Sunday, June 6, 2010

Rental licensing contentious issue in Sehome

At the Bellingham City Council meeting on May 24 council members discussed the possibility of adopting a rental licensing ordinance that could subject rental properties to health and safety inspections.

With rental units comprising more than half of all properties in the Sehome neighborhood, the issue on rental licensing is a contentious one.

Licensing proponents visit Sehome neighborhood

At the May 25 neighborhood association meeting, Sehome neighbors heard from David Hopkinson of the York neighborhood on the benefits rental licensing.

“Licensing of rental properties has been established in cities all over the country,” Hopkinson said. “And where it’s been established, the quality of rental units has greatly increased.”

Hopkinson presented a 30-minute presentation on the benefits of rental licensing. Some of these benefits included increasing quality of life for renters, keeping landlords accountable for their properties and protecting the value of houses across the city.

“Most cities are complaint driven,” Hopkinson said. “This means nothing changes until someone complains, and even then sometimes no changes are made. The [Center for Disease Control] determined complaint driven correction is insufficient.”

Hopkinson said that the short-term goal of rental licensing is to increase safety in rental units and the long-term goal is to stop slums from forming in areas where rental units are substandard.

Neighborhood association president Charles Dyer said the association would not take a stance until an ordinance was formally proposed to the city.
“Personally, I am for it,” Dyer said. “I think safety issues in Sehome are worse than say in the Roosevelt neighborhood where the rentals are long term. There a renter can say, ‘hey fix this or I’m moving out,’ and the landlord will fix it right away. But in Sehome the landlord can always find a new tenant and often they don’t fix the problem before the new tenant moves in.”

Landlords fear costs of licensing

Landlord Jane Byrd (name changed for this story) said she and her husband own nearly 50 units in Bellingham, 37 of these are in the Sehome neighborhood.

Byrd said her biggest concern about the licensing issue is the city enforcing the three unrelated persons rule. The three unrelated persons ordinance is a standing Bellingham law that states that no more than three unrelated people can live in a unit together.

“The city council is trying to push this licensing issue as a health and safety issue, but I agree with the mayor who said this is a pet project of those who are focused on the three unrelated persons rule,” Byrd said. “Of our 49 units, half are one, two, and three bedroom units and the other half are four, five and six bedroom units. So of course we’re going to rent to more than three people.”

Byrd said she’s concerned that landlords are not getting involved in the public discussion of rental licensing because they’re afraid of being targeted for renting to more than unrelated people.

“They’ve also proposed a three strikes rule. So noise, garbage, what have you—they can take away your license and force you to keep the property vacant for up to six months,” Byrd said. “In these economic times we can’t afford to keep our properties vacant.”

Byrd said she is also concerned that inspections will force her and her husband to spend thousands of dollars to remodel some of the older properties. She said she’d like to know what kinds of standards are being proposed for said inspections.

“No one wants their tenants at risk and no one wants something bad to happen in their units,” Byrd said. “And I certainly agree with some of the health and safety regulations they’re proposing, but some of it is ludicrous, we already do that stuff.”

What do renters think about rental licensing?

Western Washington University junior Emily Markham rents a house in the Sehome neighborhood and said she’d like to know her rental unit has been inspected for safety concerns.

Markham said she understood why landlords might be concerned about having to be accountable for their property and concerns about the three unrelated persons rule.

“I feel like you could get around that three people thing,” Markham said. “That law is just unrealistic for this town and it’s unfair to landlords.”

Just up the street from Markham, Emily Schmuhl is also a junior at Western.

Schmuhl who lives in a house with five other girls said she’d never heard of the rental licensing proposal or the three unrelated persons ordinance.

“That rule is crazy,” Schmuhl said. “Of course we want rental places to be safe, but ours is great.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Neighbors invited to draft neighborhood plan

Bellingham’s Sehome Neighborhood Assoication President Charles Dyer announced at the neighborhood meeting on Tuesday, May 25 that a complete and updated neighborhood plan would finally be drafted this summer—and anyone in the neighborhood is welcome to help.

All 23 neighborhoods in Bellingham have neighborhood plans that can be accessed on the city of Bellingham’s website.

Sehome’s neighborhood plan shows conflicting dates as to when it was last updated. Some pages are dated Jan. 1, 2005. Other pages are dated November 2009.

