Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can We Talk Equity and Fairness?

While the talks continue about the merger with the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District (click here to read the latest Herald article on the subject), our City Council is voicing its concern over fairness to city customers.

The Herald article quoted Council Member-at-Large Louise Bjornson as saying “I think, all in all, if we could aim at it not costing the city ratepayers, (that) is very important… “For me it would make sense for district customers not to be subsidized by city ratepayers.” The Herald piece went on to say, “Public Works Director Dick McKinley said his goal was to focus discussion about rates not on taxes but on changing district rates to parity with city customers."

“All well and good.”, says the Zonemaven, however, he has heard nothing from the city on his proposal to charge full cost for installation of Bellingham’s city water meters for owners of income producing, single family properties, i.e., rentals. (Read the Zonemaven’s blog original blog entry on the subject by clicking here)

Not too loud, as somebody might hear......but a reminder to Zonemaven readers (including the City Council) that the live-in property owners are subsidizing each installation of a meter on these rentals to the tune of $300 to $600. That’s about 15,000 installations. Do the math and you will find this subsidy is not chump change - and you, the single family, live-in property owner are paying it, while the rental owner is taking the savings to the bank.

The Zonemaven has yet to hear anything from the council on his modest proposal for fairness by striking equity into the heart of water meter installation in Bellingham. "Sauce for the goose..."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

New WWU President to Attempt Dance with 800 Pound Gorilla

We will soon see if the new WWU president will be able to lead that 800 pound gorilla-on-the-hill in a community dance. Will he be Fred leading Ginger? Or will he be Gene, dancing alone in the rain? To ensure he is aware of some of the dance routines in Bellingham, I wrote an email to the incoming WWU President, Dr. Bruce Shepard, last week. After a few introductory remarks, I said, “You will have a lot on your plate when you arrive here, not least of which is repairing relationships with the community. Much of the problem stems from the lack of student housing and an uncontrolled rental market here (dominated by students) about which WWU has chosen to do little over the years. Although the city has been lax in its enforcement of zoning codes, the overwhelming numbers and the behavior of WWU students have had a profound effect on the single family neighborhoods to the detriment of the quality of life and the value of homes of our hard working citizens.” I also included the text of a letter that I sent to the presidential search committee several months ago. You can read my blog entry on that letter by clicking here.

Another friend and concerned citizen also wrote to Dr. Shepard and said, in part:

“I realize you will have many "top" priorities on your plate and will get many more in the coming weeks and months to come. I would ask you to save a spot on "the plate" for an "illegal rooming house" issue hotly contested by single family neighborhoods in Bellingham. This problem is not just in the University's immediate area, but growing throughout the city. The character and property values of those affected are being drastically affected! I live 3 miles from the campus and "illegal rooming houses" are invading our area with negative impacts.

Many residents feel the University has only give lip service to this problem. No on-campus housing has been built for many years, though the campus population has risen dramatically over the past 10 - 15 years. Most institutions of higher learning in Washington have been very proactive concerning this problem in their respective communities; except for Western. I hope you will work to change this fact and help resolve the "illegal rooming house" problem here in Bellingham.”

Dr. Shepard acknowledged my message by saying, “Thanks, Richard, for the welcome, congrats, and thoughtful introduction to what is a complicated issue.” And to my friend he wrote, “…thanks for taking time to share the background on the housing issues.”

You can reach Dr. Shepard at his office in Green Bay at shepardb@uwgb.edu. I encourage you to write to him about this pressing issue so that it is placed on his dance card immediately.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Residents B'Damned?

Last Sunday a group met downtown to discuss the subject of noise complaints in the downtown area - more specifically, complaints having to do with loud music. In late February, the Zonemaven weighed in on the subject (click here to read that blog posting). Not much has changed since that blog entry. The main theme of the supporters of “nightlife culture” is that of entitlement with the underlying and hackneyed refrain “If you don’t like it, move.” Supporters of more objective measures of noise might pause in their demands as those decibel meters do not lie. As for Mr. Bornemann’s comment (I assume he has been quoted accurately) that “It’s not noise, it’s music.” is just flat out incorrect. It is all sound waves obeying the laws of physics – amplitude and frequency. When these factors exceed certain levels the sound becomes noise, a subjective measure, some would say. However, science is demonstrating that certain volume levels damage the ears and have deleterious effects on humans in terms of stress. Even musicians playing classical music, long associated with relaxation, are having problems with hearing loss as the result of their proximity to instruments. (Click here to read a NY Times article on the subject).

