Friday, August 1, 2014

Councilmember Murphy’s Proposed Rental Ordinance Is Deeply Flawed

Summary: Council Member Roxanne Murphy has championed a "registration-only"rental ordinance program for Bellingham based on what she considers is a successful program in Tacoma, from where she recently moved.  After conducting a series of interviews with Tacoma officials and neighborhood leaders, I have determined that the program in Tacoma was designed to clean up drug houses and fight gang problems but has barely scraped the surface of correcting unsafe rental housing conditions. To use Tacoma's ordinance as a model for Bellingham moves us in the wrong direction. While the ordinance in Tacoma cleaned up neighborhoods -- ridding them of junk and improving exteriors -- it did very little to correct the substandard conditions of rental housing with regard to wiring, plumbing, mold, structural problems, and vermin. One official even said rental owners had learned how to "game" the system: clean up the outside to avoid an internal inspection.

In May of this year, At-Large City Council Representative Roxanne Murphy proposed a rental ordinance she indicated was modeled from a similar ordinance in effect in Tacoma, WA (pop. 200,000), from which she had recently moved. This version of a rental ordinance for Bellingham has been chosen for further consideration and an eventual hearing later this year, possibly in September. Ms Murphy indicated that the Tacoma ordinance was very successful, although it relied on complaints only and mandated no inspections on a regular basis. In an effort to verify these claims, I spoke to several Tacoma officials including the head of the Community Services Department, the manager of the office of Taxation and Licensing and the head of the Code Enforcement office. I also contacted the heads of Tacoma’s eight neighborhood councils, however, only three responded by email. One I was able to contact by telephone. Only one neighborhood council head was able to speak to the issue of rental licensing in Tacoma. The others referred me to city officials, claiming they did not know much about the legislation or its effectiveness. The reality of Tacoma’s program does not inspire confidence.

I learned that Tacoma has had a requirement since 2006 for all landlords to register as businesses. Their code mandated no periodic inspections. In essence, their complaint-only system was a failure. In 2012, the Tacoma City Council added a requirement for regular inspections only if a complaint was received on a rental unit, and as a result, the “points” given during the exterior inspection exceeded a certain number based on their inspection criteria. The rewrite of the ordinance was part of Tacoma’s city-wide effort to take care of some festering problems by revising ordinances in order to clean up neighborhoods and combat serious crime in the form of rental units being used as gang and drug houses. Of special focus was the Hilltop area of Tacoma which overlapped two of the city’s official neighborhoods. This effort to attack the health and safety issues inside rentals throughout the city was only incidental to the overall effort to “clean up” neighborhoods in a much broader sense. Evidently, the Hilltop neighborhood was transformed with respect to junky, unkempt looking rentals and the gangs and druggies fled to other places. Much trash was removed and lawns mowed. 

The reality behind Tacoma’s rental licensing ordinance is that nearly one-half of all the city’s landlords, who number about 10,000, have failed to register as businesses since 2006. There are no active efforts to pursue landlords who have not obtained a license. Scofflaws are discovered only incidental to other actions, such as a complaint about the appearance of a rental unit. Complaints, at the rate of 50 or 60 per week, that flow into the city code enforcement office are mostly about nuisances, trash, hulk vehicles and lack of permits. Only about 3 each week concern rental building violations, their conditions.  These complaints trigger minimally an inspection of the outside of the rental unit. At that time, an assumption is made that the inside of the unit is also in poor condition if the number of points accumulated during the outside inspection exceeds a certain level. If that level is exceeded, the landlord will have to pay for an additional and “provisional” license which requires re-inspections for a certain period.  Of course if a tenant complains about the interior conditions, an inspection is made of the inside of the unit immediately, however, that is rare since most tenants do not even know what to look for in the way of dangerous conditions. Since the inception of the inspection requirement in 2012, there have been only 70 such “provisional” licenses mandated. With 40,000 rental units in Tacoma, that means a mere 0.18% (eighteen one hundredths of one percent) have been subject to any periodic inspection regime for safety and health issues inside rental units. Otherwise, success is measured by repaired gutters, towed cars, junk removal and outside paint jobs. As mentioned in the summary above, over the past several years the landlords have, not surprisingly, started to game the system. By mowing the lawn and picking up trash, landlords avoid complaints by neighbors that would lead to a more thorough inspection of the interior of the unit.  

