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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Homelessness and renters’ rights discussed at City Council meeting

Editor’s note: The Western Front recognizes the term used by Amy Glasser is offensive and outdated language to describe those with cognitive disabilities, but chose to include the full quote for transparency and accountability after consulting with the National Center for Disability and Journalism. Comments can be directed to westernfrontonline@gmail.com

By Zoe Buchli

The Bellingham City Council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance that will provide Bellingham tenants with more rental protections, and to repeal and replace regulations for tent camps on Monday, Feb. 26.

Homeless encampment regulations

Planning and Community Development Department Director Rick Sepler opened the meeting with a public hearing on the emergency ordinance the council adopted on tent camp zoning.

Without the interim ordinance, tent camps are illegal under the Bellingham Municipal Code, according to the City Council.

Sepler posed three actions the council could take to move forward on the issue: repeal and replace the existing guidelines, do nothing and leave the current rules in place, or repeal the regulations in entirety.

In a 7-0 vote, the council voted to repeal the regulations in their entirety and replace them with new revisions.

One of the revisions will allow temporary tent encampments to be operated by any non-profit organization, no longer just strictly religious groups, Sepler said. The city also added a revision to include drinking water at the sites, made in consultation with the Whatcom County Health Department.

The final update included adding in stipulations about restoring the sites after their use has run its course, Sepler said.         

The city’s work plan going forward is to explore more permanent regulations for tent encampments, Sepler said.

Former County Council candidate Amy Glasser voiced her concern about the exclusiveness of the interim rules, using an offensive term.

“Those 11 pages, there isn’t a chance, ever, that we would be able to abide by all those rules, just logistically. Let alone the idea of making rules without having the involvement of the people who actually live there. These are adults, these are human beings, these are people who are down on their luck, but they’re not retarded, they’re smart people,” Glasser said. “When you make 11 pages of rules of what a tent encampment has to look like, including six-foot fences, you’re basically making these people feel very inhumane.”

Ordinance protecting Bellingham Tenants is now in effect

Residents spoke about a variety of topics during the public comment period, including concerns about Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and gun safety. There was also discussion about an ordinance adopting protections for Bellingham residential tenants.

After hearing public comment, the ordinance was passed unanimously by the City Council. It amended Title 6 of the Bellingham Municipal Code by adopting three new chapters.

City Clerk Representative Elisabeth Oakes read the new protections the ordinance includes.

It will prohibit income-based discrimination in residential rental housing, increase the required notice period prior to substantial rent increases, and increase the notice period prior to termination of residential tenancies, Oakes said.

Galen Herz is an organizer for the Bellingham Tenants Union (BTU) and a former Western student.

“[The vote] reflects our City Council is able to make progress with banning discrimination against people who have housing assistance,” Herz said. “It’s a very important step in the right direction.”

The city is now working with attorneys on setting up a timeline for implementations of the ordinance, which should hopefully go into effect by June or July, Herz said.

Bellingham resident Felicia Santana voiced her support for the ordinance at the meeting.

“We all know that we’re facing a housing crisis in Bellingham,” Santana said. “I just urge you to pass this ordinance and help out the approximately 55 percent of Bellingham households that rent.”

Herz said the ordinance gained traction with the community when BTU held a door-knocking event, and the issue of housing discrimination was frequently brought up by residents.  

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