Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Planning or Development Commission?

 Note:  This piece appeared earlier this week on NWCitizen.

As a result of receiving notification of the plans to rezone two properties in the Samish Neighborhood, I found that the company spearheading each of these rezones was owned by a member of our seven-member Planning Commission.  In and of itself, this was not a problem, if the particular Planning Commission member recused him/herself from the consideration and vote on these rezones when they came before the commission.  However, on further investigation, I learned that every member of the our present Planning Commission is involved with or has/had close ties to businesses that owe their existence to development, i.e., real estate, consulting, construction, architecture, etc.  Here is the rundown of the current members and their affiliations/employment:

Tom Grinstad – Architect with Grinstad and Wagner

Jeff Brown -  Assistant Executive Director at Bellingham and Park Lane at Bellingham, a nursing home.  However, his wife works for Northwest Ecological Services which advises clients on wetland and shoreline permits for development.

Garrett O'Brien – Volonta Corp. - A construction firm

Ali Taysi – AVT Consulting – Land use and permitting  (His company is involved in the two rezones I mentioned above.)

Phyllis McKee - Investment real estate management

Steve Crooks – Petrol NW Consulting (He spent several years in Bellingham in the 1970s and returned in 2007. He is a retired real estate project manager. He was responsible for handling eminent domain and zoning appeal cases for BP Exploration Oil’s retail and distribution sites. He served as BP's information officer for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response team in the summer of 2010. He is currently president of the Cordata Neighborhood Association.)

Cerise Noah - Realtor/broker with Windermere

I must state up front that this discovery by no means suggests any member of the Bellingham Planning Commission is involved in nefarious activities based on his or her affilitation and appointment to the commission.  What I do suggest is that we can surely have a more diverse body involved in our planning process. Of the tens of thousands of adults in Bellingham, are only those involved in development available to serve on the Planning Commission?  How wide a net is cast at the time of an opening on the commission? Five of the current members will serve until at least 2017 (exceptions are Brown and O'Brien) thus ensuring an imbalance with development-related members.

Unfortunately, the one assured means of code-mandated neighborhood input into the planning process was rendered useless in 2012. The Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) was, by city ordinance, written into the process of neighborhood and comprehensive plan amendments. The concept of discontinuing the involvement of MNAC (by ordinance) was proposed by Mayor Linville in late 2012, at which time the MNAC representatives foolishly voted themselves out of the planning process. (Note: I am a member of MNAC and voted against the mayor's recommendation.) With that single vote, they gave up one of the few opportunities for the neighborhoods, as a body, to officially weigh into planning and serve as a counterbalance of sorts to the preponderance of development-related representatives on the Planning Commission. The new city ordinance on the duties of MNAC (BMC 2.33.040) allows MNAC to merely offer advice: "The MNAC may elect to review proposed changes to the city's comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans and provide comment on those proposed changes for the Mayor to consider."  The agenda bill (19808) of early 2013 that was presented by the mayor to the City Council stated that dropping the requirement to review these plan ammendments would allow MNAC members to focus on "broader, city wide issues." I am not sure what is more broad, city-wide or vitally important than neighborhood and comprehensive plan ammendments. 

Not surprisingly, there also seems to be some confusion over the actual name of the commission. The city ordinance that authorizes the commission (BMC 2.24) refers to it as the Planning and Development Commission. The commission's bylaws, adopted in 2011, begin by saying, "The official name of the organization shall be the Bellingham Planning Commission."  The name, Bellingham Planning Commission, was expressly selected with the adoption of the commission's 2011 bylaws and the Bellingham Municipal Code was to have been updated at that time. It appears council action is still necessary.  Although there is a small difference in wording, the implication of dropping "development" from the title reflects where the emphasis should be, i.e., directly and emphatically on planning.  Perhaps the future composition of the Planning Commission will reflect that emphasis.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Comments on Mayor's Proposed Ordinance for Rental Registration

I have sent the email below to the city council's Planning Committee to voice my concerns regarding the proposed ordinance to ensure the health and safety of the renters in Bellingham.   They will meet to consider this agenda bill at 10:30am on 21 April in council chambers.

