Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly fly the years" *

So swiftly that this month marks the second anniversary of Twilight Zoning in Bellingham. The Zonemaven notes that there have been about 20,000 hits on his blog since its inception. Sadly, the first blog entry, dated 13 August 2007, is as valid today as it was at the time it was written. (Click here to read that 2007 entry) So much for progress in the City of Bellingham.

There was for a brief, shining moment an expectation that the whole of the problems associated with illegal rooming houses might be addressed with a concerted effort on the part of the Bellingham City Council. This is the first anniversary of the City Council’s positive decision to take a comprehensive look at the problem surrounding single family zoning. The original proposal from Jack Weiss was to change the definition of family to increase the number of unrelated individuals allowed to occupy a single family home – a change from the current 3 unrelated individuals. The Council decided not to act on that proposal, however, below is an excerpt of their ultimate decision from the minutes of the 4 August 2008 meeting. As you will see, not much has been done.


It was the consensus of the Council that this proposal needs additional information.

Council Member Weiss presented six categories that he would like to be looked at in a comprehensive way:

1. Look at Title 20 codes and create infractions instead of criminal prosecutions.
2. Look at landlord licensing and an accountability program increasing quality of rentals in the community as well as being able to track overcrowding situations.
3. Look at the definition of family and to either keep it the way it is, add to it, eliminate it or come up with another type of mechanism - such as a square footage per person program.
4. Upgrade Litter Control Officer (already done) so enforcement opportunities are better.
5. Look at upgrades to the city's nuisance ordinances.
6. Initiate discussions with the University to allow the University to understand city and neighborhood concerns about the impacts of increased enrollment on the community and what we would hope that the University would do in a cooperative manner with the city.

Council President Barbara Ryan noted that Mark Gardener, Policy Analyst is working on this proposal.

WEISS / KNUTSON moved to not initiate consideration of amending the Definition of Family - BMC 20.08.020(f)(1). MOTION CARRIED 6-0.”

So a year later, it may be instructive to review one by one the progress of the Council on these points. Very few actions indicate a comprehensive approach. We seem to have, yet again, the Council saying “Ready. Aim. Aim. Aim. Aim….” Since item 4, the upgrade of the position of the Litter Control Officer, had already been put into effect by previous Council action, 5 actions remain.

- Number one: The idea behind this action was to remove the criminal aspect of infractions of certain codes by making such infractions civil in nature. I support such changes in that proving civil offenses requires a preponderance of evidence and not the more onerous “beyond a reasonable doubt” condition. You can find more on the difference between the two by clicking here. At the same time the civil infractions result normally in fines or payment of damages – not imprisonment. My previous blog entry on the subject can be read by clicking here. Progress to date? This remains a mystery. These topics certainly have not been brought before the City Council in the past year. Perhaps it is knocking about within the walls of the city government like a photon on its journey to escape from the center of the sun. That poor little photon only takes 30,000 years to get out.

- Landlord licensing. This issue was quite rapidly acted upon by the Legislative Policy Analyst of the City Council whose report was available as of October, 2008. Regrettably, it did not see the light of day until a friend of mine obtained a copy from the analyst and passed to me a copy of the issue paper in May 2009. At that time, the paper was finally sent around to the departments for comment. See my 1 June blog entry on the issue paper by clicking here. You can read the entire issue paper, entitled “Options for a Rental Housing Licensing and Quality Inspection Program in Bellingham, on landlord licensing (26 pages) by clicking here. The Council has yet to have any public discussion on the matter, nearly a year after the paper was available. The Mayor, in a recent letter to a concerned citizen states, "We continue to research successful landlord licensing programs so that we can come to a solution that works best for all parties involved. In this current economic climate, implementation of any program will require significant start up costs and management. These are resources the City simply does not have at this time.” No matter the resources and time the city spent promoting the Infill Tool Kit and the Waterfront whose necessity at this time was problematic at best. No matter also that the lack of a licensing program perpetuates the uninspected and uncontrolled rental market. (Read my blog entry on the dangers the city courts by clicking here) Interestingly, the Mayor forgets that the licensing program will actually bring money into the city coffers, even with modest fees. This is amply demonstrated in the issue paper on rental licensing options mentioned above.