Dyer said Sehome’s neighborhood plan was originally drafted in 1980, but portions of the plan were updated in 2005 and others were updated in 2009.

“We also have an updated plan from 2007 that’s mostly about the Samish Way Urban Village project, “ Dyer said. “But it was never incorporated into the old neighborhood plan.”

The updated plan will incorporate sections from the original plan and the docketed plan from 2007 and make any necessary revisions before being proposed to the city’s planning department.

To join the Neighborhood Planning Committee e-mail Charles Dyer at Meetings will be once a month through the summer.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Delayed repairs for Indian Street bike lane

Cyclists in Bellingham’s Sehome neighborhood will have to wait a little longer for road repairs to the Indian Street bike lane.

The much-needed repairs to the bike lane on Indian Street have been on the city’s long list of road repairs for more than three years, said Sehome Neighborhood Association President Charles Dyer.

“One of the suggestions on our neighborhood plan that was docketed in 2007 was to get [the bike lane] repaired,” Dyer said. “But the procedure for getting roads fixed takes a long time and the city has a small budget and a long waiting list.”

At the Sehome neighborhood association meeting Tuesday, May 25 Neighborhoods and Special Projects Coordinator Linda Stewart discussed city budget issues and the need to put some projects on hold.

“In case you didn’t know, the city is broke, and we’re not getting richer any time soon,” Stewart said.

Though funds are limited, Dyer said, he’s called a couple times to check on the progress of the repairs, but the city has several necessary repairs that take priority.

Bike safety concerns in the neighborhood

“I’ve received several calls about getting the bike lane repaired,” Dyer said. “Someone hitting a pothole on a bike and falling into traffic is a big safety issue that may not be reflected in the city’s charts on what needs to be repaired.”

But potholes aren’t the only safety hazard to cyclists in Bellingham.

City Transportation Options Coordinator Kim Brown said safety issues for cyclists include the road surface—like the terrain on Indian street, driver behavior and cyclist behavior.

Brown said most collisions are due to driver and cyclist error, not road surface issues.

“Collisions that have occurred on Indian Street are due to driver error—not yielding to bicyclists coming down the hill,” Brown said. “Drivers stopped on Maple often pull out without yielding to bicyclists who have the right-of-way coming down Indian.”

The intersection at East Maple Street and Indian Street is the primary location of these collisions, Brown said.

What can cyclists do to stay safe?

“Ride responsibly,” Brown said. “And if a cyclist identifies a spot in the road that is problematic or a safety issue they can contact me or the public works department. The city will assess the situation and decide how to deal with the problem.”

Brown also chairs the Share the Road and the Rules bike safety committee.

“We put on educational campaigns throughout the year to help motorists and cyclists learn how to safely coexist,” Brown said.

Whatcom Council of Governments EverybodyBIKE Coordinator Ellen Barton said the number one thing cyclists can do is get educated about bike safety.

EverybodyBIKE teaches bicycle safety classes every other month. The next class is at 6 p.m., June 22 at the Sehome Village REI store.

“One main thing cyclists should know is to stay visible,” Barton said. “If the bike lane is full of potholes or is hard to see then cyclist should ‘take the lane’—it is legal and advised for bicyclists to drive in the motorist lane.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Biking safely in Bellingham

For Bellingham’s 13th annual Bike to Work and School Day Friday, May 21, cyclists heading south from the Sehome neighborhood to Western Washington University will quickly discover that the bike lane on Indian Street is in a state of disrepair.

The Indian Street bike lane is littered with potholes and uneven pavement which pose a safety hazard to cyclists headed uphill to the university.

With “Bike to Work and School Day” approaching, Whatcom Council of Governments EverybodyBIKE Coordinator Ellen Barton said there are two lesser-known safety tips cyclist should know before hitting the road.

1. If the bike lane is full of potholes or parallel ridges that could trap the bicycle wheel, cyclist should merge into traffic and ride in the car lane. This will allow greater visibility to drivers and provide a smooth surface to ride on.

If the bike lane runs parallel to street parking, cyclists should stay at least four feet from the parked cars to avoid being hit by an opening car door, even if this means merging into traffic.

“Cyclists think riding close to the curb and away from traffic is safer, but it’s actually the opposite,” Barton said. “Often riding in the street is safer than riding in the bike lane because motorists will be able to see the cyclist.”

