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Fire on Jersey St. - An Investigation

By On
• In Bellingham, WWU,

This terrible fire at 1017 Jersey Street this past week was the fourth Hansen/Lakeway Realty rental home to be engulfed in flames in the last 5-6 years, thus accounting for about half of all recent single family rental fires in Bellingham. Incidentally, the adjacent rental house at 1019 Jersey St., that also burned due to its proximity to the other, was owned by Hansen/Lakeway Realty. Both homes were built in 1900.

Eight WWU students have been displaced (a nice way to say put on the street) by this latest fire. Over the past 5-6 years almost 30 young adults have been burned out of their rental homes in Bellingham. By sheer luck, nobody has been killed…yet. What action will the city take to investigate and prevent future home fires in Bellingham’s rental housing?

Let’s take a walk down the Hansen/Lakeway Realty Memory Fire Lane.

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 repeatedly according to one of the tenants I spoke to.

718E. Maple St. on 30 Nov 2011. Fire starts behind couch. Possible cause is heater in proximity to combustible upholstery. Tenants unaware.

1210 Ellis St. on 14 Dec 2015. Fire starts in attic/crawl space. According to the fire department report installation deficiency and equipment overload contributed to ignition.

The origin of this latest fire remains unknown. As fire investigators were leaving the premises I heard one tell a victim (AKA renter) that the fire started on the lower rear level of 1017 Jersey in an area that might have been used as a kitchen. Since no arson or other criminal activity was suspected, the fire department will likely investigate no further. With subsequent investigations left up to any insurance company covering the premises, the cause of the fire becomes a private matter between the insured and the insurer, leaving the city government and the citizens in the dark.

Further complicating an exhaustive inquiry is the fact that the house at 1017 Jersey was inspected by a privately contracted inspector in October 2016 under the city’s new rental registration program. Under Washington state law, a landlord may hire a private inspector in lieu of a city inspection by a code enforcement officer. In Bellingham, although authorized by the Revised Code of Washington, the city does not require the private inspector to submit his inspection checklist with the details of deficiencies found. Only a certification by the private inspector that the unit ultimately passed inspection is required. (Here is the certification for 1017 Jersey.) This is a problem as two other Hansen/Lakeway Realty rental homes (412 and 420 Lakeway Dr.) have been implicated in problems regarding the results of certification by private inspectors when later tenant complaints reveal code violations. City-wide almost 30% of rental inspections are carried out by private inspectors and thus secretive in nature. The opening for shenanigans is obvious.

Hansen bought 1017 Jersey St. in 1976. It has had a checkered history since that time. As soon as 1977, code enforcement letters on the abject condition of the house were going out but the code enforcement office was sending them to the former owner in Canada and not to Hansen, the new owner. The citation was for dilapidation, lack of maintenance and hazardous/unsanitary conditions. There was no indication in the files of a resolution.

In 1993 a complaint was filed by mother of one of the renters. The mother was advised by the city to contact the gas company and landlord to get things fixed. How helpful is this?

In 1995 another complaint was submitted by tenants of “grey” water leaking under sink and into the underside of the house. A dozen more serious problems were cited. A city enforcement document indicated all deficiencies must be fixed before owner can rent again. It appears there was compliance on this as later mechanical and electrical permits were issued to upgrade systems likely in response to the complaint.

In 1998 a permit was issued for electrical work due to storm damage.

It remains to be seen if any alterations (permitted or not) to the house since 1998 may have contributed to the blaze. More on this and other aspects of the fire will be reported later.

But in the meantime the city must get back to work on rental inspections and fire investigations and:

1. Provide policy reform to require full disclosure by Fire Marshall and not just a “not arson” conclusion.

2. Demand public disclosure of checklist for all private inspection reports.

3. Ensure follow-up by code enforcers to all tenant complaints in a timely manner.

There is a clear pattern here with one property owner. What do the Mayor, City Council and police chief and fire chief plan to do in response? More tenant education? That is not enough.

