Friday, February 13, 2009

Infill Tool Kit - The Municipal Rosemary's Baby

The Infill Tool Kit final draft was posted yesterday on the City of Bellingham website. (Click here to read the document.) A plan, which should have been recognized as stillborn as it exited from the womb of Planning Academy II, continues to be offered nourishment by a planning department that does not recognize that it is schlepping around a sinister creature. This version of “Rosemary’s Baby” will now be presented to the City Council in a reprise of the 1968 film in which the parents as the main characters (the Council and City Hall), although dimly aware something is amiss, are the only ones who are not alert to the true character of the child (the “kit”/kid).

Finding that the final draft was on the city’s website, I posted the following on NWCitizen yesterday as a comment on an article by Larry Horowitz entitled Infill, Sinfill and Sprawl (click here to read Larry’s posting - worth your time):

“An appropriate column for today as the City of Bellingham has just released its final draft of the infill toolkit, which, we are told by Tim Stewart, will not be applicable to “current” single family zoned areas. One might think that this is an admission of the decades of neglect in enforcing the city’s zoning laws which has turned many neighborhoods into rooming house districts but to date nobody at City Hall would fess up to that being the intent. Perhaps they know that they are virtually incapable or unwilling to effectively enforce certain codes having to do with single family zoning or with the current crop of ADUs for that matter. To wit: There are only slightly more than 60 ADUs registered, as required, in the entire city (Is that not a risible number?), however, you have not seen any push at the Planning Office to register those which surely exist by the hundreds.

The city’s problem now is to sell this toolkit to neighborhoods not yet invaded by clandestine infill in the way of rooming houses. This will be a tough sell in that the citizenry knows full well that the chances of zoning codes being enforced after these infill toolkit thingies are built will be about as non-existent as the code enforcement has been over the last several decades on rentals and ADUs. 'Fool me once, shame on you; Fool me twice, shame on me.' Shame on the city.”

Zonemaven Meeting with New VP for University Relations

Last Monday I met with Steve Swan, the new Vice-President for University Relations at Western Washington University. The meeting was occasioned by my blog of 2 February (click here to read that entry) in which I gave my impressions of the Citizens’ Forum discussion of growth issues the previous Saturday. I lamented the absence of many council (city and county) members, not to mention members of the various planning commissions. I also noted the absence of anyone from the hierarchy of WWU to include Mr. Swan who just recently assumed his duties.

Mr. Swan immediately contacted me to say that he had had a previous commitment and was not able to attend. He also suggested that we get together soon, a refreshing change from the initial reactions I received following my letter to WWU President Shepard last fall (click here to read that letter). I was mildly optimistic that a conversation with Mr. Swan would be useful and I was not disappointed. I found someone willing to listen.

Our discussion was based mainly on the recommendations I had made to WWU President Shepard in my September letter and on the meeting that I subsequently had with Dr. Eileen Coughlin, Vice-President for Student Affairs and Academic Support Services, and Mr. Ted Pratt, Dean of Students (click here to read a summary of our meeting).

Initially, I reiterated my disappointment with the remarks that Dr. Shepard had made to the Bellingham Herald in an interview last September (click here to read the transcript) and that served as a basis for my letter. With Mr. Swan, I sensed openings in several areas. First, a conversation has begun with respect to the appropriateness of the Campus Community Coalition being subordinated (narrowly so) to the Office of Prevention and Wellness Services. The scope of interest of the Coalition has evolved beyond issues of alcohol consumption. Although that subject should remain one of interest to the Coalition, the greater Bellingham community sees the Coalition in a much broader context of relationships between the campus, the city government and the citizenry. This broader scope may finally be recognized.

