Bellingham needs rental licensing and inspections

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Fri, Apr 16, 2010, 2:11 am  //  Guest writer

by Richard Conoboy, guest writer.

 

In 1985 a house on Laurel St. blew up and burned to the ground due to a gas leak.  The female students renting the house noticed the gas odor for some time but, luckily, had moved out two months earlier.  In 1995 six people lost their lives in Bellingham in a rental home on Meridian St. that was equipped with smoke detectors which contained no batteries. In July, 2009 a fire caused by poor wiring destroyed a rental home on Tremont Ave. in the Guide Meridian/Cordata area.  

 
Over 50% of Bellingham’s 34,000 housing units are now rentals, yet we still have no idea about their condition until there is a fire, an explosion, or some other tragic event.  It is time for a rental licensing and inspection law in Bellingham.  
 
The self-described “rental industry” declares that inspections are unnecessary because the tenants already have the right to call for one at any time.  This “right”  places the tenant in the position of being an expert on furnaces, mold, structural integrity of homes, plumbing and wiring, or of being sufficiently informed to divine there is even a problem. The “rental industry” is not a self-correcting market. Furthermore, in a recent paper, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state, “Code enforcement systems that operate solely in response to tenant complaints, … are highly ineffective and have limited impact.”  Does anyone believe that more than a handful of the renters who seek housing here each year even think about vermin, wiring, smoke detectors or structural integrity?   
 
Here is the reality of rental housing conditions. Recognizing the distinctly different demographics is Pasco, the first city in Washington to require inspections. A Pasco official estimated that 85% of the initially inspected rentals had electric/plumbing problems or lack of smoke alarms.  About 10%-15% of the inspected units in Pasco had "life/safety" issues such as no egress, no ventilation, no bathrooms, or illegal dwelling areas (subdivided rooms).  A university town, Lexington, Kentucky, recently performed sample inspections in rental properties and found that 50% had significant problems. A report on rental housing inspections from nearby Gresham, Oregon, (pop. 101,000) indicates over 4,200 violations cited in 2009 during inspections in 1,600 cases.  As with Pasco, serious plumbing and electrical problems along with the lack of smoke detectors topped the list of violations.   
 
In spite of landlord claims that licensing will bring about rent increases, the reality is that a fee of $30-$36 (suggested in a recent study on licensing prepared for the City Council) might add $3 per month to a rental charge for most renters.  The price of a large coffee per month is hardly an unacceptable amount given the prospect of increased health and safety protections.  My question is: “How valuable is your well-being?”  
 
For those who lament possible rent increases due to required, post-inspection repairs, remember that rental rates now are a result of similar increases at the landlords’ convenience over the last several decades. Landlords are not in the business of charity.  There is a certain amount of overhead in keeping a rental clean and safe. Nevertheless, landlords do run a business akin to a public accommodation for which there should be mandatory licensing, inspection and repairs.  
 
With landlord support, the Washington State Legislature just passed a law (6459) which provides parameters for rental licensing throughout the state. Why should Bellingham continue to accept the status quo when there is the manifest probability we have substandard rental housing?  Why does the “rental industry” remain the only unlicensed business in Bellingham?  Landlords, like restaurant and hotel management, must be held accountable.  There are those of modest means or with poor English language skills who daily run the risk associated with being placed in an unlicensed and uninspected rental market.  How much is life and health worth, regardless of the economic climate?  At the time the next “accident” occurs, or the next life is lost in an uninspected rental, what then will be the stance of Bellingham’s citizenry? 
 
Dick Conoboy is a retired federal worker whose blog Twilight Zoning in Bellingham can be found at www.zonemaven.blogspot.com.  

Related Links:

-> Twilight Zoning
-> link that Richard refers to in his comment to Tip below

Tip Johnson  //  Sat, Apr 17, 2010, 1:32 pm

After looking over the content at the Zonemaven, it seems to me Conoboy’s concern for tenants is disingenuous. Most of the Zonemaven discussion is focused on keeping rentals out of so-called single family areas.  That’s an extremely problematic goal in a college town that hasn’t done a very good job of creating a diverse housing stock, and belies Conoby’s assertion that licensing and inspections are unrelated to the “Rule of Three” he so strongly promotes.