- Third, the Council asked staff to look at the definition of family. Staff had already done some work on that in June, 2008 when it finally “discovered” that laws limiting the number of unrelated people living in a single family home were not unconstitutional despite previous claims to the contrary by our city leaders. (See Agenda Bill 018021 on this subject by clicking here) My blog entry on the subject of changing the code by varying the numbers contains information given to the Council prior to the 4 August 2008 meeting. (Click here to read that blog entry.) More dancing around the Maypole.

- The fourth item, upgrading the position of Litter Control Officer to that of Neighborhood Compliance Officer, had already been done. (My blog entry on that can be read by clicking here) Suffice it to say, there has not been a wholesale shutdown of illegal rooming houses since last summer. This may in part be due to the fact that nowhere on the City of Bellingham website is it posted the manner in which one is to bring a complaint on illegal rooming houses to the attention of the city. The form developed by the Police Department has not been made available on its web pages. Enforcement may also be more effective by decriminalizing the code violations so that the Neighborhood Compliance Officer might have more latitude. Then again, the policy makers and the city managers must support him in his duties and not treat the term enforcement as if it were a four-letter word.

- Number five is to look at upgrading nuisance ordinances. By that the Council meant codes regarding parking, litter, noise, and other nuisances, to include urinating on lawns. I am not sure of the Council’s definition of “upgrade” with respect to these nuisance codes. Perhaps enforcement (oops, that four-letter word again!) is part of the upgrade but for many of these offenses, the officer responding must witness the violation. So that party that has been keeping you up for the past three hours suddenly goes silent as the police arrive and the response is the equivalent of the “mechanic’s shrug”. The danger with this element of the “comprehensive” look at illegal rooming houses is that our Council and city managers would have you believe that illegal rooming houses are too hard to control so we will just deal with the nuisances. Here is the Mayor’s response to a friend who has complained about zoning enforcement on illegal rooming houses “With regard to the issue of housing code enforcement, the city has determined that targeting the symptoms of overcrowding, such as parking, noise and litter, is of primary importance since those are offenses that can be supported by evidence ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. They are also offenses which almost often are negatively impacting nearby residents and contributing to neighborhood disturbance. Our Bellingham Police Department routinely responds to complaints about parking, noise and litter and officers issue citations when warranted by evidence.” This is called zoning enforcement (oops!) by nuisance control. So the Mayor, by logical inference, believes that it is permissible for your street to turn into a rooming house district (that pesky "overcrowding") as long as the nuisances are somewhat controlled. Neighborhood death by deterioration is the result. Click here, here and here to read about neighborhood situations which would, ostensibly, be OK by the Mayor under his statement above.

- The last item has to do with WWU working in a cooperative manner with the city (in this case the City Council) to solve some of the issues that stem from the presence of 14,000 students who descend on the area each year. (Click here to read an interesting study on town/gown relations. You will no doubt have moments of clear déjà vu.) My expectations, that the arrival of Dr. Shepard as the new president would begin a new era in “town gown” relationships, were not wholly met. (See my blog entries on this topic by clicking here and here.) The arrival of Mr. Steve Swan, the new Vice-President for University Relations, early this year offered yet another opportunity for the university to overcome citizen perceptions (not to mention the reality) of it as a scholastic Jabba-the-Hut, belching and drooling from Sehome Hill without regard to the mess it is creating. I have met several times with Mr. Swan and found him to be open and interested in the problems between WWU and the city to include the future of the Campus Community Coaltion. (click here to read about my initial meeting with him). I have no evidence that the City Council has opened up a dialogue with the university as part of the six comprehensive steps proposed by Jack Weiss

It is painfully obvious that a coordinated effort, necessary to solve issues around rentals (health, safety), illegal rooming houses, code enforcement, etc., remains sadly lacking. Lest my fellow citizens come to view the City Council as punjandra, I call on them to return immediately to the previously agreed upon, comprehensive approach.

*From the Song lyrics (click here) from The Fiddler on the Roof.

1 comment:

Terry said...

Re: 1. Look at Title 20 codes and create infractions instead of criminal prosecutions.
2. Look at landlord licensing and an accountability program increasing quality of rentals in the community as well as being able to track overcrowding situations.

1. Civil infractions are a great way to extract more cash from a group you want to target. Way to go!

2. Not surprising there's no interest in increasing affordability of rentals. Perhaps combined with #1, the students (at least the ones not subsidized by parents or financial aid) will have to go live Somewhere Else.