On 9 June, Councilmember Murphy stated from the Bellingham council dais that “maybe 5%” of Bellingham’s rentals could be a threat to tenants’ health and safety. She provided absolutely no basis for that estimate nor did she respond to my invitations to review data. The Tacoma code, which Ms Murphy is promoting, actually states that the city of Tacoma estimates 3-5% of the rental units in the city are “below the minimum building standards” under RCW 59.18.060. Could this be the source of Ms Murphy’s contention that Bellingham has a similar percentage of rentals that present a health or safety threat?  When I inquired about the 3-5% figure in my conversations with Tacoma city officials, I learned the percentage was merely a guess based upon the previous history of complaints developed under the former (failed) complaint-only system which has, in essence, been perpetuated as of 2012. Consequently, Tacoma used that as part of the rationale for its rental inspection ordinance. I was not surprised to find out that the local Rental Housing Association assisted in writing the revised ordinance after the real estate and rental industries vehemently rejected earlier versions.

Furthermore, this 3-5 % number given by Ms Murphy flies in the face of the results of inspection ordinances in other cities in the U.S., such as Pasco, WA; Gresham, OR; or Sacramento, CA, where from 10% to 30% of units were found to have health and safety issues. These results were mirrored in Bellingham by two student surveys indicating the city’s rentals may have serious deficiencies in 20-30% of the units. While these percentages may seem small, when calculated, the number of actual units affected in Bellingham’s rental market ranges from 2,800 to 4,200 units that would house from 5,000 to 9,000 tenants based on average occupancy figures. Using Tacoma’s experience and complaint rate, it would take any complaint-only system in Bellingham hundreds of years to surface all the poor rental units…maybe.

Tacoma may have met with some success but Bellingham has no comparable crime-ridden neighborhoods. The Tacoma ordinance was merely one part of a wide effort to clean up the city, but the rental ordinance they put in place has been manifestly inadequate to address the health and safety of tenants as there are no overall periodic inspections of the interior of the rental units. Furthermore, to cite Tacoma’s efforts as an example of a licensing and inspection program that has gone well is misleading at best and a serious disservice to tenants at worst. 

The Bellingham City Council should take this information into consideration and reject the draft ordinance of Ms Murphy. The experience of Tacoma is a prime example of the abject failure of complaint-based systems in getting to the heart of the problem of resolving health and safety dangers inside rental units. Yet, this same system is being promoted as the solution to eliminating dangerous health and safety conditions here. The council should redraft a proposal to include periodic inspections of all rentals. Anything less will perpetuate the danger renters face in this city on a daily basis.

Note:  This article appeared on 1 Aug 2014 on NWCitizen.  Click here to see the article on that site.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Landlords Need to Know about Rental Registration

[Note: The following was published in NWCitizen on 21 Jul 2014 by Theo Bickel, a recent Political Science graduate of Western Washington University.  It is reproduced here with his permission.Theo has been working with  members of the student body and the student government to ensure that Bellingham landlords offer safe rental housing and that the city provide inspections of all rentals.]

A Robust Inspection of This Burned Rental Would Have Saved This Landlord Time and Money 
When discussing rental code enforcement, you may think it's a dispute between tenants and landlords, or a new draconian tax targeting landlords. This is not true. Washington law has already established a landlord’s legal responsibilities and the minimum health and safety standards of rental properties. The city of Bellingham is discussing the proactive enforcement of existing laws. Most landlords in this town abide by the laws and work hard to keep their properties in the best condition they can. However, in a town with 13,000 rental properties and around 40,000 tenants, many rental properties contain serious safety code violations and put the lives of tenants, neighbors, and our entire community at risk.

Since rental properties are an essential part of our community, their safety is the city's top priority. The city  is discussing proactive code enforcement by requiring rental properties to be registered with the city after a “self-declaration of compliance with a published checklist of minimum standards.” This lays out a checklist of standards that all properties must comply with to make sure there are no unsafe conditions “that endanger or impair or could endanger or impair the health or safety of a tenant.” If a rental property is found to be in violation of these conditions the city will require the landlord bring the property back up to safe standards with a “certificate of inspection” confirming repairs have been done. This program would be funded by a baseline fee to all landlords – similar to a business license. The city would apply fines and civil infractions for violations of health and safety laws to keep housing up to safe levels.

Rental registration would be a city service providing new resources and benefits to landlords. Here are the advantages to landlords in Rental Registration and Code Enforcement.

1. Levels the Playing Field – Currently, landlords who maintain their properties to safety standards compete against those who do not maintain their properties, allowing them to decay to unsafe levels. The registration system is structured to have a minimal impact on landlords who pass inspections and do not have a history of code violations. Fines escalate on landlords who have repeated safety violations in their rental properties. Therefore, this program will lead to a more fair market.

