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."

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