Thursday, October 9, 2008

Editorializing - Western Front Style

The Western Front Editorial Board was also busy on the subject of illegal rooming houses. Their editorial entitled Western Housing Crisis Hits the Streets, hit the WWU "newstands" on October 6th. You can read the editorial in its entirety by clicking here.

Here is my response to their editorial which I found long on opnion and short on facts.

Unfortunately, any crisis in housing of students is one of poor planning and neglect on the part of WWU and the City of Bellingham. WWU has not built a new dormitory in decades while the city has poorly addressed the problem of affordable housing.

Students may want to ask the university administration the reason for which so much time, effort and money are being spent to gain a foothold at the waterfront while student housing takes a place down the priority list. Instead, the university is complicit in an atmosphere of neglect which dumps students into a rental market which is not controlled, while asking the residents of our neighborhoods to absorb thousands of students in an unplanned and unregulated infill. The city, for its part, neglects to enforce its own zoning codes. Single family, live-in homeowners are now complaining about this infill and, perversely, are being labeled the “bad guys” because they want the law enforced.

As for the legality of the ordinance, the Editorial Board may want to back up its assertions with some facts. Ordinances such as we have in Bellingham have been upheld across the country by various state supreme courts. As early as 1974, the US Supreme Court in Belle Terre vs Boraas has upheld such zoning laws. The majority decision in this case was written by Justice William O. Douglas, champion of individual liberties. On my blog at I have provided links to other such court cases and I invite the editorial board to review those. Even Bellingham’s City Attorney has done research on this topic and found that our ordinance is compliant and reported that information to the City Council and the Mayor earlier this year.

Nonetheless, the Editorial Board states, “Not to mention, this ordinance is illegal. According to an article in The Western Front from spring 2008, if the law doesn’t discriminate against everyone, it can’t discriminate against anyone.” To be honest, I have no idea what this statement means. Furthermore, I caution the board about citing as a basis for argument an assertion made in its own newspaper by an uninformed writer.

The board also states that Washington State passed RCW 49.60.030 in the summer of 2007 which states people cannot be discriminated due to race, creed, color, national origin and many other factors, according to the Washington State Legislature Web site.” This notion was surfaced by one local attorney who provided his opinion on the matter. Since the Bellingham ordinance contains no mention of race, creed, color, or national origin, I am at a loss to understand its applicability. In any case, only a court can decide the issue.

As for the effect of thousands of students on the rental economy, the Editorial Board is correct. There is a distortion of the market that takes place when groups of individuals can pool their money to afford a rental which is out of the reach of a single family. This summer, a family was essentially forced out of a rental on my street when the landlord raised the rent to $2,200 per month, an amount unaffordable by the couple and their son. Inevitably, five students rented the home at $440 each.

Finally, the board states, “Students need to do their parts to be respectful of their property and neighbors. Students living in houses need to recognize their neighbors could be permanent Bellingham residents. Give them the respect you want in return; turn the music down, park correctly and pick up after yourself.” This is common sense advice but does not deal with the zoning issue which is one of density and infill.

Western Front on Advertising for Illegal Rooming Houses

The Western Front published an article on October 6th regarding the placement of advertising for single family home rental whose contents contravene Bellingham’s Municipal Code. You can read the entire article on the Front’s website by clicking here. As it contained numerous inaccuracies, I responded immediately in a comment to that article directly on the website of the Western Front.

My readers will remember I spoke to this issue earlier in my blog. You can refresh your memory of those comments by clicking here.

Zonemaven comments to the Western Front:

I am responding to the article … entitled “Housing ad censored.” Below I have quoted the relevant portions of the article by Mr. Cortes after which I have provided my comments.

“The Viking Union (VU) will no longer allow people to put up ads that do not comply with Bellingham’s three-person housing rule. The rule, which states no more than three unrelated people can occupy a single-family home, isn’t taken seriously and is seldom enforced, said Karen Walker, assistant director of housing.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Walker is correct in that the law has not been taken seriously. However, under a mandate from the City Council, enforcement of this portion of the Bellingham Municipal Code has now been placed directly under the Bellingham Police Department. The Neighborhood Compliance Officer is now authorized to respond to complaints of illegal rooming houses. The Planning Office is no longer involved in the process.

“The Bellingham code was brought to the attention of the director of VU facilities, Jim Schuster, by a blogger who gave him zzinformation (sic) about the three-person rule in Bellingham, Shuster said.”

Exactly. I have written several blog entries on this subject and have also written to the responsible officers of the Viking Union. You can read the blog entries at

“Schuster said he decided to wait and see what the Bellingham City Council was going to do about the code because there was talk among council members about it being changed. After the blogger again contacted Schuster to let him know the city council decided not to change the code he decided to take down ads that didn’t comply with the rule and put up disclaimers with information about the three-person rule.”

This summer, the council considered changing the code to allow 4 unrelated persons to rent a single family residence. This motion was withdrawn and the council agreed to consider a range of options to deal with the issue of illegal rooming houses. See my blog entry at: for more information on a proposal from Council Member Jack Weiss.

“Western is not going to fix the problem,” Schuster said. “It’s the city’s job to do that.” At the moment, the VU is waiting to get more information about the code and how the Bellingham City Council will handle it, Schuster said.”

Mr. Schuster is correct. It is the city’s ordinance. However, that does not exculpate WWU for its contribution to the problem.

“Problems arise when homes in generally quiet neighborhoods experience excessive noise due to houses containing more than three unrelated people, Lindsey Kershner from the Bellingham planning department said. Neighbors who get annoyed sometimes enforce the rule by calling the authorities, Walker said.”

