Thursday, November 13, 2014

City Council Work Session on Rental Registration and Inspections


At the 1pm meeting of the city council's Committee of the Whole this coming Monday (17 Nov), the members will have a work session on the draft ordinance that was the subject of a city council hearing on 27 October.  That hearing lasted nearly three hours during which time dozens of citizens voiced their concern that the draft measure did not contain an inspection component.  After the citizens' comment period, council member Terry Bornemann stated that he had changed his mind and that that he would be supportive of an inspection component.

Although there will be no comment period during the work session next Monday, I encourage all of you to attend the session as an indication of our support of a rental registration AND inspection ordinance.  [Note that the Committee of the Whole will meet earlier at 11am to consider the city budget.  They will reconvene after lunch at 1pm to consider the rental ordinance.]

My most recent letter to the city council follows:


Dear Council Members,



In advance of the work session on rental registration and inspection on 17 November, I would like to suggest the following while you consider development of a program for the city:



There seems to have been a morphing from a per unit fee to a per "property" fee.  I am not sure what occasioned that but it is unnecessarily restrictive.  It weighs favorably on the side of those with the largest properties (for what reason?) and it markedly reduces the potential income to finance the hiring of staff and the administration of a program.  The program with all its facets should be developed and then costed out in order to define the fee structure.  This is basic program management.



I ask also that you challenge the bloated estimates provided by staff months ago on the cost of hiring code enforcement personnel and running the program.  We know that the local HUD inspector can do almost 2,000 unit inspections per year.  This tracks also with Pasco, WA whose inspector also does the same number of inspections per year.  That flies in the face of the estimate given to us by the Planning Director.  Granted there will be some start-up lag but with proper planning, that lag can be minimized.



Any inspection program should be included in the fee structure so that landlords will be encouraged to participate with city inspectors rather than hire private firms. Relying primarily on private inspectors for periodic inspections means that the city neither gains nor retains any institutional knowledge of the city’s rental units. Paper reports from private inspectors are no substitute for the experience of a city inspector whose employment is, for all intents and purposes, long term. The Mayor and the Planning Director would have no group of in-house code enforcement officers to whom they can go for experiential knowledge.  Furthermore, there is no indication that there are sufficient private sector home inspectors to fulfill the needs of the landlords who might want to hire one.

Granted, the use of private inspectors is allowed under law. In fact, this was one of the challenges to the Pasco licensing ordinance, that city inspectors would be the sole inspectors. The landlords there wanted the option to hire their own. They have that option now and is written into the state law passed a few years ago. I am not sure how that serves the landlords since a properly structured program with a revenue neutral fee system (the program fees will pay for the program) will spread the cost of inspections over all landlords and result in much lower per unit inspection costs.



I also suggest that you replace any sunset provision with a provision that mandates a program review after 4 or 5 years.  At that point, the council can, based on the facts surfaced by the review, decide to maintain, modify or end the program.  The review should be inclusive of city staff (based on data), landlord experience and renter experience that would be surface through a hearing and/or a professional random survey.

Regards,

Dick Conoboy

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rental Safety and Health - Report on the City Council Hearing of 27 Oct



At times, I find that another publication has presented such a succinct summary of the rental licensing and inspection issue here in Bellingham that it would serve little to write separately on the issue.  The article below is from the 29 Oct 2014 of the Cascadia Weekly in the Gristle*, written by Tim Johnson.  It was penned just after a three hour hearing at the city council wherein the public commented on a version of a registration-only rental health and safety ordinance that had been submitted by council member Roxanne Murphy.

Of note but not mentioned in the article was the announcement by council member Terry Bornemann that he would be supportive of rental registration with some form of inspection. 


See No Evil, Speak No Evil

Tuesday, October 28, 2014



SEE NO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL: The end was in the beginning; and after a long, long and ambitious evening session filled with impassioned testimony on the issue of landlord licensing, Bellingham City Council appears ready to approve what was first set in front of them uncolored by the passion. They were determined not to kick the can down the road—though kick it they did, to another special work session in November to again consider testimony—and determined to resolve something on a rental housing registration concept that has boomeranged around the halls of city government for more than two decades. Beyond that, they’re determined not to do very much.


Bellingham City Council veteran Gene Knutson, who was feeling unwell, was excused from the meeting at 10:30pm, prompting council to continue their deliberations at a later date bolstered by additional information from staff. Council pressed on, completing city business at midnight. Gene also represents the very philosophic and historic heart of this ages-old issue—determined to do something, yes, about improving the health and safety of rentals; at a loss to know quite what to do, or to what extent to do it.


“If we’re going to do something,” Gene grumbled, “we need to do it. Either way, we need to move on. For God’s sake, let’s get this done before the end of the year.”


But moving on without achieving something meaningful only invites the issue back, and this issue has been bouncing back to Gene on council for 20 years.

