Wednesday, June 4, 2008

We Do Not Know. But Do We Want To Know?

A friend forwarded the message below to me about the same time I received a note from a former Bellingham resident (now in California) about rental problems in San Diego, problems revolving primarily around students seeking housing. One of the main issues in sunny San Diego is the creation of extra rooms in single family residences by landlords attempting to maximize their income on the property. There they refer to these rentals as “mini-dorms”, a cute euphemism for the equivalent of our de facto rooming houses. You can read stories from the local San Diego press on this issue by clicking here and here. Accommodating students in planning for infill is absolutely necessary. They are not potted plants. San Diego has done very badly. Bellingham, with the tacit concurrence of Western Washington University and other post-high school institutions, has done little for the past several decades except let the situation develop. Sand found. Hole dug. Head inserted.

So my friend writes: “All over town. Another wrinkle. A neighbor (retired fire dept) called the inspection wing of the BFD [Bellingham Fire Department], requesting a inspection of one of the rooming houses in our neighborhood, as he felt it was a very unsafe house for those living there as some of the "added" bedrooms have no proper exits in the event of fire. Fire dept informed him it’s a Permit dept problem, Permit dept states it a law enforcement problem, law enforcement has been told by the city attorney’s office to "do nothing". Do not motels, hotels, licensed group residences, etc have to be inspected by the BFD for safety? Meeting rooms have a max capacity set by the BFD! Sure do enjoy merry-go-rounds.” I have written on this subject before. Click here and here to read those blog entries. Click here to read about a house fire near Miami University in Ohio in 2005. Three students died. Many will remember the house fire at Ocean Isle, North Carolina last year. Below right is a photo of what is left of that structure. Seven students (pictured below) died. Click here to refresh your memory.

From Firehouse Magazine (July 2005) there is this, "A nationwide campaign is underway to reduce the number of fire deaths at colleges and universities, with special emphasis on off-campus housing, where more than 75% of these fatalities occur." Did you know that? Have you heard of such a campaign in Bellingham? What sort of liability is the City of Bellingham courting by not having a landlord law under which single family rentals can be inspected for safety? Fifty percent of our single family homes are rented but we have no idea regarding the condition of these structures. You can train the renters but if the basic amenities, which provide the house with a secure environment, are missing, all the training will have been for naught. For more on this subject, read an article entitled "After N.C. deaths, fire safety concerns come to light" in the Tufts Daily by clicking here.

A further example: "The fire call came in at 4:50 am … careless smoking on that porch had set that old wooden house ablaze … there was only one way out and it was through the porch. There were no sprinklers and reportedly not all of the smoke detectors were working. Liz and two of her roommates died of smoke inhalation that day." More information on this incident and on off-campus fires can be found at Campus Firewatch by clicking here.

Here are some nationwide statistics from Campus Firewatch.

Campus-related fire fatalities from January 2000 to March 16, 2007

Residence Hall

Greek housing

Well, what is known about rentals of single family homes here in Bellingham?

Have landlords added or modified bedrooms? We do not know.
Do all bedrooms have fire exits? We do not know.
Do these rentals have smoke detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have carbon monoxide detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate wiring? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate plumbing? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate heating? We do not know.
Do these rentals have mold or mildew problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have insect infestations? We do not know.
Do these rentals have gas leaks? We do not know.
Do these rentals have structural problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have other safety or health issues? We do not know.
Is there overcrowding in these rentals? We do not know.
Are necessary repairs made by landlords? We do not know.
Is there price gouging by landlords? We do not know.

Is there a system of inspections of rental homes in Bellingham? We do know. None.
Are landlords of rental homes licensed by the city? We do know. None.

Will it take a death or serious injury to spur the city to action?

Do we want to know?


Anonymous said...

Richard -

Bellingham has a dangerous building code. See
Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) 17.050.020 (!OpenDocument)

Of note, Section 203 defines many conditions for a "Dangerous Building" including Subsection 8:
"Whenever, for any reason, the building or structure, or any portion thereof, is manifestly unsafe for the purpose of which it is being used;"

Having too many independent tenants within a single family house could meet this condition and therefore be a violation of City code.

BMC 17 also adopts by reference the International Property Maintenance Code, 2006 Edition, which contains regulations that prevent over-crowding in favor of establishing safe and habitable housing.

Any local official pleading ignorance of these codes is either unaware of his/her mandatory legal responsibilities to protect the public, or they are sticking their heads in the sand for political correctness.

Bill Geyer, AICP

zonemaven said...

Dear Bill,

Thank you very much for your comment. (For the record, Bill Geyer is a former Bellingham Planning and Development Director, 1985-1991.) As with the code which essentially prohibits the creation of rooming houses in single family zoned areas, codes having to do with structural issues, overcrowding, etc. seemed to be equally unenforced. How can one determine if a home is overcrowded when inspectors cannot or will not move to gain entry? How can one inspect for structural integrity if the rental property is off-limits to city officials? I am told this time and time again as a reason. albeit specious, for which the city cannot enforce the codes on rooming houses. " We can't enter the home." or "We are not in the business of looking into bedrooms."

My 13 April 2007 blog entry entitled "Hoist by One's Own Petard" describes a situation in which I presented the equivalent of a prima facie case against a rental owner. I have yet to hear back on my complaint. By now the students who lived there all year are probably preparing to leave for the summer break and I will be told that the complaint is moot.

Heather said...

Dick, you don't have an email to contact you, however, I hope that you are able to join us for the candidate meet and greet with Doug Shepherd this Friday from 5:30-7:30 at the Bellingham Public Library Lecture Room. This is an important elected position that is often overlooked, and I invite you to come ask questions of Mr. Shepherd. Please visit for more information, or feel free to contact me. The event is open to the public, and Mr. Shepherd welcomes your questions and concerns regarding his candidacy and this position.

zonemaven said...


Thank you for the notice, however, I will not be available that evening. For the record, my email address appears on the front page of this blog on the right hand side, written as zonemaven at hotmail dot com.