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.


Employed Middle-aged Adult said...

I always am amused when students cite that there is a "law against discrimination" when discussing zoning laws, but are happy to take advantage of "student" discounts when the rest of us working folks have to pay full price. Now THAT is discrimination:-)

Poindexter Prometheus Parkenfarker said...

Long on opinion and short on facts?
What are they doing at the western Front?
Don't they know that's my schtick?

zonemaven said...

Dear Parky,

As the saying goes, "Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery."

Do you not feel flattered?

Alternate opinion said...


Is it possible that the reference to the RCW is regarding discrimination based on "other factors"? It seems to me that discrimination based on legal legal/blood relation would fall into the realm of other factors. Just my two sense. As you pointed out, a court would have to make that interpretation.

All in all, I agree with the editorial board: "The ordinance is outdated and does not work in a college town." One need only look at other cities in WA to see that Bellingham is among the most strict, excessively so.

zonemaven said...

Dear Alternate,

The problem is that "other factors" are the words of the editorial board members who wrote the opinion piece. These words do not appear in RCW 49.60.030. The actual RCW portion reads as follows: "The right to be free from discrimination because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, honorably discharged veteran or military status, sexual orientation, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability or the use of a trained dog guide or service animal by a person with a disability is recognized as and declared to be a civil right." There is nothing mentioned about blood relationships or the lack thereof. These editorial board members do not do their homework.

So, if I were to concede that the ordinance is outdated (which I am not), with what will you replace it? How will you define "family" in the term "single family"? HOw will you control zoning in this city? There are many places throughout the Bellingham City Code where the term family is used. How do you suggest all that be re-written?

alternate opinion said...


We can agree that the wording in the anti-discrimination section of the RCW is ambiguous.

If you were to concede that the ordinance is outdated (which you're not), I would propose redefining "family" to include more unrealted persons living together. When looked at in the context of the entire state, Bellingham's definition certainly seems overly strict. The following are the numbers of unrelated persons living together still within the definition of "family" for other municipalities in our area:

-Mount Vernon: 8 unrelated persons
-Ferndale: 7 unrelated persons
-Everett: 8 unrelated persons

For cities closer in size to Bellingham, the definitions are still more reasonable the Bellingham's.

-Kent: 6 unrelated persons
-Yakima: 5 unrelated persons
-Lakewood: 6 unrelated persons

I think it would be very fair for Bellingham to redefine "Family" to include up to 5 unrelated persons living together in a single dwelling.

zonemaven said...

Dear Alternate,

I am afraid I see no ambiguity in the RCW portion. Perhaps you might explain the ambiguity you perceive.

I note that among the cities you cited only one, Lakewood, has a substantial university(hence transient) population. The two 2-yr colleges there have a combined enrollment of about 15,000. Two-year community colleges tend to attract those who already live in a community - hence the name "community college".

Given the highly urban environment in Lakewood, students can also live in a number of places in the surrounding area, thus the number of students seeking rentals in single family homes is likely less of a problem than it is in Bellingham where the pressures to live to together to save money are high.

Even if we were to raise our limit of unrelated people to 5, what would that accomplish? There are nearly 10,000 single family homes rented here in Bellingham. Raising the limit of unrelated individuals in those rentals from 3 to 5 will create an immediate opening for infill of 20,000 in a city which has pledged that it will control infill in our single family neighborhoods.