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Single Family Home Rental - Got $40,000 per Year to Spend?

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• In Bellingham,
Illegal Grant Street Boarding House at $40,000/Year
Illegal Grant Street Boarding House at $40,000/Year

If you are a typical family, this 1252 Grant Street rental is way beyond your means, unless you are willing to cough up $40,000 per year while dining on lentils and beans. This place is another version of three other rentals in the York Neighborhood in which small homes, that could be affordable for a family, are either converted or demolished to make way for a mega-plex building, also known as an illegal rooming house.

In late June, this house on Grant Street was a four bedroom, two bath home for sale at $350,000. It was snatched from the market by a local investor who paid an extra $50,000, for a cash purchase of $400,000, after only two days on the market. The buyer immediately converted it to an 8 bedroom mega-plex . The same thing was recently done with at least three other properties: 1215 Humbolt Street, and 1623 & 1627 Iron Street. As one might surmise, there is outrage in the neighborhood over this in-your-face, scofflaw-like, de facto up-zone to create small apartment buildings authorized only in multi-family zoned areas.

This newest mega-plex has been managed by MMRA Real Estate Management whose website lists among its partnership organizations Belllngham’s Sustainable Connections, an organization that might wish to review its own connection with a real estate management firm that appears to flaunt the law. MMRA also is a partner of the National Association of Rental Property Managers whose code of ethics contains the following, indicating there is a professional disconnect:

“1.3 The Property Manager shall comply with all relevant local and state ordinances regarding real estate law, licensing, insurance, and banking.”

Such an attitude by a professional management association is not surprising since we get this sort of statement on line from Mary Kay Robinson, the past president of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors and present candidate for an at-large position on the Whatcom County Council. She has made statements - in spite of a US Supreme Court decision to the contrary - that the city ordinance on illegal rooming houses does not pass constitutional muster. Her online advice, which was written while she was still the association president, reads:

“So for investment purposes - I see no legal reason that it [a house] cannot be rented out to 3 or more unrelated persons. If you see an opportunity for investment, go for it.”

Yes, candidate-for-public-office Robinson, who should know that the zoning laws for single-family areas state “not more than 3 unrelated persons,” advises “go for it.” Like other members of the industry, her practice appears to be to ignore the zoning regulations and legal ethics, to the detriment of the neighborhoods that have to live with the consequences.

At least one resident near the 1252 Grant St. rental has submitted a code enforcement complaint with the city for a violation of the city’s prohibition on rooming houses in areas zoned single-family residential. I have learned that other complaints may follow. Code enforcement complaints on the three other mega-plex rentals on Humboldt and Iron Streets, mentioned above, were filed by other residents in the neighborhood but resulted in nothing more than a statement by city officials that the properties would be monitored. One is reminded of the popular TV commercial of a man in a uniform during a bank robbery who, when asked to take some action, states that he is a security monitor, not a security guard. He only alerts people to the situation, i.e. the robbery. Likewise, following a complaint, the city “monitors” illegal rooming houses but takes derisory enforcement action.

The irony in all this is that in 2006 the York Neighborhood won the support of the Bellingham City Council to rezone its subarea 5 residential zone from multi-family high density to single family high density following numerous neighborhood meetings. The previous zoning, established in 1980, was antiquated and was prior to the adoption of the Growth Management Act (GMA) and Bellingham’s Comprehensive Plan. The York rezone to single-family was to make York’s zoning consistent with the GMA’s support of, and protections for, single-family neighborhoods. The rezone made the York residential area consistent with state law and the city’s comprehensive plan. Notably, area 5 of the neighborhood continued to live up to its designation as a historic district with home owners refurbishing old houses with the expectation and assurance that zoning could be relied upon to protect and warrant the investment they made in the neighborhood.

We are witnessing an increase in and a hardening of the de facto rezones from single-family to multi-family in the name of greed and rent extraction. These practices reward those who flaunt our laws while passing the costs to our community and exacerbating our struggle with affordable housing. The York Neighborhood has done due diligence through THREE huge rezone plan updates only now to have landlords undoing these rezones behind the scenes with illegal up-zones while, in tacit agreement, city hall wrings its hands about affordable housing. It is, in fact, city hall that is wiping out single family home ownership in our neighborhoods by allowing absentee owners to violate zoning laws and monopolize the housing stock.