Consequently, noise abatement is not only about quiet enjoyment it is a health issue. A good summary of noise regulation can be found on Wikipedia by clicking here. I suggest the members of the City Council (not to mention the citizenry) do some reading on the subject before launching into a let's-change-the-code mode. As I asked (but received no replies) in my February blog post on the subject, "And finally - can anyone tell me why one cannot just turn the gratuitous noise down?"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Resolution - Needless and Heedless

Councilman Jack Weiss’s Resolution Supporting and Enhancing the Implementation of Bellingham’s Comprehensive Plan Infill Strategy unfortunately was passed by the council last night. (Click here to read the resolution) The only high point was Terry Bornemann’s successful challenge to one of the WHEREAS paragraphs which originally read, “WHEREAS, infill in existing urban areas includes, but is not limited to, the master planning and development of Urban Centers through incentive and regulatory structures, and the modification of development codes to allow for additional housing types in appropriate parts of existing developed neighborhoods. These types include detached accessory dwelling unit, cottage housing, townhouses and carriage housing, among other techniques...” Mr. Bornemann was able to convince the council to eliminate the last sentence of the paragraph which identified the “types” of housing.

The reason for which the city needed this resolution in the first place is problematic, especially since Planning Academy II is scheduled to start on 30 April. Everyone already gave an imprimatur to the Academy which supposedly should be allowed to do its work unencumbered by resolutions by the city council. When challenged by Terry Bornemann regarding the specificity of “housing types” Jack Weiss was visibly at a loss for words to support “detached accessory dwelling unit, cottage housing, townhouses and carriage housing, among other techniques…” (If you don’t believe me, review the video on the City of Bellingham website by clicking here or view the proceedings on BV10) Terry Bornemann reminded Mr. Weiss that the city had already gone many rounds on the ADU question (which was firmly shot down) and for the council to come back in this resolution in support of such an idea did not make sense, not to mention the prejudicial nature of such declarations prior to the work of the Academy.

In a statement during the comments period, I reiterated my opposition to the resolution – essentially a repeat of my blog entry of 13 April entitled The Weiss Resolution. Click here to read it.

I see very little difference between town houses, cottages, carriage houses and accessory dwelling units. In fact, these types can all be placed under the rubric of ADUs. Once areas are rezoned to accept these modes of housing, there will be no return to normal. At left are several photos taken of townhome-type units in the Samish neighborhood at 9:30am on 15 April. (Click on the photo to enlarge for full effect) These small, detached homes tend to be turned into rentals where cars collect (one wonders if the garages are used for autos or to provide additional bedrooms). Thus begins the inevitable deterioration as renters drive out live-in homeowners and more rentals are created in their place. By then, the developer has his money and the citizens are left with the mess.

One might also ask the reason for which this resolution was so hastily prepared and offered for public scrutiny only days before the 14 April council meeting. Mr. Weiss submitted the resolution on 8 April. It was reviewed by the legal eagles on the same day and initialed by the mayor on 9 April. The resolution did not appear on the city's website until 10 April, barely two business days before the council meeting. In fact, over twenty of the items to be considered by the council's committees were not initialed by the mayor until the week of the 7th of April. One of these agenda items contained an attachment of 504 pages. How is the citizenry to read and digest all that data in the space of a few days? If the city wants participatory government, it has to do better than this.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hoist by One's Own Petard

Several nights ago a group of renters were robbed at gunpoint in their house in the 100 block of 44th St. Click here to read the Herald article on the crime. Since I am a BlockWatch Captain for the 100 blocks of 46th and 47th Streets, I was more than casually interested in an armed home robbery that took place only one block from my home. Under the provisions of the Revised Code of Washington 42.56, I requested a copy of the police report (Number 08B13158) on the incident so that I could advise the members of my BlockWatch on the details of the robbery. Although the police were called to investigate a robbery, they soon found that the residents were in possession of several bags of marijuana which were impounded. During the course of the investigation, the residents identified themselves as roommates - all five of them. The home is owned by a woman who's address in on Raymond St. here in Bellingham. I began to wonder if she knew that her home had become an illegal rooming house and was used as a place to consume drugs. A search of property records on the website of the Whatcom County Assessor's Office revealed that the single family home has only 3 bedrooms which makes one wonder why it has apparently been rented to five single persons. In any event, now armed with a police report indicating that the home is occupied by more than three unrelated people, I filed a code enforcement complaint with the Permit Office. It will be interesting to see the manner in which the Permit Office will investigate the complaint which is primarily based on a police report in which the occupants have already admitted the violation.