On paper before them, City Council faces a mingy, bare bones licensing program that would place a little sticker somewhere in each of 6,000 rental units [Zonemaven note:  There are actually 17,000+ rental units in Bellingham of which about 3,000 are under another inspection regime such as HUD.  The 14,000 remaining units are found in 6,000 properties.] with a phone number renters can call when they perceive their health is in danger. This renters were already free to do. How might they know they’re in danger? Shrug. The proposed ordinance exempts entire classes of rental properties and provides little incentive for the classes that remain to comply. Scofflaws of the sort a rental inspection program was intended to bring into line can easily scoff off the passive requirements of this complaint-driven program.


Here’s the essential takeway: When a program is introduced to change the status quo and the beneficiaries of the status quo praise its final form and fall upon one another with fierce hugs of triumphant joy, you know the program you introduced hasn’t accomplished much to change the status quo. If it doesn’t change the status quo, what’s the point of the legislation?


Council’s current proposal does nothing to shift the power imbalance between those who hold all the rights of property owners versus those who hold few of those rights as tenants, yet who nevertheless form roughly half the city’s population. This is not democracy; this is rentier capitalism unchecked. The proposed ordinance does very little to improve health and safety beyond what’s already available in the legal toolkit.


“A complaint-based system does not work,” the York Neighborhood Association board asserted in comments to council. “It has failed in Bellingham and other cities. It puts the burden on the tenant to fight one-on-one with the landlord who has an unfair advantage and can retaliate by raising the rent, not giving a good reference, or just ignoring the complaint altogether, which does happen.”


A more robust proposal that included a modest audit of the interiors of Bellingham’s rental housing stock (currently obtainable only through warrant and judicial process) was driven off the rails earlier this year by Council member Roxanne Murphy, who proposed a model similar to one she was familiar with in the City of Tacoma: The exteriors of units provide sufficient evidence about the interiors of units; a trimmed lawn correlates with an IEEE-approved UL-compliant breaker box.


This is obviously an error in class and in kind: Bellingham does not have blighted or shabby boroughs that reveal themselves on pass-through. It does have a large number of rentals converted by builders of all skill ranges from aging housing stock in well-maintained neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Murphy’s passionate advocacy for a “see no evil, speak no evil” minimalist approach drew support from the target audience of landlords and property managers who in turn have knocked away the pins in support of a more robust program. Faced with division and aggressive counterfactuals, council policy has descended to the lowest common points upon which they might all agree.


“It’s not about loud parties, garbage, and unmowed lawns,” York board members commented. “Other enforcement tools exist to manage nuisances. No enforcement tools exist to evaluate the internal conditions of Bellingham’s rental housing. It’s about decent housing for all and thriving neighborhoods. Bellingham’s neighborhoods, particularly the older ones, are a patchwork quilt of decaying, neglected properties amongst well-maintained historic housing.”


Judging from the public testimony of landlords, tenants and property managers, 95 percent of Bellingham’s rental housing is in great shape, hurrah. From what data does this estimate arrive? Apparently (but by no means certainly) from complaints in the system about the remaining 5 percent of stock submitted by tenants who risk reprisal in the form of eviction and loss of referrals and deposits. It’s a spurious statistic—it might even be true—but the proposed ordinance does nothing to improve collection of this data, which in early years might just be the most important component of a licensing program: actual facts upon which to frame wise policy.


Imagine if the city monitored its restaurants in the same way, based on customer complaints of gagging and stomach pains. A list on the city’s website of eateries that do not induce gastric suffering.


Oy, no wonder Gene was feeling unwell! Get well.

* Reproduced with Permission of the author.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

York Neighborhood Supports Rental Registration AND Inspections



The York Neighborhood has just sent (see below) a second letter this year to the City Council in support of a Rental Health and Safety Ordinance in Bellingham.  York joins with other neighborhoods that have already gone on the record with the City Council in support of not only licensing but inspecting all rentals.  You can read the letters of the other neighborhoods that have joined in this call for action by clicking on the name of the neighborhood:  Samish, Fairhaven, Sehome, and WWU (Associated Students). The Roosevelt Neighborhood also voiced support of an ordinance in a statement to the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission at its July meeting. 

There will be a hearing on this proposal next Monday, evening, October 27th at the 7pm City Council meeting.  You can sign up after 6:30pm to speak in support of adding an inspections component to the draft "registration-only" ordinance to be considered.  Tell the council that a rental registration ordinance only perpetuates the current failed system and that regular inspections are required to protect the 40,000 or more Bellingham citizens who live in rentals. To view the hearing materials click here and then scroll to and click on Agenda item 20382.

Here is the York Neighborhood letter:


October 20, 2014





Dear City Council:



We are writing to urge you to support a Rental Health and Safety Ordinance that will include mandatory inspections of properties. On January 11, 2011, there were two fires in the York Neighborhood – both preventable and both related to poor maintenance by the property owners.