From: richard conoboy
Sent: Sunday, April 20, 2014 4:50 PM
To: 'Weiss, Jack'; 'GKnutson@cob.org'; 'rjmurphy@cob.org'
Cc: 'CLehman@cob.org'; 'Lilliquist, Michael W.'; 'TBornemann@cob.org'; 'ptvargas@cob.org'; 'Linville, Kelli J.'; 'jthomas@cob.org'; 'pruffatto@cob.org'; 'mgardner@cob.org'
Subject: Mayor's Rental Registration Proposal

Members of the Planning Committee,

I have had the opportunity to review the proposal by the mayor for registration and inspection of rental units (Agenda Bill 20382) and would like to offer several preliminary comments to you prior to the Planning Committee meeting [on Monday].   That being said, I would like to say also that it is obvious that a lot of work went into this draft ordinance and that not all portions are insufficient to the task of ensuring the health and safety of our renters.  Such parts of this draft should be maintained.  There are some major problems, nevertheless, and these I outline below.

Regrettably, the essence of this proposed ordinance is a continuation of the current complaint-driven system with the addition of registration and a dollop of self-certification.  Without a strong, comprehensive and cyclical inspection system of all units predominantly carried out by city employed-code inspectors, substandard housing will continue.  We know that complaint-driven systems do not work.  For evidence look at the past 50 years or so.  If this system had worked, we would not be discussing this issue today.

The self-certification component is essentially asking that a landlord act as an inspector.  No one has been able to demonstrate that either landlords or tenants have sufficient knowledge of building issues (even if provided a checklist) to make determinations about health and safety problems.  Were landlords so capable, professional inspectors would already be out of a job and the state and professional certification of code inspectors would have no purpose.  Such a requirement for self-certification is not likely to produce safer units but to lull both landlord and tenant into a false sense of security.  What happens after the first electrical fire maims or kills a tenant after the landlord self-certifies that the rental unit’s electrical system is just hunky-dory?  What takes place after a landlord is unable to recognize that the deck at the back of his unit is structurally unsound and it collapses with a dozen party-goers on it?

The provision for an “audit”  of  “no more than”  .5% of the registered rentals each year is a manifestly insufficient replacement for cyclical inspections of all units.  .5% is equal to approximately 65 units based on the city’s estimate of 13,000 rental units eligible to be brought into the system.  In fact, the ordinance does not even require the inspection of the maximum number of units under the .5% rule but any number up to the equivalent of .5%.   So the city could safely inspect anywhere from 1 to 65 units and call it a job done – requirement met.  Even at 65 units per year, it will take the city about 200 years to eventually inspect/audit all the units. 

The 3 year sunset provision is unnecessarily short and perhaps even unnecessary.  The city has to have some leeway for start-up time to register all rental units and then begin inspections.  On what basis will a future city council decide  3 years hence that the ordinance is successful?   How many units will have been inspected under this proposal by the sunset date – 65?  130? maximum, maybe?   That about equals the same useless statistical data and basis for action that the enforcement staff presented to the city council months ago about code enforcement complaints received in recent years. 

There should be no exemption for detached ADUs and  carriage houses associated with single family homes.   Given that these units are separate, even owner occupation of one of the units is not sufficient incentive that the owner will routinely take care of the other, separate unit in which the renters live.   Look right now at all the unregistered and poorly maintained detached ADUs where the owner is living in the main unit.  In fact, the incentive is to rent both the main house and the ADU/Carriage house to make additional money.  Duplexes and single family rental homes in which the landlord lives in an attached ADU or in one of the duplex units might well be appropriately exempt.  With the landlord actually living under the same roof and physically sharing the same quality of maintenance, the incentive for safety becomes a tad more personal to the owner.

