as a civil matter. However, I will not support having the council chew on that legislative bone ad infinitum bordering on ad nauseum.

A meaningful fine gets people’s attention. They tend to not repeat the behavior.


The three-person rule itself – we need to have some form of that on the books and clarify some definitions. Committed relations and civil unions should be given the same consideration as a married couple.

I have no problem with exceptions which include civil unions or other legal partnerships recognized by state or federal law.

When people have more people in their house it’s not usually because they want to have more people in their house, it’s that they can’t afford the house otherwise.

Absolutely. But since illegal rooming houses and their effect on density have been around for decades, just where has the city been in establishing an atmosphere in which affordable housing is created? Moreover, just what will the city do now to create such an atmosphere?

I don’t want to get into a situation where we have strict enforcement driving people to homelessness in a time when we have serious, serious challenges in affordability.

Nor do I. However, nor do I want to get into a situation wherein we use basic logical fallacies such as appeal to emotion in order to garner support for continuing these illegal rooming houses. No one has suggested, even remotely, a wholesale emptying of these rooming houses. Enforcement of zoning codes can be a measured, incremental action during which time everyone who is displaced will have time to find adequate housing. (Maybe WWU can help on this with diligence and money equal to that it is displaying to have a place at the waterfront.) Unless and until you stop using single family neighborhoods as sponges to absorb those of modest means, those hard working folks will never have the affordable housing they need and deserve. It is a perversely cruel joke to play on both the property owners, who see their neighborhoods deteriorate, and the needy, who are pushed by default into uncontrolled, unregulated and uninspected rental housing.

At the same time, I think people in single-family neighborhoods that are facing some of these challenges are appropriately upset that they’re in a neighborhood where the code is not being upheld. I think one of the ways to deal with the number of unrelated people specifically is to look at regulating landlords and putting something in place to deal with that. The reality is that right now I view it as a transfer of equity from the city, from the taxpayers, to those landlords because they have no downside or very little downside to bad behavior on the part of their tenants and when tenants cause problems all of us pay the bill for somebody to go out and address those problems. I think that landlords have a responsibility to cover part of that bill, maybe to cover all of that bill. In other communities, there has been licensing of rooming houses and licensing of rentals. There are ways to do it.

Amen. But let us not license the current batch of illegal rooming houses into legality. We not only have to enforce but to restore.

I’m not trying to get the grandparents who are renting out a single unit to somebody. But when you’re talking about folks that have five houses or 10 or 40 houses scattered around town, those are things where we have not just the right, but to some degree an obligation to put in place a template under which those operate so that we make sure that the quality of life in the city is maintained.

Right on, Mr. Mayor! Those who rent have a right to a safe, controlled, inspected habitat.

In a “challenging funding environment” – I keep using these words – I think it’s fair to ask is it appropriate for all of the taxpayers of the city to support businesses to the degree that we are in the case of rentals, or should some of the costs fall back more specifically on those businesses?

"No" to the first part of the question and "yes" to the second part.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

WWU - Huxley Mudslide Inevitable?

The WWU version of the California mudslide was updated on 11 March at the university campus. Various means of financing were presented by Stratus, the outfit providing oversight of the glissade of WWU down the hill and to the waterfront. You can read the report on the meeting in the Bellingham Herald by clicking here. (Update on "click" option: The Herald now requires registration to access certain pages and stories on its website.)

I attended this WWU/Stratus presentation and was particularly struck by the hesitancy voiced by a member of the Huxley College faculty, one of few who raised any serious doubts as to the inevitability of the move. As reported by the Herald, “Huxley associate professor John McLaughlin urged administrators Tuesday to make sure Huxley’s new waterfront campus is readily accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders who will need to get back and forth to the main campus. McLaughlin said Huxley faculty members agree their existing facilities are unsatisfactory, but have questions about environmental cleanup, earthquake safety and transportation issues on the waterfront."

