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.


Larry said...


Thanks for reminding us that we do not need to experience a “teachable moment” directly to actually learn from it. Unfortunately, as we both know, bureaucracies and inaction are very happy bedfellows.

To our existing Council Members: Please remember why you ran for office and encouraged all of us to vote for you. We did and have held up our end of the bargain. You promised not to get bogged down by the bureaucratic morass and to champion a host of causes that protect and improve the welfare of your constituency. If you have found that you cannot do what you set out to accomplish, please let us know and consider stepping aside, or consider adding your support behind someone who can.

To those who may consider running for office: Please don’t make empty promises. If you enjoy the inaction of bureaucracy, please don’t apply. Let someone who will actually get something done get involved. If you believe you can be effective and are fortunate enough to get elected, please do your best to break through the morass. The respect and admiration of the community is yours for the taking.

zonemaven said...

Larry, thank you for your comment. I agree.

I am a recovering bureaucrat and know far too well that government has a tendency to inaction in the face of multiple warnings, to wit, 9/11! Perhaps it is time to reread the campaign promises posted on the various websites of our elected municipal leaders and remind them of their engagements.

Anonymous said...

I suggest that we start inspections of owner occupied first. Since fire hazards also will be found in owner occupied dwelling units. So much for the right to privacy. Of course being a gov't employee what do you care.

zonemaven said...

Dear Anonymous,

You know that I hear your argument a lot in comments about safety and health with respect landlord licensing. Your argument is a red herring.

The difference between a private residence and a rental is that the rental is offered to others (essentially the public) and then a contractual engagement is made between the landlord and the renter - a business deal. There are certain rules to be followed in such transactions among which are those recognized by the state in its landlord-tenant laws. The state normally has no interest in inspecting anyone's kitchen but when the kitchen is offered to serve the public then certain rules apply. That is why the local burger joint must submit to inspections and follow health rules. The same logic ought to be followed in the offering of a home for rent. That structure should be sound, its systems should be operating properly and safely and the place should be free of health hazards in the way of contaminants, insects, vermin or what-have-you. I think you would not want any member of your family to rent in a place for which the sole guarantee of it being safe and secure is the word of the landlord. Likewise it is in the interest of the government, in this case the city of Bellingham, to regulate businesses in the domain of health and welfare of its citizens.

Anonymous said...

Spoken like a true liberal.

zonemaven said...

I prefer the term human being.