Last, I think the stated purpose in the introduction of the draft ordinance should be made stronger by saying “ensuring the proper maintenance of residential rental housing” .  The idea of merely “encouraging” landlords to maintain their units is not a sufficiently strong statement.  We do not encourage builders to adhere to building codes but require them to do so.  Why should we only “encourage” landlords to maintain rental units for which members of the public will pay money to live?


Dick Conoboy
Bellingham, WA

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mayor's Rental Registration Proposal Sent to City Council

At the 16 April meeting of the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission the Director of Planning, Jeff Thomas, reviewed the mayor's framework for a rental registration program that I had addressed in a previous blog entry last week.   The framework presented was a modification of a proposal made to the city council earlier in the year

Today, the updated proposal from the mayor , consisting of a memo outlining the framework and a draft ordinance, was posted on the city council website.  You can access the documents here.  The agenda item will be considered by the Planning Committee this coming Monday, 21 April at 10:30am in city council chambers. Normally, this consists of a presentation to the committee members of the proposal by the mayor and her staff.  Public comments are not usually heard at this time, however, the committee chair may invite members of the public to speak.  This is only the first in a number of meetings that are possible as the Planning Committee debates the measure and reports its discussions to the full council. 

As I had warned, the framework speaks to a weak inspection program.  In fact, upon registration, rental owners will only have to self-certify, in an un-sworn declaration, that their units meet basic safety and health standards.  In turn, the city will require an "audit", that is an actual inspection each year of randomly chosen units.  The sample will be painfully small, a meager .5% (one-half percent) of the total number of rental units in Bellingham now pegged at approximately 13,000 units. Do the math. That is 65 units to be inspected annually to ensure compliance.  Based on the experience (percentage of failed units) of other cities with inspection programs of all units, we can reasonably project that MINIMALLY 1,500 - 2,000 of Bellingham's rentals are sub-standard and a danger to the occupants.  That translates into health and safety dangers for nearly 5,000-6,000 tenants based on the average occupancy of a dwelling unit in the city.  Consequently, the proposal is to attempt to remedy that dangerous situation for thousands of renters by looking at a mere 65 units per year.  In a few decades, the city will have hit them all.

Stay tuned.  I will be providing further analysis of this proposed ordinance and program.   In the meantime, attend the Planning Committee meeting next Monday or watch the proceedings on BTV10.  You can also write your concerns to the city council at ccmail@cob.org and to the mayor at klinville@cob.org.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Six Rental Fires and a Meth Contamination since 2011.

In mid-February a group of five WWU female students were the victims of a 
fire which left the Garden St. home they rented uninhabitable (see photos).
Hole made by firefighters
Fire burned through roof at top
  The young women escaped unharmed but lost much of their possessions to the flames or smoke and water damage.  The cause of the fire is still undetermined as the fire department awaits the actions of one of the insurance companies that may perform its own investigation.  Absent arson, the determination of the cause and any attendant fault, often falls to the insurance companies, some of which are not eager to share the information they gather.  One of the residents claimed that the fire was electrical in origin, however, the fire marshal was not able to confirm that the cause was in the electrical system.  Although the home was old, the electrical system had been updated.

This is the sixth rental home fire since 2011.  Let us review these fires to see if any of them qualify as having been reported under Bellingham's current complaint-driven system that many, mostly landlords, insist is perfectly adequate.  Let us also look at the meth contaminated rental that sickened its occupants.

