Whatcom County, former tenants in dispute with land owner over run-down rentals

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 21, 2014 

Charles Carman says his goal was to provide cheap accommodations for low-income people who could grow their own food and maybe even develop an agricultural co-op on his 20-acre property at 350 E. Axton Road.

But when Whatcom County Planning and Development Services inspectors visited the site in the summer of 2013, they found numerous health and safety code violations. They also discovered that an RV, mobile homes and other dwellings on the property had never received the required county permits but were being rented to tenants.

The county assessed a total of $7,300 in penalties against Carman, and the tenants were forced to leave later in 2013.

Several of those tenants filed a lawsuit in Whatcom County Superior Court in November 2013, seeking at least $2,000 apiece in relocation assistance and repayment of rent from Carman. Attorney Stephen Gockley of the Northwest Justice Project who is representing the six said state law entitles tenants to recover relocation expenses from landlords when they are forced from their homes in these situations.

The lawsuit, still pending, also contends the tenants are entitled to a refund of all the rent they paid to Carman, because their living quarters were never legally inhabitable or rentable. The lawsuit contends that the plaintiffs paid monthly rents ranging from $350 for an RV space to $1,150 for a portion of a mobile home on the property that had been illegally installed there, and illegally split into two rental units.

The lawsuit states that the tenants of the mobile home unit agreed to the lease while they were living in Florida, based on Carman's description. When they arrived, they found carpets fouled with pet urine, improvised wiring leading from their meter box to other dwellings on the site, and an unpermitted septic system.

As Carman sees it, he is the victim: His own tax dollars are going to a tax-supported legal services agency that is suing him on behalf of scheming tenants who hope to squeeze money out of him.

Carman, who lives in Edmonds, said he bought the property years ago when it was still a working raspberry farm, as a home for his mother. But his mother died before she could move there. Carman said he found someone to live in a house on the property and keep an eye on things, but blackberries overran the raspberry field and the plants eventually were ripped out.

The structures he had rented out were already there when he bought the property more than 20 years ago, Carman said, and some may once have housed migrant workers when the land was still producing berries. Carman said he was unaware the structures lacked permits and it would be illegal to rent them.

Eventually, Carman said he got the idea of renting out the available spaces to people who needed help, giving them affordable lodgings and a place to grow their own food. He said he had been renting to tenants for several years before the county showed up.

"The county has overstepped their bounds," Carman said. "I think they've got some rogue people working for the county that get emotionally involved in ruining people. ... The real story is if you go to the parking lot at Walmart and you see people living in their RVs and on the side of the road. They have no place to go."

Based on the county's inspection reports, documented with photographs, the real story would be the living conditions on Carman's property: dwelling units supplied with power via extension cords; other dangerous electrical wiring; an overburdened and smelly septic tank with no permit; a basement rental unit with no toilet or running water; an RV with wastewater that emptied into an above-ground storage tank that the occupant was not strong enough to haul away for emptying; absence of smoke detectors; an outhouse that consisted of a shed and bucket.

Carman said the cost of complying with county health and safety codes and zoning makes it hard for people like him to provide low-cost homes for people in need.

"If I have 20 acres, I can only rent out one home on the property," Carman said. "If I can have a couple of little places on the property, I can rent each one for less. ... They make it so the little guy can't afford to rent the place. The rules and regulations are hurting the little guy."

Suzanne Bosman, a Whatcom County senior planner who handles code enforcement, wasn't impressed by that argument.

"The building codes were adopted to protect the general health, welfare, and safety of the public," Bosman said in an email. "The tenants renting from Mr. Carman were living in substandard conditions with exposed wires, no handrails, missing electrical cover plates, black mold, inadequate egress and an unapproved septic system. People in need of affordable housing deserve a secure, safe and clean environment to live."

Carman also contended he was being singled out. He argued that RVs and other illegal units are being rented out all over the county to people who would otherwise be homeless.

"You can go up and down the county and see RVs all over the place," Carman said. "If they cut off all those people, it would be crazy."

Bosman did not deny that there are health, safety and zoning violations in other dwellings around the county, but she said that was beside the point.

"Mr. Carman is not being singled out," Bosman said. "We received several complaints from tenants that the dwellings and their surroundings were a threat to public safety. Due to the number of egregious violations and the threat to public safety, enforcement action was taken. Mr. Carman's assertion that a lot of people are living in places similar to his throughout the county doesn't justify his illegal uses."

County records indicate that in December 2013, code enforcement officials agreed to reduce Carman's assessed $7,300 penalty to $3,400 if he took steps to correct the violations. But Carman failed to meet the deadlines to fix the problems, and in February 2014, the county tacked on another $4,300 in penalties, Bosman said.

On March 18, 2014, Bosman said, Carman filed an appeal of some of the penalties with the Whatcom County Appeals Board.

Carman said he has had a hard time coping with the problems at the site to the county's satisfaction, because he suffers from PTSD in the wake of a criminal assault that he barely survived.

"We are all being so ruled and regulated to death, it's almost like you don't own the property anymore," Carman said.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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