Second is the waterfront, a subject that has been a prime concern of the university for many months now. At the same time, I told Mr. Swan that there was no concomitant talk of looking to public-private partnerships to ease a rental situation which forces students into creating illegal rooming houses as a substitute for affordable housing. Further talk of Huxley College at the waterfront suggested an increase in 500 students, which, according to Mr. Swan, is no longer the case. He stated that Huxley cannot absorb 500 more students. Nonetheless, I opined that there was still a serious problem in that each year over 8,000 students seek housing and that attempts to engage the university administration about the deleterious effect of this onslaught on the rental market have not met with much success. For its part, the city does not appear to have engaged the university on the issue of affordable housing being overrun by students and, as I have stated many times in this blog, have used the neighborhoods as sponges to take up the slack, even though that means turning a blind eye to its own zoning codes.

Third, there have been suggestions by some, including me, that the student code be amended to include sanctions for off-campus transgressions such as is the case at Washington State University in Pullman. Although Mr. Swan did not believe that this was necessary at WWU, I pursued the subject by noting that, although the university may think that off-campus behaviors ought to be controlled by the city government, there are not enough assets within the police department or other government offices to monitor, control or otherwise regulate thousands of students. Since local citizens often find that the city government cannot always respond to complaints, there ought to be a conduit for submitting complaints directly to the university. I suggested the office of University Judicial Affairs (Click here to see that website) be designated as the office to which local citizens could direct letters pertaining to student behavior which reflects badly upon the institution. This will also serve as a barometer within the university to track student behavior and to call repetitive complaints to the attention of the students involved.

We also spoke briefly about the advertizing of rentals at the Viking Student Union and in the Western Front which violate the Bellingham Municipal Code. I told Mr. Swan that the VU had already taken some actions on limiting this sort of advertizing (Click here and here to read my blog entries) but that I had heard nothing from the Western Front. We agreed that the university ought not be in a position of allowing such advertisements. This sends the wrong message from an institution which should be promoting honesty and integrity. I told Mr. Swan that, since I was already working with Mr. Ted Pratt, Dean of Students, and Mr. Jim Schuster, Director of the Viking Union, on the subject, I would keep him informed.

I also recommended to Mr. Swan that his office reach out to the Bellingham City Council which had expressed last August in a motion by Council Member Jack Weiss its desire to begin a dialogue with the new WWU administration. (Click here to read my blog on that topic) To date, the council has not indicated that a new outreach had been initiated from its offices.

My thanks again to Mr. Swan for his time. I am looking forward to further exchanges with him on the topics above.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Let This Be Our Teachable Moment

Yesterday, 4 February, a fire caused considerable damage to an apartment just blocks from Western Washington University. You can read the short article on this as it appeared in the Herald by clicking here. Nobody was hurt in yesterday’s blaze but the results could have easily been otherwise. (Click here to read my blog entry on an incident with quite a different outcome.)

Several months ago, I posted here a blog entry by a blogger in Lexington, Kentucky who also writes about illegal rooming houses in his town, which is home to the University of Kentucky. I am repeating here, in part, what he had to say (you can read his full blog entry by clicking here).

“But health and safety? That ought to be keeping people up at night, because God forbid it should ever happen here, but the internet is full of stories about rat traps and hell holes masquerading as rooming houses, boarding houses, lodging houses, apartment houses—call them what you want—burning to the ground and taking some poor unfortunate along for the ride.

And all too often, that’s when the teachable moment arrives. Only after such a tragedy shakes public officials from whatever stupor it is that immobilizes them, that insulates them, that locks their common sense tight in a box and keeps it from intruding on the business of the day, do they see what needs to be done and act accordingly. Apparently it’s human nature.

We’ve been lucky to have avoided this type of tragedy in Lexington, but make no mistake about it—it’s nothing more than dumb luck standing between where we are now and where we hope to never be. For years and years, we’ve debated about what has come to be called the student housing problem, more properly called the illegal lodging house problem, and we’ve come up empty. No concrete action. And in the absence of meaningful change, the problem has gotten worse. Entropy has a way of doing that, especially when it’s fueled by greed.”

