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 (klinville@cob.org) and to the city council (ccmail@cob.org)

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 (klinville@cob.org) and to the city council (ccmail@cob.org).  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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sehome Neighborhood Also Supporting a Rental Health and Safety Ordinance

Earlier this year the Sehome Neighborhood sent a letter to Mayor Linville indicating its support of a rental registration and inspection program.  The Samish Neighborhood recently wrote their own letter of support for such legislation to the city council as I reported on 19 June (click here).   The Sehome letter follows:

January 8, 2013

Ms. Kelli Linville, Mayor
City of Bellingham
210 Lottie St.
Bellingham, WA 98225

Re:  Rental Licensing Issue

Dear Mayor Linville:

The Sehome Neighborhood Board appreciates your acknowledgement of the rental licensing issue.  As I will briefly describe in this letter, we feel that a local ordinance is needed to address a business that is completely unregulated in Bellingham; that is, single family rentals.

The primary beneficiaries of a rental licensing ordinance would be the students of Western Washington University (WWU).   This was described very well in the August 2nd letter from the Associated Students’ Board of WWU.  The following quote from that letter summarizes the issues:  

“Students make Bellingham their home for four or more years, and they should not have to deal with conditions which affect their quality of life in order to obtain an education”, said Stickney. “Students also don’t know their rights as tenants or get labeled as ‘high-maintenance tenants’ if they try to exert them. This issue doesn’t just affect students, but all residents of Bellingham who live in rental houses.” 

A survey of renters was conducted through WWU student Heather Rees (past WWU student representative on the SNA Board) in her internship for Whatcom Family & Community Network, a community group dedicated to promoting public health and safe. It was conducted in partnership with WWU’s Campus Community Coalition.   Some of the more dramatic results were:

28% of the respondents had significant mold issues;
18% had structural problems

This is not the first time the AS Board has taken formal action on this issue.  On June 4, 2010 they passed a resolution that asked the City to proceed in the licensing of single family rentals within the City. Since a high percentage of our neighborhood is student rentals, we feel a responsibility to pursue this issue.
Councilman Weiss presented a draft rental licensing ordinance at SNA’s fall general membership meeting on September 25th. which was received with considerable interest and a useful discussion.  While beginning the process for drafting an ordinance must come from your office, we appreciate the work that Councilman Weiss has done to get it started. From general membership comments at that meeting, the SNA Board has come up with three primary issues on this licensing issue:  

Education – Both renters and landlords need easy access to information about their rights and obligations.
Enforcement - What codes apply and how can we bring properties up to code?
Administration – Shall inspectors be city employees only or may landlords hire private inspectors? How will the inspection process work and who will pay for it?

While rental licensing is a  new issue for Bellingham government, it has been well documented in Washington state.  Pasco has a system in place that has already survived a Supreme Court challenge. On October 1st of last year, the Seattle Council approved legislation that requires anyone who owns rental property to register with the city and to certify that the unit meets city safety and health codes.  They are now setting up the process.

The SNA Board has discussed this issue in our meetings for nearly two years.  We have been hesitant to take formal action until the Mayor’s Office, and Council, have begun a formal process.  We believe it is now time for that action to begin.


Sehome Neighborhood Association Board
Jean Hamilton, President

As I said in my post earlier this week, you can help support the tens of thousands of tenants in Bellingham by writing to the mayor (klinville@cob.org) and to the city council at (ccmail@cob.org).  Tell them that the rental industry is a business and, as such, should be regulated for health and safety issues just as restaurants and hotels.  That means registration and periodic inspections.