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.