Thursday, July 31, 2008

More on Call to Action - 4 August City Council Meeting

The agenda for the City Council meeting of 4 August has appeared on the City Council web page. Click here to go to the meeting materials page. You can also click on the images above to bring up the agenda bill on the family definition.

We still need your input to the City Council on changing the definition of family. We also ask that you plan to speak your 3 minutes at the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting. Ideally, the Council can decide to go forward now without changing the number from 3 to 4.

The action on the 4th of August will consist of a committee briefing. Since the amendment is of a development regulation it must go through several public hearings. The staff recommendation contains language increasing in the number of unrelated people from 3 to 4, in addition to language including state registered domestic partners. One other change eliminates the use of the phrase “single dwelling unit” and replaces it with the phrase “single housekeeping unit”. Since there is no definition offered of “housekeeping unit”, it is difficult to assess the further import of such a change. The Bellingham Municipal Code is silent on the definition of “housekeeping unit”, therefore, I surmise a definition must be created.

The Washington Administrative Code uses the term “housekeeping unit” but only it in its definition of a "family dwelling unit."

Family dwelling unit. "Family dwelling unit" means the dwelling unit occupied by a single person, any number of related persons, or a group not exceeding a total of eight related and unrelated nontransient persons living as a single noncommercial housekeeping unit. The term does not include a boarding or rooming house.

The City of Boston has adopted this rather wordy definition of “single housekeeping unit”:

A “single housekeeping” unit for the purposes of this section shall mean two or more persons, not so related, but living together as a single housekeeping unit. Persons shall be living as a single housekeeping unit when all members of the housekeeping unit are parties to a common lease or rental agreement that also provides for a period of tenancy common to all members, a common right to use and enjoy the entire dwelling or dwelling unit, despite informal arrangements among members to designate certain areas as individualized sleeping spaces; a single periodic rent payment to the owner or owner’s agent. Additionally, members sharing household living arrangements, including but not limited to, utility payments, groceries and common sanitary, living and cooking supplies and or facilities shall also be an indication that a dwelling or dwelling unit is being occupied as a “single housekeeping unit.”

See you at the City Council meeting on the 4th at 7 pm. Arrive early and sign up for your three minute comment period.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Call to Action on Zoning Code Change

I have learned through several sources that some staff recommendations on proposed changes to the definition of family and other changes to the single family zoning code (making infractions a civil offense and including domestic partnerships within the definition of family) will be presented at the 4 August City Council meeting. I do not know if there will be voting or just further discussion. Later this week, Thursday or Friday, the agenda for the meeting should be published and the purpose should be more clear. I will provide an update as soon as the City Council posts its agenda.

Nonetheless, I am urging you now to send a message to the council that the proposal by Jack Weiss to increase the number of unrelated individuals allowed in a single family rental from three to four is not acceptable. I have spoken with three members of the council who are not really keen on changing the number. The support for increasing the number from 3 to 4 is weak. My hat is off to Gene Knutson, the sole council member who publicly stated his opposition. You can help to ensure that the council keeps the code designation at three by doing several things:

1. Send a letter or email to the city council and voice your concerns. You can do that by going to the council website at (click on the link) and sending an email to the council at large. You can also send individual emails to each member by clicking on the name and then scrolling to the bottom of the profile. If you have already sent a note recently, send it again.

2. Come to the City Council meeting next Monday, 4 August at 7pm, and express your opinion. Arrive early and sign the list for a speaking spot (3 minutes) during the public comment period. No need to be a great orator. Just be yourself.

Do both, if you can. If you can not come to the council meeting, then send a letter or email. If you want words or ideas, borrow freely from this blog.

You can also call your council representatives. Here are their phone numbers:

Jack Weiss: 738-2103
Gene Knutson: 734-4686
Barry Buchanan: 734-6639
Stan Snapp: 305-0607
Terry Bornemann: 305-0606
Barbara Ryan: 671-8376
Louise Bjornson: 733-7756

You can write a letter to the following address:

City Council
210 Lottie Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

I learned that the council received over 400 emails and letters on the subject of the bike lanes on Cornwall. Yes, the bike lanes! The issue of illegal rooming houses and increasing the number of unrelated renters (also called backdoor infill) is as at least as valid an issue as bike lanes. Tell your friends and neighbors about this blog entry. We need a strong turnout.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Amicable Jousting on Single Family Zoning

Councilman Stan Snapp and I are having a kind of written debate on single family zoning on D. J. Gray's Eye on Whatcom forum. Citizen Flat Tire also joins the discussion. Although it may not rise to the level of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, you can read the zoning discussion by clicking here. We invite you to take part in the conversation. Our council needs your input.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Questions for the City Council. A Reader Asks.

