Monday, September 15, 2008

WWU Continues to Ignore Bellingham City Code

Western Washington University should stop publicizing rentals that violate Bellingham Municipal Code portions which are designed to prevent the creation of illegal rooming houses. The code explicitly states that a single family home shall have no more than three unrelated people. If there are more than three, then the landlord has created an illegal rooming house.

The Viking Union Off-Campus Housing Registry website, which presents available rentals to students, lists single family home rentals for more than three students. (The Registry website proclaims that it is the property of Western Washington University.) Similarly, the Western Front accepts ads for single family homes for 4 and 5 student renters. A bulletin board in the Viking Union (next to the Post Office) contains postings of similar rentals, some of which rent to 4, 5 and even 6 individuals. The off-campus registry is not unaware that rules and regulation govern rentals. It warns landlords, “Be sure that you are not violating your community or State laws that prevent discrimination.” Yet, when asking the landlord to indicate the numbers of renters to be allowed, the site merely advises that the landlord should indicate “the maximum number of people you will allow in your rental.” There is no mention of this “community’s” i.e. Bellingham’s, law limiting the number to three.

Several months ago I wrote to the responsible officers of the Association of Students of the Viking Union to point out the problem I outlined above. I never received an acknowledgment of my communication. On May 17th, I published an entry on the subject on my Zonemaven blog but had no response from university officials. (Click here to read that blog entry) At the minimum, the university should post warnings to students to the effect that by renting a home with more than three individuals, they, as well as the landlord, are breaking the law and liable for legal sanctions. Likewise, WWU should warn landlords that the university will only provide listings for rentals which are in compliance with the law. The university may also be courting a liability if it fails to do so.

It is time for WWU to do the right thing and set an example for its students by eliminating this highly problematic advertising from its website, its bulletin boards and the Western Front. Can the university expect its students to exhibit good citizenship when the institution itself does not demand integrity in its presentations to those very students?


Anonymous said...

Hi, I understand your concerns about the school/landlords not following the regulations set in place by the city, but I want to know what you propose to solve the problem? I am a former Western student and have recently moved back to Bellingham. It's hard to make ends meet sometimes, especially when you are a student and have no or a low-paying job - sharing a house with friends is the easiest way to cut costs. Should the big 5-7 bedroom houses stand empty because nobody would be able to afford to rent them with 3 or less people? Should they be split up into multiple units? I have seen several landlords (or property management companies) completely take advantage of students (especially when they are young!). It's easier for landlords to rent a rat-infested, leaky dump to a bunch of kids than to fix it up and provide a "real home" for families... just wanted to throw in my two cents!

zonemaven said...

One solution to the problem is to provide enough affordable housing which the city seems unable to do. The university also takes a hands-off stance with respect to providing additional housing either on or off-campus. There seems to be little coordination between these two entities with regard to growth in student FTEs on the campus or the Huxley-on-the-Bay project. If WWU and the city do not act, the social fabric within the city will continue to be rent and zoning will become a meaningless term.

Some infill ideas could provide more student housing, such as ADUs or carriage houses, however, since the city neglects enforcement of its own codes, these infill tools will most certainly be abused for reasons related to MONEY. I would be prone to support such infill if the city were to recognized that enforcement is not a dirty word.

I understand fully the rationale for students to group together to make housing affordable. I have said before in this blog that students are not stupid. That being said, they are plunged into an unregulated and uncontrolled rental market and told to fly by the seat of their pants to the delight and profit of scofflaw landlords.

The problem with converting homes to mini-apartment complexes is one of control of density and code standards. Merely, chopping up a large home to admit more renters can be a dangerous activity. Such rentals need to be controlled, the conversion work must be inspected and the neighborhoods should have a say in the effect of this infill on their lives and property values.

As an individual, you might start by writing to the council members and the mayor about your concerns on housing.