The Weiss Resolution

City Council Member Jack Weiss recently wrote an opinion piece which appeared in both the Whatcom Indy and the Bellingham Herald. (Click here and here to read these articles which are essentially the same.) His editorial piece was taken from a memo attached to a resolution (AB17904 Resolution Supporting and Enhancing the Implementation of Bellingham's Comprehensive Plan Infill Strategy) to be discussed in the Planning and Community Development Committee of the city council on 14 April. Click here to read the resolution and memo. I can agree with much of Jack Weiss’ memo having to do with increased infill and avoidance of urban sprawl, laudable goals each. However, the memo does not touch on the decades of neglect wherein infill has been achieved mainly by ignoring codes and allowing an unregulated, uncontrolled and unlicensed rental market to call the shots.

Jack Weiss states, “Infill density allows us to better plan transportation to move people instead of cars.” My questions are: Why are you not speaking to the effect of the unplanned and unregulated infill which has been the norm to date? – and - Who did any planning at all for the cars and transportation issues surrounding this covert kind of infill? - and – What will the city do to reverse the effects of this infill? – and – Will the rules and regulations set up to control infill in the future be obeyed any more than the present laws? Mr. Weiss’s call in his resolution, that all this “of course, must be done in a fair and equitable manner”, will fall on deaf ears as fairness and equity on the part of the city seem to have been in short supply so far in neighborhoods plagued with illegal rooming houses where the efforts to enforce our codes are for naught.

Moreover, what will be the guarantees to the neighborhoods and who the guarantors? I have said before in this blog that by their previous neglect the council and the city executives have already lost the trust of those who have had to endure this covertly created increased density and its detrimental effects.

“New housing types, including cottage and carriage housing, townhouses, and detached accessory dwelling units, will be considered in this effort.” Our modern day Pandoras should think twice and carefully about opening the box containing these ideas. Townhouses tend to fall prey to investors who will rent them for all the market can bear. Cottages are beguiling because of the image they can conjure in the mind. Carriage housing beckons with images of fantasy tranquil estate living while accessory dwelling units will tempt the homeowner with visions of dollars.

All of these ideas have some legitimacy but as with uncontrolled and illegal rooming houses, who will police these creations? Our one code enforcement officer?

Furthermore, I hear no call from Mr. Weiss to demand substantive participation from Western Washington University. This institution seems to have boundless energy and funding to find a place at the waterfront but does little to assist, beyond token gestures, in easing the effect of thousands of students each year on rental housing at which time they gobble up single family residences, turning them into rooming houses, distorting the rental market and limiting the choices of those families who cannot afford to purchase a home.

Mr. Weiss ends his piece by saying “It is how we manage change and what values we prioritize. That is our challenge.” I would go one better - What do we do to reverse the effects of the unmanaged change and non-enforcement of code to date?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Why Subsidize Rental Property Water Meter Installation?

Last weekend the Herald ran an article (click here to read it) on the 2003 Washington State mandate to install water meters at single family homes by 2017. It is now 2008 and the city seems to have no installation plan although one is due in July 2008. There is a voluntary program sponsored by the city whereby a homeowner can have a meter installed by the city for $150. As of 2006 about 75 single family homeowners had signed up for the program. Perhaps more have signed up since then but overall it is not promising for reaching 100% participation by 2017.

The Herald article points out that the cost for the voluntary metering program (click here to read the report) is heavily subsidized by the city (that means you taxpayers). The real cost of placement of these meters is around $300 to $600 or 100-400% more than the cost to the homeowner. However, since about half of the unmetered single family homes (15,000 flat rate customers) are putative rentals, that means that the city (again, you as a taxpayer) is subsidizing those properties which are being used as money generating entities by landlords, some of whom do not even live in the city. If the city charged all rental property owners the full rate for meter installation, it would receive at least $2,250,000 at the low end ($300 per installation). High end ($600 per meter) would bring in considerably more. Furthermore, after meter installation the true water consumption costs would be passed on to the consumer, i.e., the renters.