Besides the fact that licensing and inspections would probably eliminate the most affordable twenty percent of rental housing, and generally force rents higher to absorb compliance costs, almost all of Conoboy’s “solutions” promote the most pernicious kind of sneak-and-peak government intrusion into the privacy of peoples homes.


Most of Conoboy’s concerns could be adequately addressed with better inclusionary zoning to assure a mix of housing stock, with more accessory dwelling flexibility to promote well-supervised affordable housing outside a ghetto setting, and with better definition and enforcement policies for neighborhood nuisances.


Before we drive our most needy populations into the streets or deeper into poverty, why not work on some of these ways to make neighborhoods more functional for our community demographic, while keeping government out of our private lives?


Dick Conoboy  //  Sat, Apr 17, 2010, 6:27 pm

Well, Tip, I find it interesting that instead of speaking to the issue of rental housing and refuting my specific contentions you chose to question my motives.  You may want to read one of my recent blog entries entitled “Stop!Rental Licensing Is Not About Single Family Zoning” at + Link .  There I explained the reason for which I have taken up the rental licensing issue.  Rental licensing and inspection have to do with health and safety while single family codes are about zoning and density. 

As for your contention that rental licensing would eliminate the most affordable 20% of rental housing, I would appreciate your providing some sort of proof of that figure.  I also would like to know, that if this most affordable portion of the rental market were to disappear, ostensibly because it has been eliminated by inspections for being in poor shape, would these places be those you would have liked your son or daughter to live in while going to college or while working at a modestly paying job?  What you are bringing up is an important related issue of affordable housing that, unfortunately, the city deals with by doing not nearly enough.

Since it appears that you support low rents at the expense those living in unsafe conditions, I would like to posit this.  Landlords have raised rents regularly over the last few decades at their own discretion and pace for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with expenses for repairs or cleaning. Yet, now, when asked to submit to inspections and licensing like any other business providing a public accommodation in this city, landlords scream like stuck pigs.  I doubt if it would surprise either of us if the most vociferous objections to rental licensing and inspections come from those who have the most to fear by letting someone in their rental properties to discover the disaster that they are.  I have spoken to enough students to understand that many rental units are barely rat holes about which they dare not complain for fear of retribution by the landlord or loss of their accommodations, however substandard. 

By all means we must keep our most needy off the streets and in cheap (or sometimes not so cheap) slum units. Any hovel in a storm.


Christopher Grannis  //  Sun, Apr 18, 2010, 1:00 pm

Functioning smoke alarms and residential safety systems are important whether a house is occupied by a renter or an owner. Owners are not much more likely than renters to be experts on furnaces, mold, structural integrity, etc. Richard, do you think all housing should be licensed and inspected by the City?


Dick Conoboy  //  Sun, Apr 18, 2010, 3:54 pm

No. Final answer. :-) 


[The sole exception would be newly constructed homes which must undergo inspection for building code adherence.] 


Yours is a red herring argument that I have encountered on many occasions.  There is a major distinction between a dwelling owned and occupied by a private party and a rental dwelling unit that is offered to the public in exchange for money, that is, essentially, a public accommodation.  An owner accepts personal responsibility for his welfare in a structure controlled solely by him.  He can let it deteriorate at his own peril or maintain it at his benefit.


Not so for renters. A renter has very limited control over the condition of the property rented just as a diner has little or no control over the condition of a restaurant kitchen.  That is the reason for which we have health inspectors for restaurant kitchens and not for your private kitchen at your domicile.  One has the right to expect that the places one rents and the food one eats are safe. 


The government cannot protect a landlord at his home from his own ignorance and complacency, however, it can protect renters from the landlord’s ignorance and complacency with respect to the rental unit.  That is the difference and the reason for which I gave your argument the label of red herring.