1404 Grant St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts in electrical junction box.  Tenants had noted problems with electrical system and alerted landlord several times.  Landlord failed to act.   No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1418 Ellis St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts when loosely connected electrical fan on apartment heater system falls to the floor and ignites carpeting.  Officials also find house rewired without permits.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

718 E. Maple St. on 30 Nov 2011.   Fire starts behind couch.  Possible cause is heater in proximity to combustible upholstery.  Tenants unaware. No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1208 24th St. on 1 Jan 2012.  Fire starts near baseboard heater that is fed by nearby and notoriously dangerous aluminum branch wiring.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

2338 Humboldt St. on 6 Mar 2013.  Electrical fire starts in attic.  Very old rental with frayed knob and tube wiring. Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1117 Garden St. on 19 Feb 2014.  Fire, possibly electric in origin, starts inside wall near kitchen.  Tenants unaware except shortly before fire breaks out.  No prior report to the city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

 618 Myrtle St. on 4 Nov 1013.   Student renters become ill after moving in.  Complaints made to landlord.  No action.  Renters contact the Health Department and made to pay for inspection.  Meth contamination confirmed.  House condemned.  No prior report made to city.

Complaint-driven system PARTIAL FAIL.

As far as I can tell, Bellingham's complaint-driven system failed miserably in all of these cases.  On what basis might one defend it then?  Beats me.  Complaint- driven systems are inherently and demonstrably unable to capture the extent of the danger presented by poorly maintained and un-inspected rental housing.  Furthermore, there is no reason to hang onto the shaky remnants of such code enforcement systems and "build" upon them.  It is a waste of effort, time and money. The city's own inadequate and poorly presented statistics on the risibly few reported violations are prima facie evidence that you cannot count on the knowledge of either the tenant or the landlord when it comes to assessing the condition of a rental home.

We need a system like so many other across the country in which periodic inspections are made of all rental unitsWashington State law specifically provides for this. 

Will someone have to die in one of these rentals before we establish an effective program to inspect them?  We almost achieved that with the 24th St. fire where several were grievously injured.  Since these registration/licensing and inspection programs can easily pay for themselves from the fees gathered, whose interests are being served by not creating a robust ordinance?

The mayor and her staff will be proposing a plan and a draft ordinance in the next few days.  Pay attention to the inspection portion of what comes forward.  If that is missing or weak, we essentially continue our present complaint-driven system with its terrible consequences.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Rental Ordinance Proposal Possibly Before City Council - 21 April

The City Council is likely to have a proposal on rental health and safety from the Mayor for consideration and discussion at the 1030am Planning Committee meeting on 21 April.  As with all agenda items, the public will not see the proposal until the council meeting agenda appears on 17 April.  As usual, last minute agenda modifications could throw the rental ordinance proposal into a later council session.  The next available council meeting would be on 5 May. 

According to Jack Weiss, the head of the Planning Committee, "This meeting will be for presentation and an introductory line of questions by the committee only."   This is not an unusual way of business but I would like to see eventually the public providing input during the committee's work sessions as was done last year when the council was debating a proposal from Councilman Weiss.

Earlier this year, the Mayor and her staff presented the outline of a rental inspection and "registration" program that received a lot of negative feedback.  I reviewed that proposed framework in a blog entry in early February entitled "Mayor's Rental Health and Safety Proposal Inadequate."  Fortunately, that proposal met some opposition and the Mayor and her staff went back to the drawing board.   Without going into details, any proposal that does not contain an active program of periodic inspections of rentals by the city is a problematic exercise.  Complaint-based systems simply do not work.  We know that through a CDC study and, moreover, by sad experience here in Bellingham where the present complaint-based system is a dismal failure. 

In an email to Councilman Weiss I lamented the timing of the Mayor's submission.  This serious effort to produce an ordinance comes up in late spring and summer, just as the academic year ends and the largest represented group of renters leaves town.  I wrote:

"This [the timing] deprives them [students] of a voice at a most critical moment and it deprives the mayor and the council of valuable feedback from the very people who will have to live with the consequences of whatever is brought forward.

Consequently, I would recommend that you continue the practice from previous Planning Committee meetings at which you welcomed comments from the public during the committee work sessions.  At least this will provide some opportunity for students and their reps to front load their views on whatever proposal is brought forward before final exams and the summer are upon them."

In any event, keep the date "21 April" open for the committee meeting at 10:30am in City Council chambers.  I will provide my readers a copy of the agenda bill on rentals next Thursday.