Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mayor Pike Ducks Questions on Rental Licensing

On May 24th, the Bellingham City council had a discussion about rental licensing and inspections. During that exchange, Tim Stewart (former Director of Planning) and Mayor Pike made some unfounded and confusing assertions. (Click here to watch the video - discussion begins at 47 minutes on the counter) I wrote to the Mayor in June to challenge him on his comments. My letter follows:

"June 21, 2010

Mayor Dan Pike

City Hall

210 Lottie St.

Bellingham, WA 98225

Dear Mayor Pike,

I am writing this letter to request clarification of comments made by you and Mr. Tim Stewart at the 24 May meeting of the Planning/Neighborhoods and Community Development Committee. Having attended the session in Council chambers and having reviewed the video of the proceedings several times, I am very much troubled by your statements.

You and Mr. Stewart implied somewhat obliquely that the city of Auburn, WA had tried licensing program of some sort but that there were serious problems especially in single family areas. At one point in the rather confused exchange, you did very briefly interject that Auburn had not done inspections; however, there was the clear connotation that there was something to learn from their experience. As you well know, in spite of Mr. Stewart’s comments and his reference to conversations with former Auburn employee, Mr. Jim Tinner, there is not now nor has there ever been a rental inspection program in Auburn. I talked to several people in their planning department who indicated that they have rental licensing only, at $50 a license. Embedded in their licensing code is language pertaining to continuing criminal or nuisance activities within rentals and that is the issue for which Auburn will take action against a landlord. To compare the licensing program in Auburn with or to suggest that there is some similarity to the inspection program we are discussing in Bellingham is disingenuous. Even their licensing application contains the phrase: “The issuance of this business license does not imply compliance with the Zoning Code and International Fire and Building Codes.” (See attachment 1 by clicking here) I have also enclosed for your information the Auburn code portion on rental licensing (see attachment 2 by clicking here). As you will note, there are no provisions for self-certification and no mandatory safety/health inspections.

Moreover, I find your reference to the city of Auburn to be somewhat of a stretch. That you would select this city as an example while ignoring the city of Pasco, WA and its long term, successful program raises concerns of cherry-picking examples. In spite of your declaration to the contrary, both cities have sizable migrant populations. They have seasonal workers and we have 8,500 off-campus students from Western, not to mention thousands more from BTC and WCC who are off-campus. Furthermore, the Pasco program has survived several challenges in court. While I have found over one hundred cities (see attachment 3 by clicking here) with working rental licensing and inspection programs, I have tried but have yet to find one example of a program that was overturned on any grounds other than excessive licensing fees.

You also claim that you are not convinced of the sustainability of such a licensing program although the 24-page study on 21 October 2008 entitled “Options for a Rental Housing Licensing and Quality Inspection Program in Bellingham” from Mark Gardner, that appeared over 18 months ago, has ample data that a modest annual fee per unit would provide nearly a half million dollars per year. It is difficult to fathom the reason for which such monies would not finance a fairly robust inspection regime. Program costs would eventually decrease as rental units are brought into compliance and the rate of inspections naturally slows. Mr. Gardner provided further data to your staff and to the City Council on the financing options on 22 May 2009 in the form of a 4-page memorandum entitled “Program Variants for a Rental Housing Program.” Perhaps your staff has not shared that information with you. I have enclosed a copy at attachment 4 for your convenience. (Click here for attachment 4)

You also attempted to dissuade and distract the council by saying that the push for licensing comes from a few disgruntled people whose true aim is to ensure the enforcement of single family zoning codes. This is a red herring argument, one which I have repeatedly dismissed, even as I am a member of the so-called “disgruntled”. The code on illegal rooming houses must be dealt with but within its own context - zoning. I urged the council to take up this issue in a separate venue for the purpose of decriminalizing violations and ensuring the inclusion of Washington statutes on domestic partnerships in our code. Additionally, your unfortunate, unsubstantiated and repeated reference to the “unconstitutionality” of the single family zoning code injects a dollop of doubt into the argument that is not supported by case law, to include a Supreme Court decision in 1974 (see attachment 5 by clicking here). Your own City Attorney prepared an agenda item (Agenda Bill 18021) in June 2008 in which this bugaboo of “unconstitutionality” was definitively debunked. I have attached a copy of that item to refresh your memory. (See attachment 6 by clicking here)

You also indicated you had reservations with respect to privacy, although it was difficult to discern whether or not you were referring to the single family zoning issue or to licensing and inspection of rentals. This difficulty was caused by your seemingly purposeful tendency to mix the arguments on illegal rooming houses with that of rental licensing. No doubt that produces confusion before the Council and surely before the citizenry who should expect a clearer delineation of the facts from their Mayor. You will note that with respect to inspections, current state landlord/tenant law already allows a landlord to enter the premises with a 48 hour notice. A recent, 2010, addition to the RCW, Bill 6459 (see attachment 7 by clicking here) not only recognized the rights of municipalities to have rental licensing and inspections but also provides for administrative search warrants in the event the landlord or the tenant refuses entry for inspections.

You also stated that there are more imposing priorities without actually outlining them. This suggests a lack of awareness or avoidance of those issues of importance to the neighborhoods and to the City Council, not to mention student renters. I refer to your Neighborhood Advisory Commission’s recommendation “that a rental housing licensing and inspection ordinance be drawn up for review and discussion in 2010 in a public process.", to the letters you and the City Council received from the Samish, Sunnyland and York neighborhoods, to the editorial stance taken by the Western Front student newspaper (see attachment 8 by clicking here) and to the recent resolution passed by the Associated Students of Western Washington University (see attachment 9 by clicking here). You will also note that the City Council, in its 2009 document on Legacies and Strategic Commitments to “future generations”, commits to “support safe, affordable housing.”

I am providing a copy of this letter to the City Council and expect that at the next working session of the Planning/Neighborhoods and Community Development Committee, you address these topics in a forthright manner to clear up the ambiguities and misstatements stemming from your 24 May remarks."

The Mayor replied to my letter on 28 June. Click on the image at left to read his non -responsive missive which speaks for itself.