Thursday, March 6, 2014
For the second time in the last several years, the Associated Students of Western Washington University has published a resolution on rental safety. The first resolution was in 2010. You can read that resolution in my blog entry of June 4, 2010 entitled "Associated Students of WWU Publish Resolution to Support Rental Licensing" (click here). That blog entry also speaks to the many articles and editorials on rental health and safety that have appeared in the student newspaper, the Western Front.
Here is the latest resolution:
"A Resolution Regarding Rental Safety
WHEREAS, the majority of Western Washington University students rent housing in the City of Bellingham; and,
WHEREAS, tenants entering into a lease with a landlord should have a reasonable expectation of safety, housing code compliance, and landlord-tenant communication; and,
WHEREAS, the lack of accountability for rental property owners in the City of Bellingham has allowed for landlords to operate outside of the Residential Landlord-Tenant Act; and,
WHEREAS, Western Washington University students are being harmed by living in substandard rental housing in violation of housing codes and health and safety standards as established in Chapter 59.18 RCW Residential Landlord-Tenant Act; and,
WHEREAS, health and safety laws are only effective if enforced, and the complaint based system is inadequately enforced and places an undue burden on tenants to take action in order to live in safe housing; and,
WHEREAS, enforcement of housing standards will remove delinquent landlords from the market so that compliant landlords will have more fair competition; and,
WHEREAS, existing codes and laws are not written in a way that is accessible to lay people; therefore
BE IT RESOLVED, building and fire codes must be made more accessible in order for tenants to identify violations and seek appropriate remedies; and,
BE IT ALSO RESOLVED, all relevant codes and laws should be enforced or else reformed to increase landlord and tenant accountability; and,
BE IT ALSO RESOLVED, all relevant codes and laws should be provided to tenants before signing their contract; and,
BE IT ALSO RESOLVED, the students of Western Washington University request that the City of Bellingham implement a landlord registration process to monitor who is renting and enforce rental inspections for code violators in order to increase landlord accountability; and,
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, the Associated Students is dedicated to ensuring that safe housing is available to all tenants and are eager to work with the City of Bellingham to find tangible solutions towards positive change."
The young men and women who wrote this represent a student body that is largely renters. Many on the staff and board of Associated Students are also renters themselves. Over the years, rental health and safety has been scoffed at as a non-existent problem or, at worst, a problem of a few "bad apples" even though time and time again we are hearing from these students that there is a large and severe problem that is not being addressed.
On their own students commissioned several surveys that confirm exactly their complaints and demonstrate a hidden and widespread problem with health and safety issues within Bellingham's rental market. Lest we forget about these surveys, it may be useful to reread them here and here. These studies confirm health and safety issues within 15% to 40% of our rental market depending on the category of safety violation. Based on the overall number of rental units, 17,000 or more, we can expect that between 2,500 and 6,800 of these units present a danger to the occupants unless remedial action is taken.
The only way to root out these problem units is a strong rental licensing and inspection program that is organized and carried out by city inspectors at regular intervals such as once every three years. Futzing about by depending on complaints will get us exactly where we have been on this issue over the last decade - nowhere.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Students constitute by far the largest identifiable group of renters in Bellingham (approximately 10,000) and they are making their voices heard. Many have become irritated, then enervated and finally exhausted in the face of rental safety and health problems and the inability of the city to come to terms with the issue over the past decade with an effective inspection ordinance . To this end, they continue to speak out as individuals and as representatives of the student bodies, especially at Western Washington University. Here are two recent examples.
The first piece on Rental Safety and Studentsis By Samantha Goldblatt, a Sehome Board Student Representative and Legal Information Center Coordinator for WWU's Associated Students. This first appeared in a recent Sehome Neighborhood newsletter. Here is Samantha's personally acquired view on the topic:
"While rental licensing and inspection have been hot-button issues in the City of Bellingham for quite a long time, the voices of those who experience issues in their home have often been left out of the conversation. This is mostly due to scheduling City Council Planning Committee meetings when most renters are at school and work and the pervasive fear to speak out because of retaliation from landlords. In the Sehome Neighborhood, a large number of those renters with health and safety problems are students.
It is no secret that many students in the Sehome Neighborhood are strongly affected by this problem. In November, for instance, the Western Front published a story about a house on the 600 block of E. Myrtle Street that was declared unfit for residence after a large amount of meth residue was found embedded in the walls from previous tenants. According to the article, the girls living in the house were experiencing respiratory issues and had heard rumors about the previous tenants using methamphetamines from friends. The investigation was conducted after the property management company that owned the house refused to test for meth and the tenants contacted the Whatcom County Health Department. The symptoms of two of the residents have since diminished, but one developed asthma, a life-long respiratory issue. [Click here to read my Zonemaven blog entry on this meth contamination.]
Although it’s easy to dismiss this case as an anomaly, this is a narrative that is all too common. In addition to being a student, I also work for the Associated Students of Western Washington University as the Coordinator of the Legal Information Center. When I tell people this, they often assume that I see students for minor-in-possession and drug charges all the time, but the truth is that a vast majority of the students that come into the office are there for landlord-tenant issues. While it is more common for me to see students that are having issues getting their landlord to make some crucial repair or return their security deposit, there are also a disturbing amount of people who come in, often audibly wheezing from black mold or worn-down from the effort of negotiating with their landlords, to report serious structural or health issues in their home.
