Monday, January 25, 2010

Landlords' Attorneys Lament Licensing of Rentals

The Zonemaven recently received a paper submitted to the City Council by a law firm claiming to represent a “number of landlords” , not further identified, in the City of Bellingham. For the sake of all the landlords and renters in Bellingham, let us wish that the number represented is few, for they would be ill-served. The points surfaced by the attorney(s) are a mishmash of oft repeated exaggerations regarding rental licensing. You can read the paper submitted by the law firm by clicking on the images at the left.

The initial lawyerly claim is that the licensing will “increase the cost of rentals” thus “decreasing affordable housing” and “create another unfunded layer of bureaucracy”. The Zonemaven is not amused by these canards and has stated so in the past. (Click here and here to read more.) It is difficult to imagine that a fee of $30-36 year to obtain a license (figures used to estimate total fees to the city per year) will, in any way, produce a crisis in rental costs. (Click here to read the estimates - see page 19) A fee at that level will bring in approximately $450,000, enough to fund an inspection program and hire additional code enforcement personnel. Even if the cost is passed directly to the renters, an additional $3 per month is insignificant, especially if one compares the money to the potential for avoiding a health or safety incident. Lest my readers forget, these are the same landlords who have, time and time again, raised their rents over the years, presumably for reasons having little to do with the health and safety of their tenants. Also not said is that the sharing of a house by 5, 6 or 7 people actually tends to push rents up. For example, seven individuals renting a single family home and who pay $300 per month, provide a gross income to the landlord of $2,100. How many large families needing affordable housing can match that rental? Likewise three renters in a small home, each paying $$350 would place that rental home out of reach of many small families of modest means.

Landlords whose properties are in good condition will see virtually no change in their expenses. For those landlords whose properties are in questionable condition, they may be facing costs associated with bringing their buildings to standards which ensure the health and safety of tenants. According to the landlords' claims that these problem landlords are very few in number, the overall monetary effect of the licensing program should be minimal. Landlords cannot, at one end, claim that the licensing program will cause significant rent increases overall, if, at the other end, the number of units affected will be small as they have posited all along, e.g., “There are only a small number of problem landlords, so why punish all the rest”.

The attorneys also opine that any inspection program is either ineffective because of existing statutes or unnecessary, also because of existing statutes. So, they pronounce inspections ineffective in that the landlord must have a 48 hour notice prior to an inspection which will give her the time to clean up. This is true and it is a desired outcome. Sorry to say though, the attorneys have missed the fact that many deficiencies such as furnace condition, gas leaks, structural problems, mold, substandard or dangerous plumbing or wiring cannot be cleared up in 48 hours. Inspections are aimed at much more serious issues than cleaning up the dead flies and mice (which, by the way, can spread the Hantavirus through their droppings and subsequent unprotected sweeping of the droppings actually bringing about an infection).

They state that inspections are unnecessary in that the tenant has the right to call for an inspection at any time. This is also true but places the tenant in the position of being an expert on furnaces, mold, structural integrity of homes, plumbing and wiring or of being sufficiently wise to divine that there is even a problem. Does anyone believe that more than a handful of the 8,500 Western students (more if you include WCC and BTC) who seek housing here each year even think about wiring or structural integrity?

The attorneys’ paper continues with the assertion that licensing will not substantially have an impact on the abatement of nuisances. They take you down the false path of nuisances “are not limited to tenants only.” This is true and it is also irrelevant. Abatement of nuisances is not the sole rationale for landlord licensing. Moreover, other pressures come to bear with respect to owner-occupied, family homes, town houses and condominiums where there is more likely to be adult supervision and self-regulation in order to preserve the property as a family investment and to respond to the concerns of neighbors over nuisance issues.

To raise the issue of current laws on evictions as an impediment to rental licensing is likewise disingenuous. There is no reason for which a well-crafted rental licensing code in Bellingham cannot take into account issues that may have to be coordinated with the Revised Code of Washington. Rentals, whose history is that of ill-behaved tenants, have one common denominator, i.e., the landlord. These are individuals who time after time either fail to screen their tenants or who set up a scofflaw atmosphere by not adhering themselves to current codes on safety, health and zoning. This “Wink. Wink. Nod. Nod.” environment becomes the breeding ground for nuisances. Couple this with weak or ineffective code enforcement on the part of the city and you have created a symbiotic relationship (city/landlord) that exacerbates the problem and makes life miserable for neighbors and well-behaved tenants alike. There is no need to suspend licenses of such rentals immediately. A point system based on violations over specified periods can give landlords sufficient time to mend their ways and work with the city and the neighbors to eliminate problem renters before they even sign a lease. License suspensions then can be effected the end of leases, thereby preventing bad landlords from further leasing a property.

If on the one hand, we have no more than a handful of bad landlords, as we are told by the landlords themselves, then a licensing law will have little fiscal impact and costs to all concerned will be minimal. If, on the other hand, a licensing law brings to light substantial indications of a rental market gone bad in the areas of health and safety, we will have exposed a serious vulnerability that must be corrected regardless of the cost. To do otherwise would be foolhardy and dangerous.

Penultimately, the attorney(s) argue that existing codes, zoning laws and criminal codes are sufficient to address all the issues. Obviously, they are not sufficient. Even current codes do not provide for inspection of rental units. The city has no idea about the current condition of rental units in Bellingham. Given the potential impact of rental conditions on the health and safety of the community, for rentals to remain the only unlicensed business in Bellingham is unconscionable.

