Saturday, November 8, 2008

Opportunity Knocks - Mayor Pike's Answer Lacking

Two months after my letter (click here to read my missive) to Mayor Pike on illegal rooming houses and his campaign statements on the subject, I received the disappointing response you can read by clicking on the image at left. I suggested bold action and leadership on Mayor Pike’s part but found little of either in his largely bureaucratic response.

The Mayor states that he has been working more closely with his staff and counsel to more fully understand the issue but then states that “this is not simply a matter of counting people in their homes” and that “Problems typically arise around over-parking, litter and noise.” Unfortunately, illegal rooming houses remain a problem precisely because the Mayor and his staff continue to misapprehend the issues. Illegal rooming houses represent uncontrolled infill, which the Mayor has not acknowledged, thus undermining his statements that he is committed to the quality and character of our neighborhoods. Rooming houses, born of greed and scofflaw attitudes, are the equivalent of multi-family housing and therefore are incompatible with single family neighborhoods. Focusing on litter, noise and parking, although important aspects of quality of life in our city, does not address one whit this unregulated and illegal infill and belies our city government’s concern over controlling infill of other kinds produced by zoning changes, urban villages, infill tool kits, etc.

Were it not for Terry Bornemann, who asked for a pilot project over a year ago to enforce the zoning code on single family rentals, there likely would have been no action on code enforcement. No such initiative sprung from City Hall which merely reacted to a push from the City Council. Yet again this summer, Jack Weiss asked for a six part approach to the issue of illegal rooming houses (click here, here, here, here, here, here and here to refresh your memory on his suggestions). Again, the city management found itself in a mode of reacting to Council and, after nearly 4 months, has still not returned to Council with its ideas on implementation. The creation of a Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team, if approved, may address with greater vigor some of the nuisances about which the Mayor spoke (litter, noise, parking, etc.). The team as described in the 2009 budget (click here to read the proposal – see page nine) does not appear to be one which would engage illegal infill by rooming house.

As for landlord licensing, the Mayor merely states that the City Council’s Legislative Policy Analyst has been researching options. Again, this stems not from any initiative from City Hall but from Council Member Jack Weiss. My letter asked for some leadership from the Mayor on this and illegal rooming houses but this was lacking in the Mayor’s response. What does the Mayor want with regard to landlord licensing? We hear many statements regarding the development of waterfront where nobody lives but we have little notion of the Mayor’s thinking on landlord licensing which deeply affects our neighborhoods. Maybe it is time for some benign neglect with respect to the waterfront and a more intense focus on the issues which affect the daily lives of our citizens. Tear down the ugly structures, plant grass and revisit the waterfront in 5 or 10 years.

To his credit, our Police Chief, Todd Ramsay, moved quickly to establish the position of Neighborhood Enforcement Officer, which was the card dealt to him by the City Council members, who, instead of approving a full time Code Enforcement Officer, decided to opt for the cheap fix of adding duties to the position of Litter Control Officer even though a modest licensing program with fees for landlords of the 15,000 (plus) rentals would have provided more than enough money to fund a full-time position. Bellingham’s population has doubled over the decades but the city believes it can still operate with only one Code Enforcement Officer. Similar towns across the nation have 3-5 employees doing code enforcement.

As for my suggestion to the Mayor that he “notify a heretofore unconcerned Western Washington University that our city is not a de facto sponge created to soak up their student renters each year…” there was no response. Jack Weiss has urged a dialogue with WWU as part of his proposals tangential to illegal rooming houses but we have little idea of the Mayor’s take on the initiative. If our Mayor has been talking to the new university management on this subject, I have found nothing communicated to the citizenry. My letter would have been an opportunity for the Mayor to tell us about his talks with WWU. The new university president, regrettably, has his eyes focused on the waterfront and, blinded by the glare of Bellingham Bay, has yet to answer my 17 September letter to him (click here to read that missive).

It is disheartening to see that the Mayor missed an opportunity to place himself in front of an issue having to do with maintaining the quality of our neighborhoods. My counsel to the Mayor is that, the next time he gazes at that desolate waterfront, he turn around and look at the neighborhoods and think about the folks living there.

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