Note: This difference was tacitly recognized by the Washington State legislature with Bill 6459 by not including private, owner-occupied homes within its scope.  They knew not to conflate owner-occupied and rental units.


Ham Hayes  //  Mon, Apr 19, 2010, 12:29 pm

Dick,

Thanks for bringing up an interesting point.  We hold some other suppliers responsible and accountable for the quality and safety of their goods and services, so why not landlords?  The hard part seems to be in establishing the standards that provide the desired level of regulation at a cost that doesn’t produce an undesirable level of restrictions to the provider or the consumer.

Every time our society tries to deal with a new threat or problem, the same sticky questions seem to pop up.  to wit: absentee landlords may be more prone to skimping on safety than live-in landlords. Should the regulations be different for those two types? In our society, what risks should people (renters and consumers) be reasonably expected to take, none, some or all? The possible answers “none” or “all” don’t seem to work.  The answer “some” requires us to collect data and understand the sources and magnitude of the problem and the associated risks with regard to possible solutions. Can we and should we make our society entirely risk free?  What are the consequences of abrogating our personal responsibility for determining and evaluating risks?

The City Council’s cost estimate seems very low for an inspection of the kind described, especially if electrical and plumbing inspection is included. Perhaps we should allow renters to request and pay for inspections they deem worthy.  Our local municipal code could require landlords to comply with the request to have the inspections performed by licensed contractors.  The renter doesn’t have to rent after all.  That way the risks and costs are shared and we don’t have to overly inflate our bureaucratic infrastructure.


Dick Conoboy  //  Mon, Apr 19, 2010, 3:47 pm

Ham,

I will take one of your last comments first regarding the renter who does not have to rent. I suppose that is true since there is still space under I-5.  :-)  Yes, the renter does not have to rent a particular unit, there is a choice but it is a false choice since the renter is not in an advantageous or knowledgeable position to judge.  Nor is the landlord, for neither is an expert. 


Regarding cost estimates, there is a panoply in the study done by the Council’s Legislative Policy Analyst.  Not every unit must be inspected every year.  In fact, the recent legislation in Olympia allows inspections only every three years.  Since we do not yet have a draft ordinance, this will have to be priced out by the city’s financial gurus.  If $30-36 per unit will bring in $450K per year, I imagine that will furnish enough inspectors to do the job.  As time goes on and units are repaired, the inspections rate can be cut back and because the units are in better shape, the inspections will not take as long to perform.


I must say that the only way to know the good units from the bad units is to inspect them all, at least the first go-around. (Note again that I am not including rentals in which the landlord also lives, i.e., renting a room in one’s home.) Trying to focus on units owned by absentee landlords seems futile to me since I know of so many bad landlords who live right here in Bellingham. No doubt you could easily add to the list. Then there are “mom and pop” rentals where the landlords, however well-intentioned, might not even know they have problem units. Furthermore, I doubt if any selective program would hold up to a court challenge.  Pasco has a system that has already weathered the courts in Washington.  Why reinvent the wheel?


If you go to my blog (+ Link), you will find a list on the left hand side of dozens upon dozens of cities that have already adopted licensing and inspection.  I think the “problem” of developing standards might be resolved by looking at these programs.  Again and much closer to home, if Pasco figured it out, so can we.


David Camp  //  Sun, Apr 25, 2010, 11:31 am

I agree with Tip - the last thing we need in town is a new bureaucracy with search and inspect powers over private business. I think ceding unconstitutional search powers to a “rental czar” to deal with a few problem landlords is crazy. And oppressive.

This is about gentrification - in my neighborhood (York), I’ve gotten into arguments about this issue and all the supporters of landlord licensing with mandatory inspections are homeowners. The subtext is “no slums in my neighborhood”.

If this were really, as the proponents claim, about tenant safety, then the City could actually license landlords very cheaply without requiring an inspection. Then have a complaint-driven process to help tenants get necessary repairs and maintenance done. This could be accomplished by a half-time person trained in related law and with a ticket book.

This is America not East Germany.