This is the 800 pound gorilla in the room which is never openly acknowledged, having not been mentioned at all during last month’s ‘Town Hall Meeting on Affordable Housing’ organized by the City Council. WWU, BTC, and WCC all grew over the decades, despite the fact that BTC and WCC offer no student housing while WWU has added a mere 105 beds to it’s housing portfolio since the early 1970s; despite increasing its student body by nearly 50%, or about 5,000 students, over the same period. The City of Bellingham, by its unwillingness to enforce zoning, has enabled the proliferation of a predatory rental industry, resulting in rental health and safety inspections revealing a near 50% failure rate and the near wholesale monopolization of formerly affordable housing by students, forcing low income, working class, first time buyers, seniors, and the disabled from our community, and greatly contributing to our homeless emergency.

The city put forth great effort to create a half dozen urban villages which have largely sat empty and underutilized. Developers claim construction in these villages is not financially viable, yet the NXNW complex on Lincoln St and Gather on Forest St show that the large, purpose-built student housing projects we need, do in fact pencil out. It’s time the city steps up, acknowledges the role it plays in our affordable housing crisis and re-emphasizes urban villages as the preferred infill solution. It must start enforcing zoning by cracking down on illegal boarding houses. Doing so will very likely open up hundreds of single family houses to families, working people and first time buyers while creating the market required to profitably support the development of high density urban villages so many desire.

As a community, we lose so much by turning ourselves into a rental economy. Voters who might have supported the HOME Fund or school levies are forced to vacate to communities outside of Bellingham. Moreover, student renters whose parents live and vote elsewhere are not a solid foundation on which to build for the needs of our community. Consequently, those who applaud these sub rosa methods to produce infill will find that they are destroying the very places for families and workers to live by rendering them unlivable and contributing to the landlordization of the city.

We see the results. What was once a solid, working class community of home ownership, the York Neighborhood, is becoming a carpetbagger’s dream.

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

Aug 01, 2017

At issue is whether single family residential zoning is worth protecting.  What value does Bellingham’s Residential Single zoning have in terms of providing a place to raise families?

The Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC) states that “The residential single (RS) general use type is primarily intended to accomodate families desiring to live within neighborhoods consisting of individual dwelling units or townhouses in low density environments.  These regulations have been adopted to… encourage the compatible development of neighborhoods while conserving and enhancing the value of land and the important physical characteristics within the RS areas.”  (BMC 20.30.020.A 1-2; emphasis added)

Because our elected officials refuse to enforce the laws they have sworn to uphold, established single family neighborhoods adjacent to the university - especially Happy Valley, Sehome, South Hill and York - have been inundated with - as Dick describes - “illegal rooming houses” that:  (1) are incompatible with and contrary to the RS designation and (2) violate the BMC definition of “family.”

The abundance of illegal rooming houses is clear:  As Mary Kay Robinson, past president of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors (WCAR) claims, enforcement of the city’s “rule of three” regulation would “force half of the York and Sehome neighborhoods to vacate.”

Of course the neighborhoods are angry.  What would you expect?

To make matters worse, investors - most of whom appear to be REALTORS (capitalized here because that’s THEIR preference) - have accumulated / hoarded so many of these rooming houses that, due to the lack of affordable housing, working families are forced to move outside of Bellingham, far from their work.  It’s my understanding that all of the rooming homes listed in Dick’s article are actually owned by real estate agents and/or REALTORS.   

This hoarding actually violates the Preamble of the REALTORS own Code of Ethics, which claims that “REALTORS should recognize that the interests of the nation and its citizens require the highest and best use of the land and the widest distribution of land ownership.” (Emphasis added)  

As we’ve experienced in Bellingham, it’s difficult to have a “wide distribution of land ownership” when dozens of single famlly homes are purchased - and hoarded - by REALTORS and converted into illegal rooming houses.

What I find most bizarre is that local REALTORS are so willing to destroy relationships with prior customers to whom they sold single family homes in Bellingham’s established residential neighborhoods.  Is their business so transactional that burning bridges and destroying neighborhoods within which former customers now live makes good business sense?

Not to mention the completely erroneous advice provided by REALTOR Mary Kay Robinson to violate Bellingham’s laws regarding the definition of “family.”   You’d think the REALTOR Code of Ethics would prevent a REALTOR, especially the past president of WCAR, from shooting from the ass.

To anyone planning to purchase a home in one of Bellingham’s single family neighborhoods, please be warned. Once you buy, your REALTOR may become your neighborhood’s mortal enemy.  Caveat Emptor!

