Last week an email was sent to rental owners indicating that the Northwest Rental Owners Association was organizing a committee in Bellingham to fight the rental “licensing ordinance”. No ordinance yet exists, even in draft, and the 26 page document attached to the email was a study done last year by Mark Gardner, the city council’s Legislative Policy Analyst. The Zonemaven reported on this document months ago. (Click here to read the draft study) The email further encourages members of the rental association to attend the 7 December 2009 City Council meeting at which Mr. Gardner will make a presentation of the core of his findings and ask the Council for further guidance. (The Zonemaven confirmed this plan during a telephone call with Mr. Gardner on 23 November.)
Nothing gets the collective heart of the landlords beating fast like the vision of being regulated in any way. The reason for which they should remain the only unregulated and unlicensed business in town has not yet been addressed by their association. An advanced party of the association made its appearance at the 23 November City Council meeting to speak their three minutes during the public comment period.
First up was Aaron Lukoff, who reminded all that he was Attorney Aaron Lukoff. He is, in fact, an attorney specializing in traffic cases and criminal matters. (His website is at http://lukofflegal.com/) Attorney Lukoff appears from time to time to speak before the council on housing rental issues. You can read about his previous “testimony” in my blog entries by clicking here and here. Attorney Lukoff’s main pitch is that the current Bellingham Municipal Code 20.08.020, that limits unrelated renters to three, is unconstitutional and violates certain portions of the Revised Code of Washington. This contention has not been determined by any court in Washington State. In fact, Attorney Lukoff should know that similar laws throughout the nation have been held to be constitutional by various state supreme courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1974 (Belle Terre vs. Boraas). Even the Bellingham City Attorney and staff reported on the legality of such municipal codes in Agenda Bill 018021 in June 08. (Click here to read this agenda bill) Nonetheless, the BMC on the definition of family has less to do with the entirety of the concept of rental housing licensing which speaks to much larger issues of health, safety and welfare of renters regardless of the status of the occupants.
Mike Barnes, the next speaker, lamented that the rental owners were not consulted in the process of developing the draft study on rental housing licensing. The landlords seem to forget that the study is supposed to be balanced and impartial to provide the Council members information from which to proceed. Once the Council decides, if at all, to continue to the stage of drafting an ordinance, then the various members of the public, to include landlords, will have their say in the matter. The idea is not to have special interests derail the study before it even begins. Mr. Barnes then went on to speak of laws already on the books for dealing with nuisances, overcrowding and health or safety issues, citing in particular, Washington State landlord-tenant laws already in effect. He also resurfaced the plaint that a licensing program will bloat the bureaucracy, cost too much and make it more difficult for people to rent homes. The Zonemaven has already dealt with these bugaboos in previous blog entries which you can read by clicking here and here.
A young woman, named Julie (my apologies, as I missed her last name), followed Mr. Barnes. She stated that a licensing law could have deleterious effects on non-traditional households (not further explained) and could lead to more foreclosures and increased rents. There is no reason for which non-traditional families, as recently recognized under Referendum 71, could not be included as an excepted group with a simple amendment to the Bellingham Ctiy Code 20.08.020. In fact, the Zonemaven has stated that in a previous blog entry. Julie did not further explain the manner in which a licensing law would produce further foreclosures or raise rents, thus leading to fewer options for affordable housing. The Zonemaven fails to see the manner in which a licensing fee of approximately $50 per year or less, as described in the Rental Housing Licensing Study, will break the bank for landlords or renters. Landlords have certainly not been above raising rents unilaterally at moments that suit their needs. Lastly, Julie states, “Face it, we live in a college town.” True, but that does not mean we have to have an unregulated and uninspected rental market for students and others who seek safe and affordable housing. Living in a college town also does not suggest that the permanent residents must endure boorish, illegal and uncivil conduct.
Last to speak was Dr. Daniel Larner, a professor at Western Washington University. Dr. Larner is a long-time civil rights activist and also a playwright and theater scholar. [Last June, I wrote an email to Dr. Larner, asking to meet with him to discuss the rental licensing program. He did not respond to my email.] He stated that he feared that the so-called “rule of three” of the BMC might be imbedded under legislation to license landlords and that renters might be placed in discriminatory situations and subject to invasions of privacy. He also said that the City of Bellingham may be at increased risked of lawsuits. The fact is that the City of Pasco has a rental licensing program that has undergone several court challenges and is operating quite well. Should the City of Bellingham adopt a similar rental licensing program, as suggested in the draft study, there is no reason to believe, as stated by Dr. Larner, that the city would come under increased risk with respect to court challenges. On the other hand, the Zonemaven sees an increased risk of a lawsuit against the city if it does not regulate rental properties. Should a renter die or suffer serious injuries or sickness as a result of the condition of a rental property, then the city would be hard pressed to explain to a court the reason for which it decided not to regulate rental properties. (Read more about this in my blog entry entitled We Do Not Know - But Do We Want to Know?)
I invite my readers to attend the City Council meeting on 7 December to speak support of a rental licensing program. Bellingham residents should reject attempts by the now unregulated business community (i.e. landlords) to sidestep their responsibility to provide a verifiably safe product.