I understand that the Bellingham City Council may soon (finally?) consider a landlord licensing ordinance (a subject last brought up in August 2008) which will affect the thousands of single family home rentals in this city that have never undergone the slightest control or inspection. These are the accidents waiting to happen. Not only will this be a first step in protecting the thousands of students who rent homes throughout the city, but it will also protect thousands of families whose only choice is to rent a home and thereby place themselves at the mercy of a landlord who now operates with impunity.

So, I call on the members of the City Council and the Mayor to ensure that this fire yesterday becomes our teachable moment and that they not be swayed by the weeping and gnashing of teeth which is surely to emerge from the landlords who will cry their nonsensical gloom and doom, financial disaster and property rights violation. Enough is enough. It is time to end the landlords’ tyranny over the system and avoid the ultimate teachable moment.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Zonemaven Reflects on Citizens' Forum Discussion

Last Saturday about 40 citizens met to discuss growth issues for Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham. (Click here to read my original blog entry announcing this event) This blog entry is not designed to be a summary of the give and take but to provide some comments on several aspects of the discussion which easily filled the allotted two hours. I will leave it to others to summarize the overall points of view and will post links to those summaries as they become available. Nonetheless, I found the session very informative and free-flowing especially without an official entity, seated on high, as if in judgment.

Only two members of the Bellingham City Council attended. Nobody came from the present Whatcom County Council but there may have been one from the County Planning Commission. Not a soul came from the Bellingham Planning Commission. I know these folks are busy, however, had I been in their shoes, I would have wanted to hear directly from the citizens. But that is the view from my angle. The Herald was also noticeable in its non-attendance. I will resist the urge to further characterize these absences. [I do note that certain “experts” (government and private sector planners) will offer a teaching experience to Whatcom County residents on Tuesday, 3 February in the afternoon (click here to see the Herald piece on this “short course”). Healthy doses of skepticism should be ingested prior to this event.]

I also noticed the dearth of any people from the administration of Western Washington University at our Saturday gathering. Dan Warner, a professor at WWU, made a presentation, however, he was not there to represent the university but came as a member of Futurewise. I had sent notification emails to all the senior staff and management of WWU prior to the event. I included the new Vice-President for University Relations, Steve Swan, in my notification email but, if he attended, he did so clandestinely. In my view, this is yet another instance which typifies the university’s absence from the conversation on growth in Bellingham. This is an institution which houses only 3,500 or so of its students and expects the neighborhoods to accommodate the rest – 8,000 or 9,000 give or take a few.

“When the students arrive, who cares where they rent?

That’s not our department, says WWU’s president.”*

The reason for my disappointment is the persitant disengagement of the university from a major quality of life issue for the permanent residents and homeowners of this town and from a situation in which the large numbers of its students distort the rental market rates and make it more and more difficult for a single family to rent a home in this city. I recently gave an example of this in my blog entry of last October 9th (click here to read the entry) wherein a family was forced out of a rental whose price rose to $2,200 per month and had to move to the county. Five students now rent the place illegally at $550/month each. The three members of the ousted family are now commuters from the county.

This warping of rental rates was also brought up during the meeting by a prominent member of the York Neighborhood, which has seen its share of illegal rooming houses but which also does more than most neighborhoods to be inclusive of all its residents. This neighborhood may soon be nominated for sainthood as it is considering actually working with the city on higher density infill on its downtown side border. (Click here to read the Herald article on the subject.) As commendable as this is, the neighborhood association ought to demand a quid pro quo from the city by which the city would rid the neighborhood of its plague of illegal rooming houses. In fact, if all the neighborhoods would adopt such a stance, perhaps the city would begin to pay attention to its codes and, by extension, to its neighborhoods.

*Thanks to mathematician and songwriter Tom Lehrer the spirit of whose lyrics I have appropriated here from the song entitled “Wernher von Braun”.

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”

Check out the entire lyrics for this by clicking here.