Thursday, October 9, 2008

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 This motion was withdrawn and the council agreed to consider a range of options to deal with the issue of illegal rooming houses.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.

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