The city requires metering for properties involved in commercial enterprises. Why should rental properties be treated any differently? Why should you, as a taxpayer, subsidize landlords in their income producing pursuits? Why should an illegal rooming house with 4, 5, 6, 7 or more renters be charged at the same rate as the live-in property owner/family?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Landlord or Rental Owner – The Game is the Same

I was told recently that those, who own single family homes which they rent, prefer to be called rental owners rather than landlords. The term landlord comes from Middle English at a time when there were actually lords who owned the land and rented it to the peasants – not an altogether equitable situation. However, the term landlord has been enshrined in American jurisprudence. Washington’s own laws, among which you may find Chapter 59.18 RCW - Residential Landlord-Tenant Act (Click here to read the law), acknowledge the term. I can understand the desire to change the reference from a perceived pejorative term, “landlord”, to the more benign “rental owner” but some behaviors must precede this transformation, at least in Bellingham.

If one visits the site of the Northwest Rental Owners Association, Inc., (click here to navigate to the webpage) one will find that there is not much activity. The calendar is dated; the bulletin board carries only one item from 2004 (on Bellingham’s attempts to create a law licensing landlords/rental owners); a service directory, which dates to 2005, provides eight links of which two are no longer valid; and a statement that the site was last modified in May, 2006 appears at the bottom of the home page. Given all the publicity on the subject of illegal rooming houses over the last year, one might surmise that the organization would be doing more for its paid membership but that is a subject about which their members ought to be complaining.

Nonetheless, the organization seems to be able to send a representative to all city council meetings. To what end is unclear in that it appears that reports of these proceedings are not being posted on the website. In all fairness, the organization claims to have a monthly newsletter, which, it seems, does not appear on the website but is somehow transmitted to the membership. There is nothing on the site regarding the laws in Bellingham with regard to limits on single family rentals nor are there any links to the Bellingham city code. There are references to applicable state laws on issues such as lead paint and mold but illegal rooming houses in this city do not appear to have met the threshold for a warning to the association’s membership. This is from an association which has argued for responsible renting practices and claims that there are only a few bad eggs in the landlord basket obviating any requirement for landlord licensing.

It may be instructive to visit the sites of a few of Bellingham’s landlords-cum-property managers. Ebenal Property Rentals ran a recent add in the Western Front, WWU’s student newspaper. See ad at left. Offering single family homes with up to five bedrooms caught my eye. Most of the homes listed on the website contain wording such as “Walk to WWU” or “Near WWU.” Upon examining Ebenal’s website (click here to view site), I found several documents which suggest that the company may be ignoring the single family zoning rule. A fax cover sheet (click here to view) and a Holding Fee form (click here to view) both contain lines to list from 1-6 applicants or adult occupants. If there is another reason for these lines, I would appreciate knowing.

Likewise, Adams Property Management provides space to list from 1-9 residents to include age and relationships. (Click here to view the application) In addition, Adams makes the following statement “Our units are not Party Houses! Keep in mind that you live in close proximity to other people. We have a 10:00 pm noise curfew on weekdays and 1:00 am on weekends (Friday & Saturday nights). First complaint will receive a written warning; eviction will take place on the second complaint.” Although this is an admirable if misguided attempt on the part of Adams to control its renters, the statement gives renters the totally false notion that noise is somehow permitted before 10 pm on weekdays and before 1 am on the weekends. (I brought this fact to the attention of my readers back in December 07. Click here to read the entry chastizing Adams Property Management. They must not be readers of my blog.) The Bellingham City Code on noise makes no distinction regarding time of day except in the case of construction projects. (Read code portion by clicking here). In short, the Adams’ statement contravenes existing municipal law.

In perusing the site for Landmark Real Estate Property Management, I found that their form to extend leases allows for 4 renters to sign. (Click here to view) Similarly, Apex Property Management allows space for the applicant plus four others on its rental application. (Click here to view). If the limit is no more than three unrelated in a single family residence, the purpose of the extra lines for additional renters seems problematic.

Curiously, none of the rental property sites I visited mentioned or gave a link to the Bellingham codes on single family dwelling rental limitations. If any are members of the NW Rental Owners Association, there is no indication of that on their sites either.