2. Creates Certainty in Rental Market – Registering all rental properties and bringing unsafe housing up to code will lead to greater market confidence, sustainable business practices and greater future investment in the rental market.

3. Enhances Communication between the City and Landlords – Understanding one’s rights and responsibilities may be difficult for new landlords. This program will make city resources and support more accessible. Some examples are:

 - Listing of landlord rights and responsibilities,
 - Standards for rental property health and safety,
 - Identification of unsafe conditions,
 - Assistance of licensed inspectors with professional knowledge about health and safety standards in buildings,
 - Coordinated access to community development non-profits and HUD programs to help low-income landlords in need of assistance.

4. Creates Advertising – A complete on-line list of rental properties with valid registration will be available to tenants. Not only will this site be easy to navigate, but it will also provide advertising to interested customers. After registered properties are certified, the non-registered properties will be avoided by tenants.

5. Improves Safety – Greater maintenance in rental properties will decrease rental fires and create safer communities that benefit everyone in Bellingham. Through registration, the city will be able to contact landlords during emergencies.

6. Increases Property Values – Rental housing will be improved by the enforcement of rental property health and safety standards. Neighborhoods with substandard housing will see new investments and a significant reduction in blight, leading to healthier and more valuable communities.

The Rental Registration program being discussed in the city of Bellingham is based upon data from successful implementation of proactive code enforcement policies in cities across America. These advantages are real, and they are tangible. Landlords, tenants, and all citizens in the city of Bellingham will benefit from the registration of rental properties and the proactive enforcement of health and safety standards. When the worst players of the rental market take advantage of their tenants, ignore their responsibilities, and put people in danger, this impacts community members and landlords who fulfill their duties. Not only is this unfair but it makes it harder to run an honest business. By having a universal registration system and a baseline of safety standards, this program can help bring landlords and city staff together to improve housing in Bellingham.

Support Rental Registration in Bellingham. Write to the mayor ( and to the city council (

Sources (Each item is a hyperlink):

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rental Safety and Health Founders at City Council Meeting

On Monday evening the city council decided to move forward with the most lax and ineffective version of a rental licensing ordinance.  On 23 June, the council's Planning Committee had provided three versions of a rental health and safety ordinance to the Committee of the Whole for consideration at the 7 Jul council session.  You can view a summary chart of those options here.

Unfortunately, the Committee of the Whole chose Option 1, the one proffered by Council Member Murphy.   You can review this watered-down version of an ordinance in its entirety at the council's webpage here - Draft Ordinance 6-23-14 Registration Only.  The other two versions can be seen also at the same page here.  Even these two are not gems but at least they provide for inspections.

I provided comments on this measure during the public comment period at the beginning of the city council meeting.  You can view a video of my comments here at video counter number 11:50.

The problems one encounters with the selected version of this ordinance is that there is not one shred of a requirement for inspections.  All is complaint based, just as we have had for the past decades, the process that does not work.  Below is what Tim Johnson at the Cascadia Weekly had to say about the council's actions on rental health and safety.   You can read the entire Gristle column, Call of the Mild, here where Tim has hit the nail on the head.

"Council... appears to have lost their way on a registration program for rental units in the city, appearing to jettison every beneficial part of the original proposal in favor of—basically—a telephone directory of landlords tacked on to the bare bones of a complaint-driven system. As several commenters at their meeting noted, there is already a directory of landlords, and there is already a procedure that allows tenants to complain of their shabby tenements. Thus, after more than two decades of work on this issue, Council appears on the threshold of glossing gossamer, cementing in place a “feel good” system already deemed inadequate.

Property managers and brokers, of course, joyously love it, as it compels them to do nothing. It does nothing to alter the power imbalance between the owners and sellers of private property and the 54 percent of city residents who rent from them. As commenters noted, tenants who complain get evicted and they get their references shredded.

The centerpiece of a responsible rental licensing program are audits and inspections that yield data that informs policy about the city’s rental housing stock. Even modest inspections put landlords on notice that they can no longer rely solely on the silence of their tenants on issues of public health and safety. Over the past three years six fires have displaced nearly 20 renters in Bellingham. None of these properties had been reported to the city under the current complaint-based system since most of the tenants were unaware there was a problem and untrained to recognize one.

Council’s malaise on these issues, we’ll argue, is that—with notable exceptions—no member is pushing particularly hard in one direction, and there is no member at all pushing back hard the other way to yield dimension and stakes, even urgency, to their discussions. The public does arrive to scold and beat them, but generally only when they’re already on the precipice, having committed third and final to a mediocre plan. 