Dick Conoboy  //  Mon, Apr 26, 2010, 9:31 am

Dear Mr. Camp,

In life we can ignore the facts but we don’t get to change them and railing about non-existent “czars” adds little to the debate.  The CDC has studied complaint based systems and found that they do not work for reasons that I have outlined in my original piece and in my comments which followed. I shan’t repeat them for I am growing weary as it appears some folks do not read them at all. If you want a copy of the report, you can contact me at zonemaven AT hotmail DOT com and I will be happy to provide it to you.

As for the “few” problem landlords, I again point you to the programs already in place in such cities as Pasco, WA and Gresham, OR where more than enough dangerous, life threatening and unhealthy conditions were unearthed during their inspections.  I would like to know what leads you to opine that Bellingham is somehow spared and that our rental stock is pristine.  I invite you to talk to students at Western at which time you will get an earful about the “few” problem landlords. 

In fact, Western students will host a discussion on rental licensing on 17 May at 7pm. in Academic West (Academic Instructional Center, or AIC) 204.  Check my blog in coming days for additional information. 

And for what reason should homeowners or any Bellingham resident NOT be for decent rental housing?  The issue, once again, is not about gentrification but about health and safety.  As in all efforts to ensure health and safety, there must be monitoring (that which you term a terrible bugaboo - BUREAUCRACY)such as does the government to protect our food supply, our water, our medications, our hospitals, etc.  I presume, you are not suggesting that we dispense with these to relieve the bureaucratic burden.


Dick Conoboy  //  Mon, Apr 26, 2010, 1:40 pm

Correction:  The house with the gas leak was located on High St. near Laurel Park.  The explosion took place in the summer of 1985.


David Camp  //  Fri, Apr 30, 2010, 2:32 pm

Dear Mr. Conoboy,

You ask “And for what reason should homeowners or any Bellingham resident NOT be for decent rental housing?” Where did I say I was against? Where I differ with you is in your prescription - a new bureaucracy with unprecedented (in Whatcom County) inspection powers over private residences.

And a CDC “study” is not fact - it’s a study which may have only tangential application to Bellingham. Here in Bellingham, our police operate on a complaint-based system, and it works just fine, thank you very much, regardless of the CDC’s (or your) opinion.

In any event, we have a democratic and responsive city council here in Bellingham. And where they are asked by some group to do something that arouses a lot of opposition, they tend not to do anything - which is a good thing. In this case, there is a lot of opposition to what you propose, for what in my opinion are good reasons. Landlord licencing (at least with mandatory inspections) ain’t gonna happen, Sir, and that is good.


Dick Conoboy  //  Fri, Apr 30, 2010, 6:24 pm

Eppur si muove.


Sharon Crozier  //  Sat, May 01, 2010, 2:08 pm

Let’s see…With a $35 fee times 34,000 units…mmm…A City-in-Need would get around $1,190,000…

That would buy a passel of smoke detectors. California has a law (California Health and Safety Code Section 13113.7) that provides for what you say we need. And fire departments volunteers go around and hang doorknob cards offering to come and test folks batteries if they are unable. Also, too, and, even more (thanks, Sarah), they issue PSAs every time Daylight Savings Time changes, (Spring forward, Fall back and check the batteries in your smoke alarms).

Skeptic that I have grown to be, I see the two greatest advantages being money to the City and zoning control. Many of the most gracious homes are in Berkeley, CA, where many big homes have studios over their garage or some kind of guest cottage attachment. All legal and, to the chagrin of home shoppers, not lowering home values at all.

I guess there’s just no more ways the Council can find to hassle downtown drivers for money (what more can you do after you’ve towed all those cars?).

Do I care about the renters? Sure. I mostly am one. But it’s a long time since 1985. I suggest you check out California Health and Safety Code Section 13113.7 before starting a new municipal business for us.

Respectfully,


Dick Conoboy  //  Sat, May 01, 2010, 3:59 pm

Dear Sharon,

Thank you for your comments.

I think if you review my original guest article, you will note that I stated that about 50% of the 34,000 living units in Bellingham are rentals.  So 17,000 X $30-$36 = about $450K to $500K.  The amount may vary depending on the decisions of the city council who may wish to have a scaled fee for owners of multiple units.