About Dick Conoboy

Writer • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Oct 07, 2017

I certainly hope the city does more than this...

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 07, 2017

 There is no hope, only choices.

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 07, 2017

What does that even mean?

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 07, 2017

 Hope is like a wish or a prayer, no action involved.  You can hope until the cows come home and nothing will happen.

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 07, 2017

We’re talking about the city; of course nothing will happen…

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David Camp

Oct 07, 2017

The strange irony of the Hanson’s owning so many historic houses in the oldest Bham subdivisions is that they are great preservers - because they only do essential maintenance. 

Of course until a fire destroys a house or two and they can use the insurance proceeds to build yet another maximum cubical hardiplank warehouse for youth.

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 07, 2017

So there were 4 student tenants in each house.   Is that not proof of something?

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David Camp

Oct 07, 2017

Proof the rent was about $2000 per house.

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 07, 2017

It was proof that the two houses were illegal boarding houses but the issue is now moot.  But David is correct, the owner may well transform those two lots into rental megaplexes as he did in the York Neighborhood.  For those who might not be familiar with the Hansen megaplex concept, see my article here

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 07, 2017

I was thinking more in terms of lack of enforcement.   The City of Newark, DE (home of the U of DE) created a separate type of residential zone for STUDENT HOMES, which might be a better solution for Bellingham than the rule of 3:

Student Homes, defined as single-family detached dwellings, occupied by more than one post-secondary student attending or about to attend a college or university, are severely limited in Newark.  Contact the Planning Department or Building Department for more information.

A student home is permitted on a lot only if any portion of the lot is no closer to any portion of another student home, than a distance determined by multiplying times 10 the required lot width for a single family detached dwelling in the zoning district in which the proposed student home is located.

For purposes of this calculation, nonowner-occupant single-family detached, semi-detached, and row homes with rental permits for the taking of boarders and roomers and existing on May 24, 1999 are considered student homes.

How Many Students Can Live in a Student Home?

A student home shall be occupied by no more than three persons. The owner and owner’s agent, if any, shall be responsible for compliance with the occupancy limitations set forth in the City Code. All student homes require rental permits.

Occupancy Limits

Owners who live in their single-family type houses (detached, semi-detached or row and townhouses), not including student homes, may take in three (3) roomers or boarders.

Owners who do not live in their single-family type houses (detached, semi-detached or row and townhouses), not including student homes, who rent or lease their property may rent to (or allow to be occupied by) no more than the maximum number of unrelated individuals permitted in the relevant zoning districts as follows:

3 - RH, RT, RS 4 - RR

3 - RD 4 - RM

 

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David Camp

Oct 07, 2017

You guys need to find another songsheet - the rule of three is unenforceable and you know it - people live how they live and single adults sharing a house is how they do it here and now. 

Your efforts would be better spent dealing with the realistic rather than rearguard parthian shots.

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 07, 2017

Um, David, did you not read my last post.  It’s a new songsheet based on zoning used in Newark, DE.  

Does anyone pay attention anymore?

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David Camp

Oct 07, 2017

Yes, Dick, I mean, Larry I read it. More unenforceable gobbledegook. You might take your own advice and pay attention to reality in B’ham in 2017.  

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 07, 2017

Yes, I’ve been to Newark, Delaware.  Nice place.  Are you thinking of Newark, New Jersey?

How do you know whether Newark, Delaware’s zoning is enforceable?  Have you contacted them?

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David Camp

Oct 07, 2017

Larry - sorry for mistaking you for Dick and thanks for the edit - fixed. Drinking tequila, since you ask. And yes, I was thinking of Newark NJ - so removed the reference. Nonetheless, I think the political reality in B’ham is that enforcing rules such as those in Newark, DE are a non-starter. Just as enforcing the rule of three is. 