At times, I reproduce a comment received on a previous blog entry – a comment which is unusually informational or insightful. I received the following from a reader who presently lives outside of Bellingham but who is planning to move to this city by the end of the year. His comment was in response to my blog entry of 15 July entitled “Unintended Consequences? You Judge.” on recent City Council discussions involving changes to the single family zoning code. (Click here to read that blog entry.)

“In regards the proposal by Jack Weiss to adjust the "rule of 3" to be the "rule of 4" it seems to me that the question to Mr Weiss and for the City Council should be what are the origins and justification for this action?

By my research, the housing stock in Bham was approximately 33,500 units at the end of 2007, up from approximately 26000 10 years ago. The corresponding population numbers are 75,900 and 63,200 respectively. So the density in Bham is approximately 2.27 persons per housing unit last year compared to 2.43 persons per unit 10 years prior. Moreover, the Whatcom County Real Estate Report (WCRER) 2008 reports similar information, saying that from the year 2000, Bham housing stock has increased 18.9% while population has increased just 12%. Finally, on 3 July the Bham Herald reported that population growth in Whatcom County is slowing and only about a fifth of new county residents are choosing to live in Bellingham. In short, the high level numbers don't indicate a need for the City Council taking any action on the rule of 3 in order to "fix" housing availability.

Conversely, several negative effects of changing the rule can be noted.

First, this type of off-the-books infill is a tax avoidance and ultimately a shifting of the property tax burden. The units potentially affected by this rule are single family detached homes being rented, a bit over 25% of the housing stock, let's use your number 9500 units. Those landlords can reap a tax avoidance windfall because any shortfall in taxes to support infrastructure and services for the additional residents paying them rent, would have to be made up by all property owners. In practice, I would expect a fairly narrow demographic (18-25 years old renters) and a minority of neighborhoods (near to colleges) to make up the bulk of properties taking advantage of any change. In short, the benefits of this rule change would likely be shared by a narrow demographic who do not pay property tax and a minority of property owners because the tax burden that supports their renters is distributed to all property owners.

Second, increased occupancy of existing SFD provides infill that bypasses the mechanisms for improving the quality of housing stock. The building codes gradually evolve to provide higher standards for safety and energy efficiency. Development and redevelopment gradually roll these higher standards into the housing stock so that occupants are more comfortable and safer with less energy consumption. It would be interesting to hear from the building official and staff responsible for the quality and safety of housing in regards this matter. If the City Council adopts the rule change, aren't they undermining their staff and their responsibility?

Third, this type of infill hurts the local economy insofar as it defers or eliminates new housing units that would represent jobs and materials purchases supporting local businesses. Recently the market has served the local economy well with a construction boom, but with construction slowing, and unemployment rising, and population growth decreasing, changing the rule of 3 will simply delay economic recovery for the housing industry some little bit.

And then there are the quality-of-life arguments around noise, traffic, crime, etc.

My suspicion is that the proposed change to the rule of three is special interest lobbying, the natural course of politics, or possibly a mis-perception of actual need. It could be a legitimate reason that I don't know about. Whatever the origin of the proposal, my experience is the best way to influence any Council is to go to their meeting and ask them to address the data and the arguments against - to provide justification. If they have legitimate justification we all learn something. If it becomes a matter of public record that they have no justification refuting objective arguments against, they are unlikely to vote in favor. If they vote in favor without justification, you have ammunition for future battles.

I cannot go to City Council meetings to argue, or even send written arguments, as I do not live in Bham, but care greatly about this matter as I am planning a move back to Bham by the end of this year. I hope you or someone you know will take the time to address the Council directly.”

Well said. Again I ask my readers to write to the member of the City Council (Go to to send them your thoughts.) I would appreciate hearing directly from this anonymous poster at my Zonemaven email address: zonemaven AT hotmail DOT com.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Unintended Consequences? You Judge.

