Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Open Letter to Students on Rental Licensing

Although it may appear to be counter-intuitive to some, students should be at the forefront of support for a rental licensing law in Bellingham. A recent editorial in the Western Front suggested that licensing, although having some merit, is not for the moment as these are difficult economic times. (Click here to read the editorial) The Zonemaven believes that the editorial board is short-sighted in its assessment of the situation. This myopia not only places the current set of students at continuing risk, but also inconsiderately condemns those future students who might otherwise arrive in Bellingham to a safe and secure rental market.

In spite of claims that licensing will bring about rent increases, the reality is that a fee of $30-36 (which is that suggested in a recent study on licensing prepared for the City Council) might, if the landlord chooses, add a mere $3 per month to a rental charge. This will fund the licensing program and salaries for additional code enforcement personnel. The price of a large mocha coffee per month is hardly an unacceptable amount given the prospect of increased health and safety protections that a licensing and inspection program would bring. The Zonemaven’s question to the students is: “How valuable is your well-being?”

For those who lament possible rent increases due to required, post-inspection repairs, one must remember that present rents paid by students and young workers are as result of such increases that have taken place over the last several decades. There is no free ride. Landlords have not been in the business of charity nor will they likely begin to act as such. I do not advocate price gouging on their part but there is a certain amount of overhead in keeping a rental clean and safe. Landlords run a business, which is precisely the reason their properties should be licensed, inspected and then brought to code. If a landlord is incapable or unwilling to maintain his or her rental property, then that landlord would do best to get out of the business and sell the home.

The editorial also implies that inspections are unnecessary in that the tenant has the right to call for an inspection at any time. This is true but places the tenant (that means YOU) in the position of being an expert on furnaces, mold, structural integrity of homes, plumbing and wiring or of being sufficiently informed to divine that there is even a problem. Does anyone believe that more than a handful of the 8,500 Western students (more if you include WCC and BTC), who seek housing here each year, even think about vermin, wiring or structural integrity?

Student renters in Bellingham number well over 10,000, if one takes into account those at Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College. That is a potent political force. Use it! Why accept substandard housing? Why pay increasing rents in return for overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions? You, the students, are in a position to change the status quo. Tell the landlords and the city, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going take it anymore." (Thank you, Howard Beale) Tell the City Council that you expect Bellingham to control its rental housing stock and to make your home-away-from-home a peaceful, quiet and safe place to live. How much is your life and your health worth, regardless of the economic climate? At the time an accident occurs or a life is lost, what then will be the stance of the city government? Or of you, the students?

Write Mayor Dan Pike at mayorsoffice@cob.org. Write the City Council members at ccmail@cob.org. Tell them that you want to have safe housing not only now but for those coming to WWU, WCC and BTC in the future. Tell them you are also concerned about all the families of modest means who share the risks associated with being forced to live in an unlicensed and uninspected rental market. Yours can be a lasting legacy in this city.


Riley said...

I agree that the students of Western could be a potent political force if mobilized, unfortunately this is rarely the case. Most of them are registered elsewhere, uninterested in local politics, or too busy to be bothered. Not that they shouldn't be supporting safe living conditions, but I'm afraid their political might is rather limited. Unfortunately.

Zonemaven said...

Dear Riley,

You may be correct, however, movements start with small groups. I recently spoke with a small group of students all of whom had horror stories about rentals they had during the past several years. I think there is a reservoir of resentment there that can be captured and put to use as a political force. It will take the energy and leadership of a few individuals to create the spark. It will also make a nice line on someone's resume!

Riley said...

Not saying its impossible. I'm just saying there are some serious barriers to getting them out in force. I feel the Western vote is extremely hard to capture, but if you have it, you can do great things with it. Look at the effect they had on WTA with their bus pass initiative. They claimed a seat at the barginning table and held it. Anyway, I see what you are saying, and I hope someone does take up the cause.

Zonemaven said...


Sorry. The first of your two latest comments went into the ether. Only the second one was posted below. I approved both but one disappeared.