Check out the everybodyBIKE website for more tips and videos on bike safety.

May is Bike Month--for more bicycle assistance or to find bike maps, check out the city of Bellingham’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The bus stops here

Long-awaited bus stop relocates next to crosswalk in Sehome neighborhood.

A new bus stop on bus route 107 Samish Way/Downtown was installed for crosswalk users on East Maple and Edwards Street in the Sehome neighborhood.

Until two weeks ago, the new crosswalk has ushered walkers across the busy four-lane section of East Maple Street between Samish Way and downtown but the nearest bus stop on the north side of the street has been more than two blocks away.

The long-awaited bus stop was relocated from the corner of Ellis and Liberty Street two weeks ago. The bus stop was moved to be closer to a crosswalk that was installed a year ago for pedestrian safety.

More than a year ago a bus stop on East Maple Street was removed to make way for the crosswalk as part of the city of Bellingham’s transportation improvement program said City Engineer Rory Rourke in an e-mail on Wednesday.

“The old bus stop was right in front of the crosswalk, which invites people to cross in front of the bus,” WTA Operations Supervisor Chuck Boyle said. “But if a car come up on the left side of the bus they won’t see someone crossing in front and a person could get hit.”

Boyle said the WTA moved the stop around the corner on Ellis Street to make using the bus safer.

Don Keenan, Sehome neighborhood association vice president, said when the city started construction on the crosswalk they were working with the WTA to have a bus stop easily accessible to the crosswalk.

“Originally the WTA thought they could not put a bus stop there,” Keenan said. “But I talked to Rick Nicholson [WTA director of service development] and they came out and looked a second time and decided they could safely change the stop on the carwash side.”

Neighbors like crosswalk, missed bus stop

Sara Richmond, a Western senior, has lived on the south side of East Maple for two years. Richmond’s house looks out at the crosswalk and the new bus stop.

Richmond said the crosswalk has been helpful, but when the crosswalk went in the bus stop that she always used was removed.

“My roommate complained to the WTA about them moving the bus stop because that’s why they put the crosswalk in—for people who use the bus,” Richmond said.

Richmond said she’s glad to have a bus stop back instead of having to get off two blocks before or after the crosswalk.

Crosswalk added, bus stop removed

City Transportation Options Coordinator Kim Brown said the city worked with the Whatcom Transportation Authority [WTA] during the crosswalk construction project.

“We looked for the most appropriate and safest spot to put in a crosswalk and tried to coordinate it with the bus stops.” Brown said.

Brown said Sehome neighbors requested the crosswalk be installed along the busy section where Samish Way turns into East Maple and the city determined which location would be best.

Boyle said the city assumed that when the crosswalk was installed the WTA would move bus stops closer to accommodate users, but Boyle said that’s not always possible.

“All kinds of factors are involved in moving bus stops,” Boyle said. “Sight distance for other cars, distance from other bus stops, and all kinds of safety factors.”

Boyle said bus stops have to be beyond crosswalks so when the bus is parked the back of the bus is past the crosswalk. That’s why the bus stop was relocated a year ago.

Boyle said he and Rick Nicholson assessed the stops on both sides of East Maple and determined that the bus stop on the north side could safely be moved closer to the crosswalk.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

House-naming tradition adopted by neighborhood

Student renters on Bellingham's High Street have adopted a tradition of naming their houses names like "The Future" and "Ladies Market."

Like Thomas Jefferson’s “Monticello” or George Washington’s “Mount Vernon,” the student renters in Bellingham’s Sehome neighborhood have created a tradition of naming their residences.

Though most houses are renamed with each wave of new students, some houses have retained their names even when new residents move in. Some of these include "The Aquarium” and “The Barn.”

Other houses get named because the residents have to select a name for their newly installed wireless connection.

Dan Langager said that’s how his house on High Street got named.

“We needed a name for our wireless network,” Langanger said. “So we named it ‘The House of Class ‘n Ass.’ I guess it just became the house name after that.”

Margot Meuleman at “The Sunflower” said that was how her house got named as well.

“When my roommate and I moved two years ago we asked the girl that lived here before us why the wireless was called ‘Sunflower.’” Meuleman said. “That’s when we found out it was the name of the house.”