In my blog entry of 3 July (click here to read that entry) I posited that one deleterious effect of increasing the number of unrelated persons in the definition of family for the purposes of zoning would be an immediate sanctioning by the city council of an increase of more than 9,000 possible renters within the single family neighborhoods, a back-door infill, as it were, with no input from those affected. There are some additional results if the number is increased from 3 to 4.

Our landlord representatives have on various occasions, in front of the council and in the newspapers, offered that theirs is an honorable profession and that most adhere to the laws. A regrettably small percentage of landlords are those who are causing the problems and bringing opprobrium on the group, they say. Taking the landlord representatives at their word, I would assume that most of the 9,000 or more rentals in Bellingham are either occupied by families related by blood or by groups of no more than three unrelated persons as the law states. If one raises the number of unrelated individuals to 4, then the overwhelming percentage of law-abiding landlords will have the legal green light to increase the number of unrelated renters in any home, regardless of its size. If the going rate for a single family home rental were the equivalent of $400 per renter under the so-called “rule of three”, a monthly rent of $1200 would be the result. Any landlord worth her mathematical salt, will immediately recognize that she, without changing the per capita cost for the current batch of renters, can add one more renter at $400 per month, thus increasing the overall rental rate for that particular home to $1,600 – a healthy 33% increase in rental income. The renters do not see their individual monthly rate increase and the landlord gets the windfall. And it is all legal. Oh, happy day!

Meanwhile, the family woman with her husband and two children, who are of modest resources and even more modest incomes, would like to rent that same house but now find that they are financially shut out of the process when the rent climbs 33%, from $1,200 to $1,600. The effect is even more profound on the single parent, single income family. The perverse outcome of raising the number of unrelated individuals is that in a market in which, low wage earners, 8,000 or more students from WWU and thousands more from WCC and BTC vie for housing, the groups of unrelated individuals become a more lucrative target for landlords. The higher you raise the number of unrelated individuals, the more market distortion you achieve and the more you invite uncontrolled infill.

Again, I ask my readers to contact the City Council members (click here to send a message) and the Mayor (click here to send him a message) to tell them that changing the number of authorized unrelated persons in a rental home is counterproductive and infringes on the ability of the neighborhoods to control infill.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Say No to Council on 3 to 4. The Infill Decision Belongs to You!

I sent the following email to the City Council, the Mayor and several other
city officials regarding the city council discussion of changing the single
family zoning defintition.

"[Although I was not at the council meeting last Monday], I took  the time
to review the video of the last city council meeting. Frankly, I was
by the turn of events with regard to the proposals on the
definition of family in
the Bellingham city code. First of all, I am not
against the changing of the code to
decriminalize initial offenses.
I have said this before in this blog.
Nor am I distressed at a proposal
to include domestic partnerships in the code.
This also I have said
in my blog on several occasions.

My problem is the changing of the definition to increase the limit of
persons from 3 to 4. This change has not been called for
by anyone or any group
whom I can identify other than Council Member
Weiss. Mr. Weiss said that the number
4 "plays well". My question
is, "To whom?". The only people to gain from such a
move are the

If the council changes the number from 3 to 4 it will have, with a
stroke of a
pen, increased legal infill in the city's single family
neighborhoods by about
9,500. Think about it. Half of all single
family homes are rented (9,500).
[Click here to read city report with
single family home figures.]
Today each of those homes can be rented
legally to any group of unrelated people
to a maximum of three. If
you change that to four, the potential legal increase
in infill is
9,500. Not only is this infill uncalled for, it is uncontrolled.

The city is now trying to convince neighborhoods that they will have
the say
regarding "the where" of infill. The idea of changing the
family number is
diametrically opposed to the notion of neighborhood

I ask that the council immediately table any further vote on changing
the city
code regarding family until such time as an appropriate group,
to include
representatives from the neighborhoods, has the opportunity
to voice its

You can help by writing the members of the Bellingham City Council and
Mayor to tell them that you do not support such a backdoor method
of increasing
infill in single family zoned areas.

Note: To contact the mayor and the council members go to the City of
Bellingham website ( and click on the links to the office
of the mayor and/or the council. There you will find all the necessary
addresses for the mayor and for the individual council members or for
the council as a whole. For council members, there are on-the-page email
forms you can fill out to send emails.