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Ryan Knowlton

Aug 02, 2017

I understand that those living near such a house would find it “devaluing” to have 8 people living in it. Potentially 8 cars coming and going who knows when, parking problems, noise, and so on.  The problem lies in the way our government has dealt with growth.  It’s rumored that WWU has more students alone than there is rental units in Bellingham. WWU’s website even mentions “up to 3 non-related household members” regarding housing solutions.  Our state is advertising itself in magazines and more and more people are moving here, yet we have well water moratoriums and all kinds of anti-growth policies and therefore no accomodation for all this influx. So what happens? This happens.  A huge run up in prices due to a housing shortage, people packed like sardines into houses and apartments, students living in walk in closets, basements, garages,  and storage units, and ultimately some people will be pushed out of living here by rising property taxes based on these inflated values(elderly and working class people).

Look at Seattle, Look at Vancouver BC. We are in the middle, more people and growth are coming and won’t be stopped. It’s time to look beyond the tip of our noses and start planning for major growth.  More roads, more water, more sewer, more housing, and more good paying jobs that can support the cost of living here. Personally I make an above average income and I have struggled here for the last 10 years with the cost of living.  It’s nothing new that at current interest rates, a working family can afford about 3.5-5X their annual income relative to the purchase price of a home. The sad part is, the average list price of homes in Bellingham is well over double that amount.  

 

 

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Dick Conoboy

Aug 02, 2017

Ryan,

I recommend you read my article from last December entitled The Great Deceleration.  What you are advocating, major growth, is not possible.  Continued, sustained growth is an illusion, a Ponzi scheme of the first order.

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Ryan Knowlton

Aug 03, 2017

Dick, I would very much like that. But I don’t think its anywhere close to reality. I’m in my early 40’s and I grew up here.  On my way to my first job I used to cross Meridian St. at 6:30 am and there wasn’t a car in sight in either direction.  A massive housing development lies where I used to ride my bike through a trail in the woods as a kid.  In the last 20 years an ants nest of people have been unleashed into our county and they aren’t going to stop coming. All that a de-growth attitude is going to cause is the escalation of housing and living expenses such that only a super rich elitist population will live here,  that wonders why their burger and fries is $25 and the waitress is so tired and grumpy because she has to work two jobs and/or be supplemented with welfare and food stamps to afford to be able to live here.  There is no justification for the housing costs to be as expensive as they are, it’s not like we have an Amazon or Microsoft  in town paying big $$$, such that workers can afford to compete for homes and drive up pricing.  We’re being turned upside down and shaken for every cent in our pockets, based on what a bunch of rich implants are willing to pay.

I have visited other states in the past, and found that many places are doing a much better job at offering housing accomodations for EVERYONE.  There were single wide mobile homes on tiny little lots for $19,900(you owned the land, not in a park), clear on up to how much one wanted to spend of course.

 

 

 

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 03, 2017

Ryan,

1) Re: Real estate prices

There’s a saying among investors that “The market is never wrong.” On the other hand, opinions often are.

The real estate market determines the price that a willing buyer and willing seller agree upon. It doesn’t matter if, in our opinion, “There is no justification for the housing costs to be as expensive as they are.” Clearly, there are buyers who are willing to pay those prices.

2) Re: Building out of an affordability crisis

As you’ve observed, where demand is high, prices increase. Also, population grows. There is an entire wasteland of large cities whose leadership must have believed they could build themselves out of their affordability crises. Clearly, they were wrong.

In other words, if building more housing were the silver bullet, then large cities that are in demand would have solved the housing affordability crisis a long time ago.

3) Re: Property taxes and inflated values

For the average Whatcom County property tax payer, about 80% of the total tax is paid locally and about 20% is paid to the state.  About 38% of the total goes to local school districts, 10% to the county, 10% to the cities, 2% to the Port, and the remaining 20% or so various voter-approved taxing districts for roads, fire protection, EMS, libraries, parks, cemeteries, affordable housing, etc.

In Whatcom County, the general method of allocating the local portion of the total tax bill to individual property owners is based on the percentage of the value of the individual property to the value of all properties. The total assessed value for all real property in the county is about $25 billion.

The effect of increasing values on property taxes is not as direct as many believe.  The total county-wide tax bill is determined first and only then it is allocated to the taxpayers.  If the total tax bill does not change from one year to the next, and if every property value increases by the same percentage – say 5% - then the property tax for each individual property would not change.

In other words, a 5% increase in your assessed value would have no impact on your tax bill if the total tax did not change and if the average property increase was also 5%.

Note that most of the recent property tax increases result from new, voter-approved, taxes.  If we stop approving new taxes, our tax bill increases would be moderate.  

4) Re: Subsidies

As it stands now, every new residential unit in Bellingham receives a subsidy from existing property owners. This is true because the developers/builders/owners of the new units do not pay their proportionate share of the costs associated with expanding the city’s infrastructure to accommodate the additional population.