This kind of thing may work among the unregenerate stalinists of the effete eastern States but this here is Warshington, Sirrah! 

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John Servais

Oct 07, 2017

David, let us not stray into personal insults - the old ad hominem.  A different view of policy is not clarified with a suggestion others are unregenerate anything.  Thank you. 

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David Camp

Oct 08, 2017

Larry - meant to be a joke, not a personal insult. Here’s the problem with laws that interfere with or invade people’s personal living space - because that’s what we are talking about here, people’s freedom to contract privately and make their own private consensual living arrangements. To enforce laws that interfere with people’s residential freedom requires Stalinesque invasions of privacy and private contracts and very private living arrangements. That may fly in Delaware - but it don;t fly here. 

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 08, 2017

David, I never take anything you say personally, so no worries.

It does appear to me that you did not read this section of Newark’s Student Homes zoning:

“A student home is permitted on a lot only if any portion of the lot is no closer to any portion of another student home, than a distance determined by multiplying times 10 the required lot width for a single family detached dwelling in the zoning district in which the proposed student home is located.”

In other words, a property owner who wants to rent to students applies for a special permit; however, only so many of those permits will be issued, to prevent student homes from dominating any portion of a single family neighborhood. This is done at the permitting level and does not require any interference with privacy or private contracts.  A property owner who does not have a student home permit cannot rent to students.

I am not particularly concerned about my neighborhood, buy through my involvement with the Bellingham Neighborhood Coalition (BNC), I have met may fellow single-family residents who have had bad experiences that could be avoided.  I also believe there is value in maintainting, to the extent possible, single-family neighborhoods for families regardless of their makeup. 

But families are very different than students.  I may be old, but I still remember my college days, and I’m pretty sure that residents in Durham’s single-family neighborhoods are glad that my friends and I lived on campus all four years.

PS - When were you elected the final arbiter of what will fly in Bellingham?  I thought this was a democratic process.

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David Camp

Oct 08, 2017

Larry - if I read the DE statute correctly, and correct me if I’m wrong, it limits “student housing” permits to 10 percent or less of the housing in a single-family neighborhood. As a practical matter, this would never work in B’ham, where rentals are over half of the housing stock. Plus it requires, again, an invasion into private contracts for private dwellings and enforcement of what kind of person you can rent to. 

DO you not see how this could be extended? Requiring permits for “resident alien” housing at a restricted percentage, for example? It’s a very dangerous precedent, totalitarian in nature, IMHO. 

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 08, 2017

David, your claim that limiting student homes to 10% of housing in a single-family (SF) neighborhood would never work does not track.  Most rentals in Bellingham are in multi-family, not SF zoned areas, so your conclusion has no basis in fact.

Permitting student homes requires no invasion into private contracts; it is a matter of zoning and permitting, not onsite review.  Not sure what you’re reading into this, but I’m not following.

No, I really don’t see how this could be extended.  Town & Gown relations have a long history in our nation’s college towns.  No new precedent here; nothing totalitarian in my view, and I’m very sensitive to 1984 big brother issues.

You are expressing a personal opinion in the form of fact.  I don’t see any facts in your argument.

 

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 08, 2017

Hey, David!  there was a fire!  :-)  How do we deal with this?

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David McCluskey

Oct 08, 2017

The fire happened in the kitchen. Most of the time this is a Tenant issue. Its really disgusting how this page wants to point fingers when the cause of the fire is not even known. Tenants have just as much if not more responsibility when it comes to what happens in a building.   

You mentioned a fire that happened because a couch was too close to a heater.  This is a Tenant issue.

“equipment overload contributed to ignition”  Sounds like a Tenanant issue.    

Sounds like  its time for a Tenants Registration program to me.  

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David Camp

Oct 08, 2017

Larry - “You are expressing a personal opinion in the form of fact.  I don’t see any facts in your argument.” My neighborhood is over 50% rentals and at least half of those are student rentals. Just gainsaying by saying “this doesn’t track” is doing exactly what you are accusing me of doing. 