I was surprised by the utter absence of any discussion of the locations at which these additional Huxley students (500 by some estimates) will reside. Given the mission of the college, to wit, “The Huxley College of the Environment mission is to pursue programs of environmental education, research, and community service that reflect the broadest possible view of humans in a physical, biological, social and cultural world.”, one would have surmised that housing all of these newcomers would also have been a concern.

Then I thought of the homeowners of the Lettered Streets and Columbia neighborhoods whose properties abut the academic wedge which is about to be broken from Sehome Hill and to land at water’s edge. These property owners should prepare for the onslaught of renters who will find the proximity to Huxley-on-the-Bay an enchanting prospect and landlords who will find stuffing those residences with as many occupants as possible an equally captivating possibility. Given non-enforcement of the city codes regarding single family zoning, these neighborhoods have an interesting future.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Back to the Basics

The column at left (click on the image to enlarge) was published in the Cascadia Weekly edition of 28 February. My reply, which follows, was published as a letter to the editor on 5 March.

"I agree with much of the ideas Alex Ramel has put forth in his recent opinion piece on that which he calls “rule of three”. This city has a woeful and shameful lack of affordable housing. The numbers of people seeking housing, as Mr. Ramel has pointed out, will increase dramatically. That being said, it is not the fault of those who want zoning enforcement, i.e., the elimination of illegal rooming houses, that affordable housing is in short supply.

First of all, there are two separate issues at play in the enforcement arena. One issue is that of code enforcement, more specifically, that of single family zoning. The other issue is that of nuisances related to noise, parking, litter, etc. If you read my blog closely, you will find that I have always separated the problem of illegal rooming houses from the nuisance issues for I know, as full well as others, such infractions can come from households of 2 or 3 people. I also know that a house with a large number of people can be quiet and the people residing within can be model citizens. However, those who link these issues have missed the point. The point, for the umpteenth time, is non-enforcement of zoning and resultant warping of planned density.

The city’s answer to affordable housing has largely been the development of a laissez-faire attitude as “scores, if not hundreds”, as Mr. Ramel puts it, illegal rooming houses invaded single family neighborhoods. These illegal establishments do provide a form of affordable housing for some but for others, single families looking to rent, there is a perverse effect – unaffordable rents. If you are five young students or workers, each with $400 to contribute per month, your search for an affordable home will not take long. If you are a single family with only one or two wage earners of modest means, that $2,000 per month rental may well be beyond your means. The illegal rooming houses distort the rental market. Nonetheless, the city, by either commission or omission, has set up an unrealistic expectation that turning a blind eye to the illegal rooming houses will solve the problem.

Forgotten in all this are the homeowners, who have silently been tolerating the “roominghouse-ification” of their streets. Lest readers accept Mr. Ramel’s accusing homeowners of being landed gentry (“Until we, as community, are able to offer these people an affordable alternative, simply cracking down on them is an unconscionable act of gentrification.”), I would like to point out that a great many of those affected by illegal rooming houses are those of modest incomes and unpretentious homes. The value of the properties of these hard-working citizens is degraded in proportion to the number of landlords who thumb their noses at zoning regulations.

Moreover, no hearings were ever held on the clandestine changes in zoning density brought about by these illegal rentals. Nobody sought the advice or consent of the Planning Department on the effects of covert increased density. Nobody seems to have asked Western Washington University to step up to the bar as it increased its enrollment and deposited thousands and thousands of students on the community. With all these failures, the homeowners, who have been complaining for years, now become the bad guys who are “unconscionably” asking for redress. If the council and the mayor now want to ask those same homeowners to accept higher densities in the way of multi-family housing, apartments and condominiums, the neighborhoods will have every right to say no in that the city has already increased density with the wink and the nod given to illegal rooming houses."

Vignette without Comment

From a woman I know:

"I just read your latest Zonemaven, and with a shiver remembered my 'house' back in 1985.