Lastly, the paper declares that rentals are centralized around Western Washington University and therefore a licensing program should not be required throughout the city but only in certain affected areas. (I guess they forgot that they just railed against rental licensing in the previous two pages.) I doubt if any such code, limited to rentals in a certain gerrymandered geographic area within the city, would survive a court challenge. Moreover, students, who are not the only renters in town, tend to live all over the city. See the WWU produced map of the student population in Bellingham by clicking here. The attorneys also forgot about the thousands of other potential renters from Whatcom Community College and Bellingham Technical College. One would assume they would congregate near their own schools.

Alas, the discussion of rental licensing is not at its infancy, in spite of the attorneys' claim to the contrary. This marks the 6th year since the issue was surfaced and debated at the Cruise Terminal. (Click here to read about that) In the interim, one heard nary a peep from the landlords such was their concern about "bad egg" landlords and nuisance abatement. There is a 26 page study on the issue of rental licensing that was made available and discussed on 7 December 2009 during City Council afternoon committee and evening general meetings. (Click here to read that.) We can continue to talk the issue to death or we can act before a tragedy befalls us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Search on For New Director – Campus Community Coalition

With the departure last month of Lara Welker, Western Washington University is keeping its commitment to the community by engaging in an immediate search for a new director. Although we who worked with Lara for many years will miss her cheerfulness and competence, we also are looking forward to the possibilities that accompany the arrival of a new director. With interviews likely taking place in February, the CCC could have a new leader shortly thereafter. The CCC just celebrated its 10th anniversary (click here to read about that event) with promises of continued cooperation amongst its members. Notably, WWU, in spite of monumentally severe budget constraints, has recognized the importance of the Coalition while also looking for ways to improve its role with respect to its mission* which was expanded in 2008.

*The Campus Community Coalition promotes working relationships and communication among the colleges and community to enhance shared responsibility through collaborative education and problem-solving to improve the health, safety, and quality of life of the entire community

Citizens’ Forum to Host Discussion on Transportation in Bellingham

The Citizens’ Forum will host a discussion on the subject of “WHAT IS BELLINGHAM’S TRANSPORTATION FUTURE ?” on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 from 10 am to noon at the Fountain Community Church, 2100 Broadway. (Click on the image on left to read the flyer and to get directions to the event). This promises to be a lively discussion on topics such as congestion, safety, mass transportation, pedestrian zones, parking restrictions and impacts on neighborhoods.

Monday, January 4, 2010

An Effective Rental Licensing Program Coming to Bellingham? Maybe...

Although the Zonemaven was out of town for most of December, he was not out of touch with the latest in the world of illegal rooming houses. You may remember a previous post six months ago on this blog in which the Zonemaven described the deterioration of the character of 34th St. in the Samish Neighborhood due to lack of enforcement of city codes. (Click here and then scroll down to read that part of the entry on 34th St.) Not much has changed since, in spite of numerous complaints to various governmental entities. Here is a quote from an email sent to city officials on January 3rd by a long-time resident of 34th St. It is a bit telegraphic in style, but the Zonemaven believes you will get the gist.

“We are now entering our 5th year with more than one (4) illegal rooming houses in our neighborhood. 1127 34th St. is currently in foreclosure. This house has 7 bedrooms. Now what do you think will become of this parcel. And we are at what point?????

Same place as 4 years ago!!!! Are we having fun yet?

Here is listing of the latest activities at 1306 34th St.:

- Dec 31, 2009 Two Sheriff patrol cars in the drive way at @ 2:10 PM . Anyone willing to share WHY? Do we as neighbors arm ourselves, buy attack dogs, purchase body armor? Just what/who do we have in our neighborhood??

-Jan 1, 2010 (10:45 am) Remaining cars after the New Year’s party. 12 cars. 4 parked on street. Recall this is a narrow 2 lane road with no sidewalks on this portion of 34th St.

-Jan 1, 2010 8:20 am. 7 cars.

Let’s do a recap of 2009 for 1306 34th St (since the start of college in 2009).

-3 (possibly 4) 911 calls. ALL BY DIFFERENT NEIGHBORS

-2 calls to animal control, as the dogs were harassing walker and bikers. Banished dogs return one more time after that and ran the neighborhood.

-5 FORMAL complaints provided to city in 2009. ALL BY DIFFERENT NEIGHBORS. Formal complaints are a yearly event.

-Friday night parties every Friday night except 2 weekends since college started mid 2009.

Same absentee slumlords... Out of sight out of mind.

This house problem has spanned the following:

3 Mayors, numerous city council personnel, 2 Chiefs of Police and the SAME CITY ATTORNEY.

May the New Year bring you folks Peace and Prosperity. We know what we have in store.”

As Bellingham lumbers into 2010, can we expect to see action from the City Council on these problems? The most recent Council meeting on rental housing licensing was on December 7th, 2009, over a year after the Council’s staff study on the subject was available in draft form. They decided to ask their Legislative Policy Analyst to look into the development of a rental licensing law which would include self-certification by landlords and a possibility of inspection on a complaint-only basis. (See the video of the Council’s decision by clicking here. Fast forward the video to minute 202.5 where the discussion begins).

The Zonemaven finds the Council's approach unacceptable and opines that any rental housing licensing that only requires registration, followed by self-certification is a waste of time. It is much like having restaurants self-certify that they are abiding by the health code rules and depending only on complaints from those who dine in these establishments. In that case, we might easily find ourselves afflicted with the “green apple two-step” from eating food prepared in kitchens that the owners “think” are clean. Rentals, as well as restaurants, are accommodations offered to the public and, as such, should be inspected regularly. This is in contrast to private homes that do not serve the public as rentals. Arguments to conflate the rental and the owner occupied single family homes are specious in this regard.