Monday, April 14, 2014

Six Rental Fires and a Meth Contamination since 2011.

In mid-February a group of five WWU female students were the victims of a 
fire which left the Garden St. home they rented uninhabitable (see photos).
Hole made by firefighters
Fire burned through roof at top
  The young women escaped unharmed but lost much of their possessions to the flames or smoke and water damage.  The cause of the fire is still undetermined as the fire department awaits the actions of one of the insurance companies that may perform its own investigation.  Absent arson, the determination of the cause and any attendant fault, often falls to the insurance companies, some of which are not eager to share the information they gather.  One of the residents claimed that the fire was electrical in origin, however, the fire marshal was not able to confirm that the cause was in the electrical system.  Although the home was old, the electrical system had been updated.

This is the sixth rental home fire since 2011.  Let us review these fires to see if any of them qualify as having been reported under Bellingham's current complaint-driven system that many, mostly landlords, insist is perfectly adequate.  Let us also look at the meth contaminated rental that sickened its occupants.

1404 Grant St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts in electrical junction box.  Tenants had noted problems with electrical system and alerted landlord several times.  Landlord failed to act.   No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1418 Ellis St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts when loosely connected electrical fan on apartment heater system falls to the floor and ignites carpeting.  Officials also find house rewired without permits.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

718 E. Maple St. on 30 Nov 2011.   Fire starts behind couch.  Possible cause is heater in proximity to combustible upholstery.  Tenants unaware. No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1208 24th St. on 1 Jan 2012.  Fire starts near baseboard heater that is fed by nearby and notoriously dangerous aluminum branch wiring.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

2338 Humboldt St. on 6 Mar 2013.  Electrical fire starts in attic.  Very old rental with frayed knob and tube wiring. Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1117 Garden St. on 19 Feb 2014.  Fire, possibly electric in origin, starts inside wall near kitchen.  Tenants unaware except shortly before fire breaks out.  No prior report to the city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

 618 Myrtle St. on 4 Nov 1013.   Student renters become ill after moving in.  Complaints made to landlord.  No action.  Renters contact the Health Department and made to pay for inspection.  Meth contamination confirmed.  House condemned.  No prior report made to city.

Complaint-driven system PARTIAL FAIL.

As far as I can tell, Bellingham's complaint-driven system failed miserably in all of these cases.  On what basis might one defend it then?  Beats me.  Complaint- driven systems are inherently and demonstrably unable to capture the extent of the danger presented by poorly maintained and un-inspected rental housing.  Furthermore, there is no reason to hang onto the shaky remnants of such code enforcement systems and "build" upon them.  It is a waste of effort, time and money. The city's own inadequate and poorly presented statistics on the risibly few reported violations are prima facie evidence that you cannot count on the knowledge of either the tenant or the landlord when it comes to assessing the condition of a rental home.

We need a system like so many other across the country in which periodic inspections are made of all rental unitsWashington State law specifically provides for this. 

Will someone have to die in one of these rentals before we establish an effective program to inspect them?  We almost achieved that with the 24th St. fire where several were grievously injured.  Since these registration/licensing and inspection programs can easily pay for themselves from the fees gathered, whose interests are being served by not creating a robust ordinance?

The mayor and her staff will be proposing a plan and a draft ordinance in the next few days.  Pay attention to the inspection portion of what comes forward.  If that is missing or weak, we essentially continue our present complaint-driven system with its terrible consequences.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Rental Ordinance Proposal Possibly Before City Council - 21 April

The City Council is likely to have a proposal on rental health and safety from the Mayor for consideration and discussion at the 1030am Planning Committee meeting on 21 April.  As with all agenda items, the public will not see the proposal until the council meeting agenda appears on 17 April.  As usual, last minute agenda modifications could throw the rental ordinance proposal into a later council session.  The next available council meeting would be on 5 May. 

According to Jack Weiss, the head of the Planning Committee, "This meeting will be for presentation and an introductory line of questions by the committee only."   This is not an unusual way of business but I would like to see eventually the public providing input during the committee's work sessions as was done last year when the council was debating a proposal from Councilman Weiss.

Earlier this year, the Mayor and her staff presented the outline of a rental inspection and "registration" program that received a lot of negative feedback.  I reviewed that proposed framework in a blog entry in early February entitled "Mayor's Rental Health and Safety Proposal Inadequate."  Fortunately, that proposal met some opposition and the Mayor and her staff went back to the drawing board.   Without going into details, any proposal that does not contain an active program of periodic inspections of rentals by the city is a problematic exercise.  Complaint-based systems simply do not work.  We know that through a CDC study and, moreover, by sad experience here in Bellingham where the present complaint-based system is a dismal failure. 

In an email to Councilman Weiss I lamented the timing of the Mayor's submission.  This serious effort to produce an ordinance comes up in late spring and summer, just as the academic year ends and the largest represented group of renters leaves town.  I wrote:

"This [the timing] deprives them [students] of a voice at a most critical moment and it deprives the mayor and the council of valuable feedback from the very people who will have to live with the consequences of whatever is brought forward.

Consequently, I would recommend that you continue the practice from previous Planning Committee meetings at which you welcomed comments from the public during the committee work sessions.  At least this will provide some opportunity for students and their reps to front load their views on whatever proposal is brought forward before final exams and the summer are upon them."

In any event, keep the date "21 April" open for the committee meeting at 10:30am in City Council chambers.  I will provide my readers a copy of the agenda bill on rentals next Thursday.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Associated Students of WWU Publish Second Resolution on Rental Health and Safety

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

February 2014

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 Speak About "Rent-A-Wreck" Housing in Bellingham

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