On your advice, I did consult the California Health and Safety Code Section 13113.7.  That code only covers smoke detectors.  An inspection program, the likes of which I am promoting, would also cover areas such as electrical wiring, plumbing, vermin, mold, structural integrity, ventilation, egress, etc.  Not sure that these problems are amenable to a door hanger campaign.  Although Mr. Camp, your fellow commenter (above) dismisses it, there is a CDC report which demonstrates that complaint only systems do not work.  That is essentially the present program under the RCW.  With that you get to report problems, if you can figure out that there are problems to begin with. 

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, a licensing and inspection program IS NOT about zoning but IS very much about health and safety.  I wrote about this distinction in my blog last month and pointed that out to Tip in response to an earlier comment.  You can find a link to that at the end of my original article above (under Related Links. 

Others have also complained that rental licensing is just a money grab by the city.  If you read the 26 page study prepared for the City Council on this topic you will find that it speaks to program cost recovery only as one of the principles.  Income from the program would provide sufficient funds to administer the licensing of properties and to provide for the hiring of inspectors.

If you do care about renters, then join us as we hear from some of the 8,000 student renters when the Viking Community Builders host a discussion on rental licensing on 17 May at 7pm. in Academic West (Academic Instructional Center, or AIC) 204.  Check my blog for additional information on the event at + Link .

See you there!


Sharon Crozier  //  Sun, May 02, 2010, 3:31 pm

What another oollege town did before jumping to a new beureaucracy:

+ Link

Having been a fairly attendee at city council meetings, I know for fact that the subject of rental problems has only come up when neighbors have complained about noise or parking or zoning problems. They usually consisted of remarks about the lack of police response to noise complaints and the paucity of solutions available for lack of parking.

As for zoning out guest units, that’s just archaic anyway. Mr. and Ms. Jones had best adapt to new and trying times. (I know; but they paid so very much for that house and now the neighbors are renting their guest cottage…”)

Pullman uses existing departments instead of growing their city staff. Surely, there are things that could be attempted before landing with a full-blown, expensive program with whole new rules to enforce.

The rules are already in place; enforcement has bee non-existent, as has any attempt at educating landlords and tenants.

You are making a lot of sense in that your safety concerns have some validity. It’s just that I feel your solutions are an over reaction.


Dick Conoboy  //  Sun, May 02, 2010, 6:44 pm

I am not sure how many times I must reiterate that licensing and inspection is about health and safety and not about nuisances or zoning.  Can we put that to rest?

In order to assure a healthy and safe environment in a place that a landlord offers to the public, there has to be some controls.  Handing someone a list, such as is done in Pullman and expecting that person to make an informed judgment does not deal with the real world.  There are areas with respect to structure; electrical and plumbing systems; and cleanliness that are beyond the ability of the average renter to understand and recognize.  You would not provide a diner with a kitchen checklist to use prior to eating in a restaurant.  Nor would you provide such a list to hotel guests or patients in hospitals or passengers on an airplane.  Certain areas of commerce in the public domain must be made safe for those who cannot possibly make judgments of the kind these self-certification or complaint only systems imply.

As for the expense of the program, it would be like most others that ensure the health and safety of all citizens.  As individuals we pay into these systems in relatively small amounts so that all can enjoy the benefits.  For example, that is the reason for which property owners no longer have private insurance with individual fire departments. 
 
As for using existing departments to effect safe rentals, how is one going to coordinate multiple offices within the city in order to inspect rental units?  How will the city bring to bear inspection personnel who do not come under the control of the city, such as the Health Department?  Our sole code enforcement officer in the police department hasn?t the hours in the day to take care of even her current workload.  Our permitting department has been cut to the bone.  Can we expect that they will have the time to verify the state of 17,000 rentals units?

Lastly, why do you think that the self-described “rental industry” should be the ONLY business in Bellingham that is not licensed?  What special privilege accrues to these individual landlords or corporate entities, the LLCs that landlords hide behind?


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