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.”