One fire at 1408 Grant St. happened in the middle of the night while the three tenants were sleeping. One of them got up to get something to eat and heard the fire in the attic as a piece of the ceiling fell into the second floor bathroom. Fortunately, all three escaped unharmed. The cause of the fire, as reported by the Fire Marshall Jason Napier,was “electrical failure” and “malfunction” in the electrical junction box in the attic. There were no working smoke alarms in the house.



The second fire happened earlier the same day at 1418 Ellis St. The cause of the fire was a fan that was part of the heating system was not properly bolted on; it fell to the floor and caught the rug on fire. Fire Marshall Jason Napier reported: “The building was rewired by the owner some years ago. None of it was ever inspected for code compliance.”



We do not think these failures in rental property maintenance are an anomaly. We

believe our city has numerous properties that would not pass a basic building safety inspection. Housing safety standards should be enforced through an inspection program, with expert guidance on how to fix problems. Enforcement should include penalties. An inspection “check-list,” such as the one used for Section 8 housing is 1½ pages and is a subset of the building code. It is a fair and reasonable list of basic safety expectations. A “registry” of rental properties does nothing to create better code enforcement.



A complaint-based system does not work. It has failed in Bellingham and other cities. It puts the burden on the tenant to fight one-on-one with the landlord who has an unfair advantage and can retaliate by raising the rent, not giving a good reference, or just ignoring the complaint all together which does happen.



We support “healthy homes” for our city. Half of our city’s housing is rentals and are an essential part of the community’s quality of life. Substandard housing creates hazards for the tenants, neighbors and deteriorates our neighborhoods.


We urge the City Council to proactively regulate the rental industry. Rentals are

businesses, and like other businesses they should be expected to comply with licensing, inspections and oversight. Treating rentals as businesses is a fair practice.


It’s not about loud parties, garbage, and unmowed lawns. Other enforcement tools exist to manage nuisances. No enforcement tools exist to evaluate the internal conditions of Bellingham’s rental housing. It’s about decent housing for all and thriving neighborhoods. Bellingham’s neighborhoods, particularly the older ones, are a patchwork quilt of decaying, neglected properties amongst well-maintained historic housing.



Please vote to support rental licensing with inspections.



Sincerely,



Members of the York Neighborhood Association Board

Don Hilty-Jones - President

Mark Schofield - Vice President

Anne Mackie - Secretary

Lisa Anderson - Treasurer

At-Large Board Members: Cory Anderson, Kirsti Charlton, Robb Correll, Tom Scott

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rentals and Meth

Unfit for habitation - rooms red-tagged at the Aloha Motel
The city of Bellingham is learning that renting a place to stay can be extremely dangerous to one's health.  The Aloha and Villa motels on Samish Way now have a total of 17 rooms declared unfit for human habitation due to contamination caused by methamphetamine smokers.  For more information you can read the Bellingham Herald story of 12 October, Tests Show Meth Contamination in 17 Rooms at Two Samish Way Motels.  

It is not too difficult to make the assumption that some of our rental houses and apartments are similarly contaminated.  In late 2013 a rental home on Myrtle St. was closed by the health department when three student renters were made ill by meth contamination.  I wrote about this in my 13 February 2014 blog entry entitled Meth Contaminated Rental Shut Down.

However, meth contamination is but one of many problems renters face in living in leased dwellings in Bellingham.  The Herald article quoted Mayor Linville as saying, "Dangerous public health risks such as meth contamination are unacceptable, no matter where they are in Bellingham."   The fact is that we do have a dangerous public health and safety risk that has been ignored for decades, our uninspected rental housing stock.

Unfortunately for the tens of thousands of renters in Bellingham, the proposed ordinance on rentals that will be considered at a city council hearing on 27 October, has no mandatory inspection provision.   This is a continuation of the current and failed complaint based system.  It is time for the city to begin to "red-tag" the dangerous rental homes and apartment units.

In order for the current proposal to provide any meaningful protection whatsoever for Bellingham's renters it must be modified to include these elements.

 1.  Periodic inspections of all rentals in accordance with the limits established by current RCW.  We should envision an inspection of a rental unit once every three years, exceptions being those units inspected under other government programs.   Inspections of apartment complexes can be made by using a percentage factor that will provide an adequate representation of the condition of the units throughout. 
2.   Hiring of sufficient city inspectors (government employees) to effect the inspections to achieve the periodic rate. 
3.  The fixing of the rental licensing rate as a function of the cost of the program as established, i.e.,  administration, inspections, salaries, equipment, etc.  In other words, the council creates the program which is then costed out and fees established as a function of that amount.  The cost of the periodic inspections would be included in the licensing fee but landlords may be assessed a surcharge for reinspections due to life/safety findings.  [Note:  RCW allows a landlord to hire a private inspector but that should be at his/her own cost.  If so, he/she would forfeit the city conducted inspection that is included in the licensing fee.] 
4.  Annual reports to the council and the public on the results of the inspection regime. 
5.  Elimination of the sunset provision

There is still time before the 27 October hearing to write to your council representatives and insist on an inspection program that is worthwhile and effective.  Write to them now at: ccmail@cob.org.