Meuleman said she and her roommate made the sign that now hangs above the door displaying the house name.

Some houses in the neighborhood retain their names because they continue to house residents that are involved in the same activities.

This is the case for "The Home" and "The Mansion," which occupied from year to year by interns who work with Campus Christian Fellowship, a religious club at Western.

View Sehome Neighborhood House Names in a larger map

Exploring house names:

The Home and The Mansion

The student house-naming tradition in the Sehome neighborhood started more than 30 years ago with “The Home” at 1210 High St.

The Home was started by Campus Christian Fellowship Pastor Brady Bobbink in the late ‘70s to house young men who are involved in the group.

Bobbink’s assistant Sara McFarlane said The Home has been housing Western students for more than 30 years and is where interns who come to work with CCF stay during their one- to two-year internships.

McFarlane said “The Mansion,” just one house down at 1200 High St., was started a few years later to offer the internship to women as well.

“The reason the interns live at The Home and The Mansion is because it’s an affordable way to live and a great way for them to stay connected to the community,” McFarlane said.

The Home’s house manager, Jeff Springer, said he’s been living at The Home for 5 years but was unsure exactly when The Home got started.

“The impression I have is that it’s been called ‘The Home’ from the beginning, 30 years ago,” Springer said.

Springer said students who are involved in CCF occupy several of the named houses in the neighborhood. CCF women live at “The Barn” located across the street from The Home, Springer said.

“There’s a funny story about The Barn’s name,” Springer said. “A whole new group of girls moved in a few years back and they wanted to change the name. People [at CCF] threw a fit about it and said they would never call it anything else, so the girls had to keep the name.”

The Aquarium

“The Aquarium” can be found on the 1100 block of High Street. A painted sign of the house name hangs up of the door.

Aquarium resident Leah Schlegel said the house was already named before she and her roommates moved in almost two years ago.

“The girls who lived here before us had a sign up, but they took it when they left,” Schlegel said. “My roommates made the sign that’s up there now.”

The Western junior said she didn’t know how the house got named, but she was sure it had something to do with the bright blue color. Schlegel said the house was named for at least two years before she moved in.

Before Schlegel lived at The Aquarium, Western alumna Christine Everson lived there.

Everson said she lived at The Aquarium from Sept. 2006 to Aug. 2008.

“The Aquarium was named by the girls that lived there before I did, and they lived there for two years,” Everson said. “It must have been named in 2004.”

Everson said the signage outside the door was part of the tradition of naming the house. She said the first group of women all signed the back of their Aquarium sign and took it with them when they moved. When she lived there, Everson said, her friends did the same thing.

“I’m really glad they made a sign for it,” she said. “I’m glad the name and the tradition carried on.”

Everson said she thinks the house naming tradition is Western’s way of compensating for not having a Greek system.

“The houses are obviously smaller than sororities and fraternities, but each has its own personality that gets passed along,” Everson said. “It’s a way for students to create communities and families.”

The Convent

The women who live at “The Convent” on the 1000 block of High Street said they started thinking about what they would name their house even before they moved in.

Resident Emily Schmuhl originally proposed the name to the other residents.

“I had just read this book, ‘Finding Calcutta,’ and I was thinking about Mother Teresa and the sisters,” Schmuhl said. “It’s kind of what we’re about, we love Jesus and it’s just girls in the house.”

Schmuhl said when she first proposed the name to the other residents they were hesitant, but eventually the name stuck.

Convent resident Allison McKenzie said The Convent has become the theme of the house.

“We have a toilet that’s really small and we call it the confessional,” McKenzie said.

Naming their house made it easier for the residents to create a Facebook page for it and invite people over for parties and events McKenzie said.

“It’s easier than saying the address,” Schmuhl said. “We can just say, ‘Come on over to The Convent tonight.’”

The residents of The Convent said they hope the name carries on after each of them move out.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Alternative Library offers unusual literature

Sehome neighborhood's Alternative Library boasts a growing collection of alternative literature from comics to philosophy.

More than 2,000 books fill the Alternative Library at 717 North Forest St. in Bellingham’s Sehome Neighborhood.

Open from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., the small living-room-turned-library is lined with books ranging from Marvel’s Spider-Man comics to “The Activist’s Handbook” by Randy Shaw.