As new units are built, the city and county need to expand their road, school, park, fire-protection, police-protection, library, and incarceration (jail) systems to accommodate this growth. Of these capital costs, the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) only allows cities and counties to assess impact fees for roads, schools, parks and fire-protection systems. All other capital costs are 100% subsidized by existing property owners.

The city of Bellingham has been asked to provide the exact percentages that the road, schools, park, and fire-protection impact fees collect; however, the city has failed to provide this information. In 2006, a professional community and land use consulting firm was hired by a neighborhood group  to evaluate the city’s impact fees and taxpayer subsidies. At that time, it was determined that the average single family unit received a $24,000 subsidy and the average multi-family unit received a $14,000 subsidy. Since then, the city adopted a 35% Park Impact Fee, which reduces a portion of the subsidy.

These taxpayer funded subsidies are indiscriminately applied. In other words, a new home that sells for $1,000,000 receives the same subsidy as a new home that sells for $100,000. The need for a subsidy is never factored in. Consequently, the vast majority of taxpayer subsidies are ‘wasted’ on people who don’t need them or deserve them. Certainly, a large portion of these subsidies are provided to newcomers rather than to long-time Bellingham residents who have established roots in the community.

As you know, whenever taxpayer subsidies are provided, whatever is being subsidized will proliferate. As long as Bellingham subsidizes newcomers to move to Bellingham, newcomers will move to Bellingham and compete with existing residents for housing. This increased demand and competition will continue to force prices higher.

5) Re: Limits to growth – physical and financial

Your solution – that we need “More roads, more water, more sewer, more housing, and more good paying jobs” - seems like a logical silver bullet to solve our local housing crisis. The reality is: there are physical and financial limits to unending growth.

Whatcom County has a moratorium on new exempt wells because there is insufficient water during the dry summer months for all the demands. Adding “more water” is not as simple as it sounds. The quantity of water is a physical limitation to growth that is not easily overcome.

Regarding more roads and sewer, where is the money going to come from? Cities and counties are already operating a growth Ponzi scheme where new revenues are used to pay for prior unfunded liabilities created by past growth expansion.

In terms of more housing, private industry – not government - provides the vast majority. We have seen a significant increase in permits and housing starts recently, and perhaps these will slow the price increases we’ve experienced. But nothing prevents newcomers from gobbling up these new units, leaving struggling existing residents in the same position they’re in now.

6) Re: Other, more affordable, locations

As you’ve observed, there are many places in the US that are more affordable than Bellingham. At some point, people may choose to move to these places rather than re-locate here. Clearly, there are many financial and non-financial factors involved in deciding where to live.

When Bellingham’s factors no longer pencil out, local demand for housing may subside. Recent increases have already priced out many who live here now and who may have considered moving here.

Will Bellingham end up with a “super rich elitist population” as you’ve envisioned? Perhaps. But, if nothing else, we should at least stop subsidizing these super rich elitists and require them to pay for the costs associated with growth.

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Ryan Knowlton

Aug 04, 2017

What I meant was, is that the cost of housing/living should be tied to the opportunities in that area. The prices here have been driven by a complete strangling of supply. The prices don’t support a good quality of life for most of the working class.  For example, a couple of friends of mine that are CBP sold their place here and relocated to Arizona.  Sadly their incomes only got them a fairly average life here with their 3 kids, and in Arizona they got a really nice place with A/C, and a covered  pool with the equity they cashed out when they sold their house.  Yes it’s hot as heck in Arizona, but with a new Yukon and Audi I’m sure the A/C works, and now they are living… ..posting pics up on facebook of traveling here vacationing there, kids doing well in college, and so on.

Bellingham has actually seen a drop in average household income.  Census information from 2016 shows a 21.4% poverty rate, and I blame that almost solely on the cost of housing here.  If you don’t think that is a problem, know that several years ago the state sent me a letter in response to my inquiry stating that 38% of their entire tax revenue is spent on welfare, food stamps, and social services.  So instead of our taxes going to support infrastructure, they are going to prop up households that wouldn’t need propping up if they had more affordable places to live. Also notable, Bellingham has almost half the home ownership rate of the rest of the country and was named in the top 50 worst places to live recently, based mainly upon cost of housing.  My understanding, is that there is even federal funding/credits available for development plans that include homes within the affordability index, well Bellingham has had exactly ZERO of those for the last 2 years.  The average family income in Bellingham still comes up about 30% short, of affording a home that is in the lower end of the price range, or about 70% of the average listed home price.

