Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sound of Silence - The City Speaks

“And no one dared…
Disturb the sound of silence”


It is the end of 2008 and time to take stock of the “progress” on the issue of illegal rooming houses in Bellingham. The refrain from the Simon and Garfunkel song above seems to bring it all together.


It has been over a year now, more precisely October 2007, since Council Member Terry Bornemann asked for (See my blog entry on that action here) and the council subsequently voted for a “pilot program” to enforce the Bellingham Municipal Code with respect to illegal rooming houses. The sole city official who seems to have actually done anything on the subject is our Chief of Police, Todd Ramsay, who set up the program of enforcement which now falls under him, or, more precisely, the Neighborhood Compliance Officer. (Click here to read about that) The only problem is that, with the exception of its exposure on my blog, the process is virtually unknown. The Planning Department website, where the program used to lie, much like a wet towel on the locker room floor, has posted nothing to indicate that the Police Department is now the action agency. Perhaps, Tim Stewart will read this and take appropriate action to have his web pages reflect the change.


As for the City Council, the subject of illegal rooming houses was last discussed in early August when Council Member Jack Weiss proposed that which I call the Six Legged Stool for dealing with the issue. (Click here to read my blog on that meeting) The task of working on the six topical areas was given to Mark Gardener, the new Legislative Policy Analyst from whom the public has heard nothing, probably because the council has not resurrected the subject in 5 months in spite of my continuing comments on Jack Weiss' proposals in this blog (click here, here, here, here, here and here to read about each one).


I wrote Mayor Pike in September (Click here to read my letter) asking him to fulfill his campaign promise to enforce the code and to step out in front of the issue. His disappointing reply to me (click here to read this reply) outlined those actions everyone else was taking on the matter, thus missing my point completely. His preferred method of leading on the subject of illegal rooming houses looks as if to be from the rear, leaving the council as the point so that they can trigger the booby traps. In the words of the inimitable Moe Howard (of Larry, Curly and Moe fame), “I’ll lead the way. Go ahead!” Instead the city leadership whirls around like so many dreidels (I would have said “tops” or “Dervishes” but it is Hanukkah.) on the waterfront, which is going nowhere fast since we are headed with much greater rapidity for a depression (That’s right, you read it here first.). Then nobody will have any money to do anything except for the Terraquarium (read about that here) which might eventually have to serve as alternative affordable lodging (a true housing bubble!).


With the virtual silence of the city government, briefly I turned toward the beacon on the Hill at Sehome, Western Washington University, thinking that, perhaps, the new president, Dr. “Call me Bruce” Shepard might meet with me in the spirit of openness which he projected on his arrival. My September letter to him (Click here to read it) outlined several areas tangential to illegal rooming houses and of interest to the university. Seeing him, in fact, proved to be more difficult than expected as I was contacted by an individual in the university’s chain of command about five links down, who had been given the task to respond to me. I managed finally to clamber up the chain, eventually to meet with the Vice President for Student Affairs and Academic Support who graciously spent an hour with me chatting about my letter to Dr. Shepard. I will report on that encounter separately, however, I can characterize the meeting as “a frank exchange of views” which, in diplomatic-speak means we did not agree on much but left open some areas of discussion.


If we want to go back even further than this past year for silence on the subject, there is the abortive love-in at the Cruise Terminal four years ago when we were promised action on a landlord licensing law with the Council President proclaiming to the assembled group "We have heard you tonight!" Unfortunately, the night had largely been taken over by the horde of landlords who, we found to our shock and awe, were only mouthing the words to the chorus of Kumbaya. (Read here for a bit of history on the promises made and then forgotten.)


So, here we are in December and nothing is happening. In the words of the great philosopher W. T. Pooh, who knew when things were at a standstill…


“The more it snows

Tiddly Pom

The more it goes

Tiddly Pom

The more it goes

Tiddly Pom

On Snowing

And nobody knows

Tiddly Pom

How cold my toes

Tiddly Pom

How cold my toes

Tiddly Pom

Are growing”

5 comments:

mrostron said...