The council has voted to have a hearing on this questionable measure sometime in September as it was recognized that the council docket was pretty full in August.  I would suggest further that the council wait until at least October, when one large stakeholder group, the WWU student body, is back in town.  More importantly, the tenants must come forward and call out the council on this risible and ineffective choice, essentially a confirmation of the status quo.

Friday, June 27, 2014

York Neighbrhood Joins in the Call for a Rental Safety Ordinance

The York Neighborhood joins in the call for rental licensing and inspection in order to ensure the health and safety of Bellingham's tens of thousands of tenants.  You can help pass an ordinance by writing to the mayor ( and to the city council (  Tell them that we need to act before more are seriously hurt in preventable incidents.  Read more here on actual situations in Bellingham involving serious injury and near loss of life.  

Here is the York Neighborhood letter:

City Council
City of Bellingham
210 Lottie St.
Bellingham, WA 98225

June 23, 2014

RE:! Rental Registration and Inspections

Dear Council Members:

After 10 years of debate, research, and public input it is time for the City Council to approve a  Rental Safety and Inspection ordinance that will improve the housing conditions for our citizens. In the York Neighborhood we know first-hand that many rental houses are substandard. Two house fires in 2011 were determined by the Fire Marshall to be the result of (1) an electrical failure, and (2) a heating-system fan that was not correctly attached and which fell off and ignited the carpet. In other neighborhoods there have been life-threatening fires. Are we waiting for a disaster to happen?

We hope the wait is over with introduction of the proposed new ordinance addressing rental housing conditions. Our neighborhood is dotted with “money-making machines.” Single-family houses rent for $1,500 to $2,100 a month in York. These profits are not being put back into property maintenance. A walk around the neighborhood shows that. One can only wonder how bad the interiors are, if the outside is any indication. Two surveys conducted by Western students in recent years revealed numerous safety and health problems with the city’s older, deteriorating housing stock, such as we have in York; but we won’t really know how bad it is until an inspection program is launched. Inspections are a necessity.

Complaints filed by tenants have remained low because they fear retaliation in the form of increased rents, their deposits not being returned, or the threat of eviction. To complain is to put oneself one step closer to homelessness. We have heard the idea put forward in Council meetings that the neighborhood associations should take on the duty of filing complaints, but that is not our job. Our job is to build a sense of community, security, and pride; and to foster neighborly relations. Our job is not to promote a neighbor vs. neighbor mentality, or oversee rental businesses that are exploiting their tenants and disrespecting the rest of us with their slum conditions.

To the landlords who do a good job -- and there are many -- we say “thank you” for responsible business ownership and pride. For the ones who are here just to suck out profits, we say “shame on you.”

An inspection program will remove the burden from the tenants to file complaints and will bring a qualified inspector into the equation. Landlords will be required to make repairs, or else. With an inspection program in place, the City can begin to reign in an industry that has gone unregulated for years. In York there is one property owner of 25 houses who also manages many others for absentee landlords. Another owns 11 rentals. These are businesses that have a huge impact on the neighborhood.

Rental registration is a start, but it only creates a listing of owners. This list actually already exists through the Whatcom County Tax Assessor’s database. Alone, a registration program really accomplishes nothing; but coupled with an inspection program, we can begin to turn these deteriorating properties around. With a rental registration and inspection program, the Council is taking a stand for public safety, quality of neighborhoods, and creating a voice for working class families, students, and the poor who cannot afford other housing options.

We are proud to live in Bellingham where a commitment to equality and justice is fostered by our City leaders. Annually the Council leads a celebration in memory of a great leader who dedicated his life to the unheard voices of the poor, Dr. Martin Luther King. His legacy includes equality in education, employment and housing -- yes, housing -- and his work led to the Fair Housing Act in 1968, enacted into law just weeks after his assassination. In 1966 Dr. King moved into slum housing in Chicago to bring attention to the deplorable conditions there. When he spoke before a crowd of 35,000 at a rally supporting fair and safe housing he said, "We are here today because we are tired. We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in rat-infested slums...”

We, as leaders in our neighborhood, along with many renters in Bellingham, are tired, too. We are tired of 10-years of no action on this issue. We urge you to vote for a Rental Safety and Inspection program this time. Let’s celebrate Dr. King’s legacy not just one day of the year, but 365 days.

On behalf of the York Neighborhood Association:

Don Hilty-Jones, President 
Mark Schofield, Vice President
Anne Mackie, Secretary
Lisa Anderson, Treasurer
Tom Scott, MNAC Representative
Cory Anderson, Board Member
Kirsti Charlton, Board Member
Robb Correll, Board Member
Katie Dunne, Board Member
Brian Kennedy, Board Member