Cullen Beckhorn, the library’s creator, said the library is focused on quality over quantity and carries several books that can’t be found at the public library.

“I try to have a diverse selection from minority voices and oppressed people,” Beckhorn said. “Most of the books express a feminist view, and each book has a lot of intention for why it is here, as opposed to the public library that purchases books from the New York Times best-seller list."

To check out books from the Alternative Library requires a $5 monthly fee.

Beckhorn said the money is put toward purchasing books from a request list. Anyone who uses the library can add a book to the request list and Beckhorn said he adds his own requests to the bottom of the list just like every other library user.

The beginning of the Alternative Library

Beckhorn started the library three years ago with $1,000 worth of comic books he purchased with money from an insurance settlement. For a year, the library was housed in Beckhorn’s car before he and a group of friends began renting the house on North Forest Street.

"It started as a comic-specific library because at the time the Bellingham Public Library had an extremely weak comic section,” Beckhorn said.

Of the 2,000 books in the library, more than half are comics.

“One of my missions in life is to spread [the] interest in comics,” the 23-year-old comic enthusiast said.

Beckhorn said not all comics are about superheroes.

"When talking about comics you have to separate content from form. If you take away that content and put in something else, like a humanitarian message, you'll get things like Joe Sanco's 'Palestine.'"

“Palestine” is a nonfiction comic that has even been used as a textbook for literature classes at Western, Beckhorn said.

Since starting the library, Beckhorn said he has expanded its selection to include books of all forms and genres, not just comics.

Living at the library

Gabriel Springsnow, 25, also lives at 717 North Forest St., which he calls The Sushi House.

Springsnow has only lived in the house for a month but said he’s known Beckhorn for more than three years.

“He really is a scholar in graphic literature,” Springsnow said.

Springsnow said he’s used to people coming in and out of the house and having the library there is a great resource for the community. Although he admits he doesn’t use the library often.

“I don’t really read graphic novels,” Springsnow said. “I like textbooks.”

What do the neighbors think?

Western sophomore Drew Miller said he found the library more than a year ago, before he lived next door. He said he found it while walking around the neighborhood and has been using the library ever since.

Miller said he checks out one or two comics a month. The 20-year-old art major said he’s always been interested in graphic novels and sequential art, and the Alternative Library carries the best selection in town.

“He knows his stuff,” Miller said about Beckhorn. “I’d say he’s a comic scholar in progress.”

Neighbor Sharon Sumner, 70, said she’s never visited the Alternative Library but has spent some time talking to the people who live at the house.

Sumner said she’s seen all kinds of people, usually students, move in and out of the North Forest house and she likes the group that rent it now.

“They are so thoughtful and such neat people,” Sumner said. “And there are some small kids that are always around, which is nice.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood shares Sumner’s view of the Alternative Library and the residents who live in 717 North Forest.

Neighbor Ray Nelson said he wouldn’t go to the library.

“It’s disgusting,” Nelson said. “There are always so many bicycles outside and little kids running around.”

Nelson said Beckhorn attended a couple neighborhood association meetings during a time when the board was looking to elect a young adult.

“The guy who lives there came to a [neighborhood association] meeting and we wanted a student on the board,” Nelson said. “We elected him, but he never came to another meeting. He got thrown off the board, so we elected a woman to replace him.”

Beckhorn said he went to a couple meetings of the neighborhood association but didn’t have time to continue.

“The meetings start at 7 p.m. and the library closes at seven, so it was just too hard to pack up here and make it to the meetings on time,” Beckhorn said. “I sent in a notice of resignation after a couple months.”

Sehome Neighborhood Association President Charles Dyer said he hadn’t heard any complaints about the library and the neighborhood association takes no stance one way or the other.

“I’ve never been to the library,” Dyer said, “But I have heard some students talk about using it.”

The future of the library

Beckhorn said he picks up landscaping jobs here and there to pay his bills, but his hope is to start a publishing company while running the library so he can be at the library full-time and extend the hours of operation.

Beckhorn said he hopes someday to move to a street with more foot traffic.

“I’d love to be on Garden Street or Indian Street,” Beckhorn said. “Somewhere between the university and downtown.”

Beckhorn’s favorites

“Prometheus Rising” by Robert Anton Wilson

“Starmaker” by Olaf Stapledon

“Transmetropolitan” comic book series