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.