Lastly, I agree and disagree. New construction is, and isn’t, paying it’s own way. I can count the new roads that have been put in by the state/county in the last 10 years on my 10 fingers. I’m not talking widening meridian st, I’m talking about a new road paved north and south between Northwest, Meridan St,  Smith, and Axton, just as an example.  Every new development requires the developer to install their own road and/or cul-de-sac, put in sidewalks, extend sewer(if available), which is all obviously passed onto the homebuyer.  These roads are often short, and linked onto main roads further restricting traffic and causing increased accidents by the users entering and exiting them. The building permit fee schedule is backwards, in my opinion. It imputes a minimum of over $160,000 added value to put the smallest home on a piece of land, resulting in a permit fee upwards of $3,500, even if you are building a tiny home or moving an existing home onto the property that can be had for $20-$40k.  That’s almost 20% for someone obviously on a tight budget, or choosing to try to live on the cheap.  On the other end of the spectrum, the builder of a million dollar home will pay $12,000 for their permit, amounting to only 1.2% of their project cost, to someone that can obviously afford it.  The only thing that levels that is property taxes. That $1m homeowner better be prepared to toss out about $11,000+ annually for property taxes.  Again, it’s this money that should be going back into the system to support the growth, but it’s not happening, at least not enough of it is.

Water….I’m sorry but I dissagree. Water doesn’t simply vanish when drank, or goes down the drain and into the sky and doesn’t come back.  Studies done on water use show that in a wellwater fed/septic served household, 85% plus of the water is returned to the water table.  The average home typically has a lawn and flowerbeds, and I’d expect that watering those and the evaporation is the main point of water loss of a family residence.  We had a couple very dry years with low snowpack, that resulted in low river levels, but the lowest level on record still stands from 1979.  You’ll note this year, the river is much higher, and there is still alot of snow on Baker. It’s my opinion that if the water is correctly “banked” relative to demand, we won’t have a problem until we start having poluted water…then we have an issue.  That means to me, we create aquifers to store water, and on the consumer end rain water collection can be used to water lawns and flower beds during peak seasons to offset usage.  Sadly, the entire residential water consumption isn’t much compared to agricultural, yet agricultural is a must have. No farms no food right?  Or, like the GP plant and other local industries we seem **** bent to squeeze and shut down,  we just shut down all the farms too, and import food from who knows where that’s grown in who knows what?

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Larry Horowitz

Aug 04, 2017

Ryan,

Your friends who moved to Arizona seem to have made a wise choice. It appears they are now able to afford a higher quality lifestyle. I suspect many others will make a similar choice.

There are many reasons that Bellingham is an expensive place to live. And, while the Hirst decision is recent phenomenon, it doesn’t affect home construction in Bellingham because city water is currently available. As I mentioned previously, building permits have increased substantially in the city, so your claim of a “complete strangling of supply” does not seem to hold water.

Supply and demand oscillate like a pendulum. In response to rising demand, developers tend to overbuild, resulting in over-supply. Recessions dampen construction, resulting in under-supply. This pendulum goes back and forth every few decades and will again. An under-supply is not proof that there is a strangling of supply.

You wrote, “The [house] prices don’t support a good quality of life for most of the working class.” In reality, it’s not the high house prices but the low wages (relative to living costs) that don’t support a good quality of life. House prices cannot be controlled and are subject to market forces. On the other hand, people can choose whether to continue to live and work here if the wages offered don’t support a good quality of life. Eventually, employers may need to pay a higher wage to attract and retain good employees.

The census information you cite is likely skewed because more than 15% of Bellingham’s population are college students. I don’t place much faith in making comparisons based on census info.

When considering whether new construction is paying its own way, you have only considered the cost of building roads within the new development, but have ignored all the other growth-related capital costs for transportation impacts outside the development, schools, parks, fire- and police-protection, jails, libraries, museums, government buildings, etc. When these are factored in, it’s obvious that new construction is not paying its own way.  This fact was confirmed by Fodor & Associates’ 2006 Fiscal Impact Analysis.

One reason the state supreme court sided with Hirst, et. al. was the undisputed evidence that the instream flows were inadequate for many days each year. That’s prima facie evidence that there are genuine physical limits to growth.

A primary issue that’s often overlooked is the fact that long-time Bellingham residents who purchased homes when they were affordable are being forced to move because they cannot afford to pay the ever-increasing property taxes. Purchasing a home is not the issue for them, but remaining in their home is.

A main reason property taxes have risen so much has to do with the growth Ponzi scheme of using new revenues to pay for prior unfunded liabilities for accommodating past population growth and development. Although you have responded to my comment, you neglected to address this significant issue impacting many Bellingham homeowners.

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