Six of us shared a house (read 'dump unfit for a family') on High Street just near Laurel Park. We five girls were college students plus our favorite bouncer/bartender who lived downstairs (read 'back porch/unfinished basement'). As you can imagine we had lots of company, some of whom mentioned the frequent aroma of natural gas. I guess I was desensitized to it by living there and never noticed a thing.

Two months after we moved out the house blew up and burned to the ground due to a natural gas explosion. Fortunately no one was living there at the time.

Will nothing will be done about the rooming-house problem until such an event kills a bunch of kids?



Solving the Problem

The following was posted on the Bellingham Herald website in response to a letter to the editor written by Rick Chartrand (click here to read Rick’s original letter).

“Rick and friends:

What is your suggestion for solving this problem? I don't think Jack disagrees that there's a problem but the blogmaven (sic) and gang should offer a solution. Instead you fall into the name-calling trap. Yuck.

Do you want landlord licensing? Then say so! Speak up! Advocate for it! You present nothing specific, just a lot of complaints with no ideas or solutions. Step up! Be helpful!

And yes, I live near Western. Yes, I broke up a party Friday night. Yes, I think the city can do something. But I see no other solution than landlord accountability but the last time that was on the agenda, you were where exactly? (I was there.)

Step up! Stop namecalling (sic)!

foes of mean people society”

Well, I probably can be considered as a part of the “friends” category addressed by this comment (and by the way it is Zonemaven and we are not a gang). The fact is that I have been proposing solutions all along, however, few people take the time to read those portions of my blog or if they do, they forget they have read them.

First, you have to enforce the code to clean up the neighborhoods and restore confidence that the city will protect the neighborhoods. Once code enforcement begins, the pressure to find legally affordable housing will mount and an open and trustworthy dialogue regarding controlled infill can begin.

Second, WWU must be told that in order to get a slice of the pie at the waterfront table, it will have to start taking more of a role in housing all those students it has attracted to its campus. This can be done with public-private partnerships, exactly as WWU is planning with respect to such partnerships to build their dream campus annex at the waterfront.

Third, with mounting pressure to provide affordable housing, the city will be forced to focus on attracting such housing, perhaps also through public-private ventures. Until now, the city feels little pressure as it has been using illegal rooming houses in the single family neighborhoods as a safety valve.

Fourth, the city needs to license landlords and provide for inspection of rental premises. With all these unlicensed, uncontrolled and uninspected rentals, it is courting disaster. Will it take a fire or some similar event in one of these places to get their attention?

Fifth, WWU needs to review its stand on sanctioning student behavior off-campus. Perhaps the next president of WWU will be more sensitive to the effect of thousands and thousands of its students on the surrounding community.

Last, the city vigorously enforces its nuisance codes on noise, litter, parking, etc.

You can read Rick Chartrand's own response to "foes of mean people society" by clicking on the image on the upper left.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ready! Aim! Aim! Aim! Aim! Aim!....

It is instructive to read the main headings (pgs. 41-46) regarding neighborhoods from the Mayor’s “100 Day Plan” report which I have subtitled "Planning about Talking/Talking about Planning". (Click here to read the report in its entirety.)

Missing are words such as “did, satisfied, accomplished, carried out, fulfilled, attained, performed, etc…" While all the palaver goes on, taking care of business falls by the wayside. If half the effort that goes into all this talking and planning, planning and talking were to have been spent on enforcement, the city would have already eliminated the illegal rooming houses and their deleterious effects on the character of our neighborhoods. We would have won the trust of the residents who would have seen that the city means business. We would have meaningful zoning. We would be planning on a solid base instead of the extant doubt and mistrust.

The Mayor missed a golden opportunity at the 25 February council meeting by not standing tall and saying that, "While you, the council, review (yet one more time) this, that and everything, I will fulfill my campaign promise." Here it is again, for those who may have forgotten, the Mayor's pledge: “To be clear, I believe in enforcing the codes we have, and am willing to go to court as needed.” What will it take for action? Some tragedy, such as a fire in an overcrowded, illegal rooming house?