You say “Permitting student homes requires no invasion into private contracts; it is a matter of zoning and permitting, not onsite review”. How on earth do you enforce any code violations? Are you really proposing inspectors show up at a house and interrogate tenants - “show me your papers - if you are a student you must be evicted”.

Also - if you limit “student houses” to 10% of the properties, you will have mass evictions in York, Sehome, Happy Valley, etc. This is just not going to happen. 

Please Larry, accept reality. Restricted zoning based on being part of some class of persons is a horrendous invasion of basic freedoms. Just consider our President’s father’s restrictive rental practises - and what a small step to this your proposal is. 

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Larry Horowitz

Oct 08, 2017

David, I give up.

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 08, 2017

 For David McCluskey,

Appreciate your taking time to comment.  I have cited your comments below and my answers appear in BOLD.

“The fire happened in the kitchen. Most of the time this is a Tenant issue. Its really disgusting how this page wants to point fingers when the cause of the fire is not even known. Tenants have just as much if not more responsibility when it comes to what happens in a building. “

Perhaps you missed the part where I said the origin of the fire remains unknown but could have been the kitchen.  I would like also for you to cite the stats to back up your contention that “most of the time this is a Tenant issue” merely because a tenant was involved.  Of course tenants have a responsiblity, as you say, but also as you imply, we don’t have all the facts yet. And why would tenants have more responsibility?  This makes no sense.

“You mentioned a fire that happened because a couch was too close to a heater.  This is a Tenant issue.”

Perhaps it is a tenant issue but the cause (blame) was never precisely determined by the fire department in the case cited.  As long as it is not arson, the FD shrugs its shoulders.  I might also posit that the tenants may have had to use space heaters since the dwelling’s heating system was inadequate thus opening the residents to additional hazards due to overloads or improper placement.  If the heat worked in the first place….

” ‘equipment overload contributed to ignition’  Sounds like a Tenanant issue. “

Unless the tenants are electricians, how are they to determine that the electrical system is adequate?  We still run across homes in this city that have knob and tube wiring.  We still run across rentals that don’t have up to date circuit breakers or still have fuse boxes.  Why not say that landlords should know that today’s renters come with a lot of electrical equipment and that the rental’s systems should be able to handle the load?

“Sounds like  its time for a Tenants Registration program to me.” 

Of course.  Another program to blame the tenant even though the lanldord has the upper hand overall by being able to blacklist a tenant from future rentals.  Just where does the power element in rentals lie?  Hint:  the landlord.

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jim peterson

Oct 09, 2017

If there where 4 students living there what about the rule no more then 3 unrelated people can live in a single family dwelling? I guess the city over looks that all the time. But when HomesNOW Not Later wanted to use a 3 bedroom house and rehab it and use it to house the homeless we where told under no circumstances could there be more then 3 unrelated people living in it. Seems the city can’t even follow the law they put in place. Pretty damn sad if you ask me. 

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 09, 2017

Jim,

Yes, the city does largely overlook the rule of three unless a complaint is made.  Then letters are exchanged.  Delays ensue. June arrives and the renters move out.  Clock reset.

When the two megaplexes with 7 bedrooms were built in the York Neighborhood, the city placed conditions on the building permit limiting occupancy to no more than three unrelated.  7 people then moved in to each and the city says it is monitoring the situation.  A complaint on another megaplex on Humboldt St. was submitted within the last year but that too has gone into the ether.

The rule of three only acts as a brake when dealing with organizations or landlords with a modicum of ethics, such as HomesNOW. 

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Scott Wicklund

Oct 20, 2017

The Jersey 8 have all moved to another rental house nearby, according to the Western Front.  (Four upstairs and four down in the basement.)  The article did not say who the owner of the house was.   Looks like the brake did not apply in this instance.

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