This is a substantial misapprehension of the problem by Ms. Kershner and exemplifies the reason for which the city has dealt so poorly with the issue. There are two separate issues. One is zoning and density which is controlled by our codes and does not permit illegal rooming houses. The other issue is that of nuisances which are covered by other laws having to do with parking, underage drinking, noise, littering, public urination, etc. The nuisances can emanate from any dwelling regardless of the number of persons. The limitation on the number of persons prevents single family neighborhoods from becoming high density areas.

“ ‘The VU has banned ads that don’t follow the three person rule in an effort to stop the problem, but people will still find a way to fit more people in a single-family home because it makes rent affordable”, Western senior Brandon Love said. ‘I know people that live in a house with five other guys and rent is $300,’ Love said. ‘They can’t afford anything more than that.’ Bellingham has Western and Whatcom Community College students who need homes to live in, Western senior Troy Terry said. Like most college students around the country, money is tight and they are willing to do anything in order to save some money–even share a two-bedroom house with four people, he said. “I think that what the VU is doing is OK because they are just trying to enforce the law,” Terry said. ‘But I’m sure that no matter how many ads the VU turns down, the problem will still be there.’ ”

The VU cannot prevent the problem but it can stop adding to the problem by posting ads whose contents contravene the law. I understand and sympathize with students who cannot afford lodging, however, this is a crisis of affordable housing which has been poorly addressed by the city and which has been ignored by the university in spite of tremendous growth in the student population over the last few decades. Instead the city, which has not enforced its owned codes, has allowed illegal rooming houses to soak up the excess in single family neighborhoods. Now the single family, live-in homeowners are complaining and, perversely, have become the bad guys.

“Students are always trying to find ways to cut costs, such as carpooling, biking, splitting meals and sharing rooms, Terry said. If the three person rule was heavily enforced many college kids would be in difficult situations, he said.”

Students ought to be protesting the raw deal they get by having to crowd together in living arrangements which are controlled by nobody but the market. The fact is that this individual home rental market is totally uncontrolled, unlicensed and unregulated which places renters at risk with respect to health and safety. There are no inspections of these dwellings where overcrowding and lack of safety devices, emergency exits and suitable heating and plumping cannot be addressed.

“Love said there’s more than one place to put up ads, and if the VU won’t let students put up ads then they will go to other places, like supermarkets or gas stations. Schuster said a notice was posted in late September warning that ads breaking the rule would be taken down and that VU off-campus housing registry Web site would feature a notice saying the same.”

The point is that the university should be correct in that which it presents to its students. While ads placed outside the university are beyond the control of WWU, the institution’s role should be instructive in promoting the rule of law and the common weal.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Town/Gown Talks - Time for the City Council to Act

At the August 4th meeting of the City Council, the members voted to take comprehensive action on illegal rooming houses and related issues. Jack Weiss identified these issues as:

-Decriminalization of parts of the Bellingham City code to ease enforcement.
-Landlord licensing.
-Changing, in some manner, the definition of family.
-Enhancing enforcement of code violations (upgrade of Litter Control Officer position).
-Upgrading the nuisance ordinances.
-Beginning a dialogue with the new WWU administration under its new president.

I have spoken to the first 5 of these issues (of this six-legged stool) in previous blog entries. (You can read those by clicking here, here, here, here and here.) The sixth item relates to the relationship between the city and the university. Many of the problems manifest themselves in that which the City Council and the Mayor call nuisances, e.g. loud parties, litter, drunkenness, illegal parking, etc. I separate the issue of illegal rooming houses, which is a zoning and density problem, from the issue of nuisances which do not necessarily stem from illegal rooming houses, although there are still those who confound the two. That being said, there is reason for the city to talk seriously to the university about off-campus student behavior.

I wrote to Dr. Bruce Shepard, President of WWU, in an as yet unanswered letter (click here to read that letter) on 16 September and brought up nuisances as his interview with the Herald implied that he would continue the university’s largely hands-off attitude and asked that the community keep student behavior “in context”, whatever that means.

It is interesting to note that student off-campus behavior is under increased scrutiny nationwide and rightly so. A recent article from the Associate Press mentions actions at Washington State University, Duke, Rutgers, Ohio State and Penn State (click here to read the article). Nobody is advocating taking a club to students, however, rules covering off-campus behavior by their very existence can send a powerful message to those living or playing off-campus. Perhaps Dr. Shepard might wish to talk to Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd whose student code contains the following:

Article II: Proscribed Conduct

WAC 504-26-200 Jurisdiction of the university standards of conduct for students.

The university standards of conduct for students shall apply to conduct that occurs on university premises, at university sponsored activities, and to off-campus conduct that adversely affects the university community and/or the pursuit of its objectives. Each student is responsible for his/her conduct from the time of application for admission through the actual awarding of a degree, even though conduct may occur before classes begin or after classes end, as well as during the academic year and during periods between terms of actual enrollment. These standards shall apply to a student's conduct even if the student withdraws from school while a disciplinary matter is pending. The university has sole discretion to determine what conduct occurring off campus adversely impacts the university community and/or the pursuit of university objectives. (Click here to read the original on the WSU website.)

So the City Council and the Mayor should talk to WWU, and soon, as part of Jack Weiss’ proposal. They may want to bring a few Bellingham residents along for the discussions to provide "context."

NB. Here is a postscript to my blog entry of 29 September (click here to read that entry) regarding WWU and rental advertising. I visited the Viking Union on 4 October to view the housing rental bulletin board. As promised to me by Mr. Schuster, Director of Viking Union Facilities, I found no advertising for single family homes in violation of the Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC). No ads were posted under the headings of “4 and 5 Bedroom Rentals” which is good but leaves one to wonder the reason for which these categories are still there. My understanding was that a warning regarding posting of ads violating the BMC would also be placed on the board, however, I did not find any such notice.