As an owner and resident of a home in a predominately single-family zoned area (upper sunnyland) I sympathize, but economics will win out in the long run I am afraid. If folks need to rent out space in their basements or garages to pay the mortgage, zoning laws or not, they will, and no amount of enforcement will stop it. I am already seeing some of this phenomenon here, and I suspect it will get worse before it gets better. If it were not for all the problems with automobile parking and traffic I would not reckon it to be such a bad thing. After all, a 2400 sq ft house occupied by two people is a pretty extravagant way to live... What we need to preserve
such neighborhoods are real financial incentives to keep things that way, if that is what we want in certain neighborhoods. Tax breaks for owners based on number of registered cars per address? Lowered property taxes for owners of single family dwellings that are only owner occupied?

zonemaven said...

Dear Mike,

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

If all we were speaking of was the occasional rental of a room or a mother-in-law suite, I would tend to agree with you, however, given the large number of single people and low income wage earners (mostly students) seeking rentals and the history of non-enforcement of codes, I must draw the line. Bellingham is not Anyville, USA but has a huge transient population coupled with the fact that 50% of single family homes are rentals, none of which are controlled in any way, shape or form. This is a recipe for abuse and disaster (wait until the first big fire).

The larger issue as I see it is the scofflaw culture which has been allowed to flourish here and which does not go unnoticed by either the landlords or the young students who make up the bulk of the renters in our illegal rooming houses. Such attitudes spill into other areas of life in our community. If the economic pressures you speak of continue (and I think they will) the problem will worsen.

Unfortunately, the city seems unable to attract any affordable housing and gets away with it because they can, simply by dumping renters into the neighborhoods and telling the live-in property owners to deal with it. This is dishonest and destructive, especially as they mouth the words "the character of our neighborhoods". Instead we are distracted by the waterfront, where nobody lives, save the occasional homeless person who manages to find a corner of a building out of the wind, as if the transformation of that area will solve our problems.

PS. If folks are rattling about in a large home, perhaps they might look to downsize rather than turn the place into a boarding house.

mrostron said...

I appreciate your efforts on this issue. Although you are certainly legally and perhaps even ethically correct, I only meant to point out there may simply be no way to end this problem through enforcement and zoning measures. Many behaviors are against the law, yet people still carry on, knowing the odds of getting caught or serious punishment if they do get nabbed, are pretty low. People are primarily motivated by economic pressures, so any economic advantages to proper zoning compliance will help. The carrot as well as the stick should be used.
The city seems to think their new
in-fill options will solve some of the problem, but I doubt that home-owners in single-family zoned areas are going to allow much of this without many skirmishes. Disclosure: I am a neighborhood rep for sunnyland, and we have been hashing over similar issues.

zonemaven said...

The problem in Bellingham is that it is all carrot and no stick. You could be right that enforcement might not work, however, one has to begin an enforcement program at some point to test its efficacy. That has not been done here to any appreciable extent, not to mention that the citizens of this city have become inured to years of non-feasance by city hall.

I have asked the Mayor to fulfill his campaign promise to enforce the code but he is essentially hiding behind the council. He can, if he chooses, use his position as a bully pulpit. That he has not done so speaks volumes.

As for the "infill tool kit", I have spoken to this many times in my blog. It is the result of a staged event (Planning Academy) by Tim Stewart to gain "approval" of some housing types that nobody really wants, to wit your own Sunnyland and the charrette charade last fall. Soon these types will be enshrined in the municipal code at which time the press for their use will outweigh common sense and, driven by the dollar, developers/property owners will demand enforcement. Mysteriously, the city will then grab the stick which had lain dusty in the corner and begin to whack at the neighborhoods with abandon.

mrostron said...

Neighborhoods will whack back just as fiercely, as was demonstrated in the "charette charade". The city will find itself in the equivalent of a block to block firefight as home-owners defend their property values with all means at their disposal. As we recently demonstrated, the neighborhood organizations are good base from which to organize resistance against such ill thought out schemes. It remains to be seen whether these groups can effectively pressure the city on the zoning issue, although it is certainly worth trying, in addition to efforts by directly affected individuals.