How can we provide support to these students? When I tell them about the Bellingham code-violation system, most choose not to report their issues, in fear that they won’t be able to find a new place to rent if their current living situation is deemed uninhabitable. In the case of the tenants mentioned earlier, at the time that the Western Front article was released the students were crashing with friends who took them in.
While there are many solutions that could be used with various degrees of effectiveness to improve conditions for renters in Bellingham, it is clear that the way things are going right now are not good for the working-class and student renters that make up a big part of our Sehome community.
If you are a student experiencing landlord-tenant or any other legal issues, please contact me, Samantha Goldblatt, at: as dot legalinfo at wwu dot edu"
Western Washington University Student Theo Bikel sent me the following letter regarding rental conditions in Bellingham from the perspective of a student renter. Theo is working with the student Legislative Affairs Council on campus to develop a Landlord-Tenant Reform proposal that will be presented to the city.
Here is what Theo has to say.
"Imagine this situation: you sit down at a restaurant and you have no idea if the meal you order is safe to eat. If you get sick, would you think that it is just a normal danger of eating out? What makes something ‘normal’? Is it when everyone you know experiences the same thing? Because there are times in this world that we have to challenge what is ‘normal’.
Washington Title 59 of the Revised Code of Washington establishes the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants. Landlords in Bellingham have a responsibility to ensure that they rent safe homes to their tenants and follow Washington State Law.The tragic reality is that violations of Washington State Tenant Laws are ‘normal’ in this town. The reality is that every year students rent homes with hazardous conditions like faulty heaters, no hot water, and bad electrical wiring. This violates Washington State housing codes and endangers our lives. We also suffer undue financial costs when our security deposits are withheld improperly and spurious charges are placed on us.
Although many landlords are responsible and follow their duties, some landlords ignore their tenants concerns and do not address the health and safety violations in the properties they rent. Since many students only live in rentals for 9 months to one year, many of us decide to endure our housing conditions and hope for a better one next year. And even if things are intolerable, many people do not have the time to go to court and are fearful of retribution from their landlord if they seek legal action.
Like the food industry, adequate regulation of rentals should be implemented in this town to protect not only us students, but all renters. The Western Legislative Affairs Council is working on making this a reality and we would love to use your stories and experiences to show the world that this is an injustice that has been normal for too long."
You can contact Theo with your stories and experiences at:
bickelt at students dot wwu dot edu
Thursday, February 27, 2014
The piece below first appeared in the Cascadia Weekly*. The column is by Dave Hopkinson of the York Neighborhood who has supported legislation in Bellingham to ensure the health and safety of renters. Dave, himself, is a landlord.
LANDLORDS NEED A LICENSE LIKE EVERYONE ELSE
After the lease has been signed, it is up to you, the tenant, to identify safety hazards and ask the landlord to fix them. If the landlord fails to do so in a timely fashion, you can file a complaint with the city, and an inspection will be scheduled. Safety code violations that are verified will then be subject to enforcement.
It is ridiculous, said one tenant, to have to go to so much trouble just to get the landlord to do his job. The landlord-tenant law is appropriate for disputes such as a retained deposit, but less so for landlord failure to comply with building safety codes. Instead of creating an incentive for the landlord to attend to the safety hazards of the building, landlord-tenant dispute creates an incentive for the landlord to defend himself.
The City of Bellingham receives relatively few complaints. Some believe this means there are few rental hazards. Actually, hazards are under-reported. Tenants cannot accurately identify hazards, nor will they reliably report them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2008) says tenants do not complain for fear of landlord retribution. That a hazard may be dangerous does not seem to make any difference. Many tenants will not report it to the landlord, and many more will not file a complaint. The CDC says that tenant complaint systems are “highly ineffective” and “foster the decline of rental housing.”
To find a safe rental home, prospective tenants must depend upon gossip, rumor and hearsay to guide them. What tenants need is what we take for granted whenever we eat at a restaurant: consumer safety. Food vendors undergo inspection for compliance with health and safety codes. Imagine a restaurant for which inspection occurred only after you filed a complaint. That would be similar to the archaic tenant complaint system that now regulates
An owner-occupied building is a long-term investment that is maintained to protect its value. Slumlords turn this upside-down with rental buildings. Deliberate neglect is the business plan. Costs are reduced by putting off repairs. Maintenance is ignored. Rent continues to be collected from tenants who have no other place to go. Buildings deteriorate and become increasingly dangerous. When no longer rentable, due to deterioration, the slumlord can sell the remaining husk of a building or demolish it.
The slumlord business plan is a form of resource extraction. Deliberate neglect is non-sustainable business practice that exploits tenants and places them at risk. The rental industry defends the existing situation by insisting that most landlords are doing a good job. Without inspection, there is no way to know whether any particular landlord is, or is not, doing a good job.
Doing a good job is faint praise for landlords who struggle to use sustainable practices, while being undercut by slumlords, who do not.
It is said that the costs of a rental licensing program will be passed on to tenants. This presents with an implicit false choice. Given capable landlords and strong regulation, why can’t there be both reasonable rent and safe rental homes? More than half of this city’s housing units are rentals. A license would be an incentive for every landlord to do a good job.
In 2011, a rental licensing program was researched by city staff and modified by Bellingham City Council, but the proposal did not go forward at that time. How about now? City-supported rental licensing would level the playing field for landlords by eliminating the utility of deliberate neglect, protecting tenants from an unsafe home environment, and slowing the loss of rental stock in the city.
A single email on rental licensing will reach all members of Bellingham City Council: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Reprinted with permission of the Cascadia Weekly.