Monday, May 31, 2010

Western Front Editorial Board Reverses Opinion on Rental Licensing

A 25 May Western Front Editorial Board opinion piece reversed an earlier, 26 January editorial that opposed rental licensing in Bellingham. The Board stated that it "has come to believe that the health and safety benefits of landlord licensing would far outweigh any slight increases in rent." The reversal of an editorial position takes some courage and this blogger doffs his editorial hat in recognition of the Western Front's decision. (You can read the 26 January editorial by clicking here. The 25 May editorial link is here). This reversal follows a lively discussion held by the Viking Community Builders on 17 May on the topic of rental licensing. The Zonemaven described that event in an earlier blog entry (here).

Noting the health and safety benefits and the inability of students to determine if the units they are renting are in livable condition, the editorial dismissed the objections of landlords and supported the concept of a rental inspection program. The Board also recognized the advisability of the local government to regulate that which is equivalent to a public accommodation, e.g., hotels or restaurants.

The Zonemaven, in continuing conversations with WWU students, has noted a growing movement among them to organize, gather information and to take a message to the City Council that the students will no longer tolerate sub-standard housing and the annual "crap shoot" in hunting for a decent place to live. With over 8,000 renters among the student body, the City Council will have to take notice.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Landlords Resort to FUD Tactics at WWU Forum on Rental Licensing

FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) was the methodology chosen by landlord representatives at a forum on rental licensing (click here to read the announcement) that was organized and sponsored by the Viking Community Builders, a student group interested in relationships with the community. Instead of speaking to the issues and providing hard evidence for their assertions, the three panelists in opposition of licensing did their best to obfuscate and divert the discussion with red herring arguments and specious reasoning. Lest the students forget, those speaking against rental licensing and inspection are modern day paladins for the landlords, to wit two of the three: Doug Robertson is an attorney for landlords. Perry Eskridge is in real estate and is the governmental representative for the Whatcom Association of Realtors. The third panelist in opposition to licensing was landlord Mel Davidson. Student attendees should make no mistake. These are rental industry professionals.

Usually, the use of FUD tactics is a sign that your arguments are weak and, therefore, you sow doubt by any means possible. The goal is to make the opposition look bad instead of dealing with the facts. Thus, debate is corrupted. And so it went last Monday evening, although with the questions from the floor, it was evident that not all were bamboozled.

Panelists confronting those who opposed rental licensing were this blogger; Nick Johnson, Editor-in-Chief of the Western Front; and Dave Hopkinson, a landlord in the York neighborhood.

The Zonemaven does not shy from debate but deplores alleged statements of fact that are not supported by any data. While this blogger is tempted to refute here, yet again and point by point, the landlords' disingenuous propositions, readers can peruse a blog entry (here) in which I reviewed a paper on the letterhead of law firm Belcher/Swanson, submitted by panelist/attorney Doug Robertson to the City Council on behalf of the landlords. Mr. Robertson's presentation at the forum pretty well followed that flawed document.

Nonetheless, let us take a look at a few of the tar balls launched by licensing opponents Monday evening in the hope that the audience would grab them and thus become stuck.

- Low cost housing availability will drop. As this blogger indicated above, the landlord representatives provided no documentation, no study, no report, no proof that this would be the case. In contrast, the Zonemaven actually picked up the phone and called an official in Pasco, WA, where a licensing and inspection program has been in force for years. The official stated that there were some really badly maintained homes that were sold and then bought at low prices by locals of modest means who were willing to fix them. That is called affordable home ownership.

- Licensing will create a huge and costly bureaucracy of 5 code enforcement officers. This contention was quickly refuted by Mark Gardner, the Legislative Policy Analyst for the Bellingham City Council. Politely, Mr. Gardner pointed out to the audience that the landlord reps were "confusing" the presentation of a continuum of possibilities with an actual proposal. Anyone who took the time to read the study prepared by Mr. Gardner would have been aware of this. You can read the study here and decide for yourself. Additionally, any such program can be self-sustaining with reasonable per unit fees of several dollars per month. This will hardly break the bank or cause undue financial hardship for renters, even if the landlords decide to pass the cost of licensing to the tenants.

- Landlords and tenants are on equal footing and have equal interests. This is largely based on the contention that the Revised Code of Washington's landlord/tenant provisions level the playing field. Perhaps this is true if you are a tenant who has the time, the money and other resources to battle a landlord whose business (24/7) is to maximize return on investment. Students may have other bothersome commitments with respect to attending class and working for tuition money. Furthermore, the RCW does not mandate inspections of rental properties for health and safety reasons, the main objective of any such legislation in Bellingham. The idea here is prevention and not an sclerotic and ineffective complaint process.

- Bellingham is not like other cities with inspections programs as the others have large migratory worker populations. As panelist, Nick Johnson astutely pointed out, nothing could be more migratory than 8,000 student renters annually. As in other such cities, renter populations such as these are ripe for exploitation given the short time frames in a rental, lack of resources and an inherently sluggish judicial process.

- There is no problem to be solved. This means that Bellingham's rental stock is in good shape and there may be on the outside only a few rental units in poor condition. This flies in the face of the experience of other cities that have instituted rental licensing. It is disingenuous to state that Bellingham is somehow outside of the norm with its 17,000 rental units provided to a highly transitory population. This, unfortunately, is a continuation of landlord contentions that there are only a few bad landlords. They stated this during the large meeting on rental licensing held in 2004. I challenged them to tell the audience about all the" bad" landlords subsequently shut down in Bellingham by action of the "good" landlords policing their own. The response: 2

- Renters privacy will be violated. This is a valid concern for which any legislation should contain language that limits the scope of the inspection to that related to health and safety. Current state law already provides for landlord entry into a rental with 48 hour notice except for emergencies. Current state law also limits rental inspections to once every three years. Given the transient nature of most of our renters, many will never see an inspection while living in a rental. Again, the Zonemaven contacted Pasco to determine their protocols while inspecting units. There, inspectors focus only on the items on their checklist. Obviously, if they see a meth lab in the back room, that would be a reportable condition. In any case, with respect to Pasco, the police have to follow established procedures (warrants and due process) in going back to a rental unit.

For those readers who wish to explore previous Zonemaven blogs on this topic, you can click on the following links:

1. Landlords and Supporters Speak. 24 Nov 09
2. Landlord Misinformation 26 Nov 09
3. A Lesson from Lexington, KY 29 Nov 09
4. Effective Program for Bellingham? 4 Jan 10
5. Letter to Students on Rental Licensing 2 Feb 10
6. Landlord Support for Rental Licensing 8 Mar 10
7. Licensing Not About Single Family Zoning 2 Apr 10

And finally this, written two years ago.

8. We Do Not Know 4 Jun 08

Thanks to the Viking Community Builders for having put on this forum. A job well done.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Briefing at Bellingham City Council on Sacramento Rental Licensing Program

The Bellingham City Council will receive a briefing from staff this Monday, 24 May, on the rental licensing program adopted by the city of Sacramento, CA. The council meeting begins at 7pm, although the briefing will be presented initially to the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee that convenes at 1:40pm in council chambers.

You can read the agenda bill on the Sacramento program by clicking here. Also on the agenda bill is the the Washington State law on rental licensing and inspection that was recently passed by the state legislature. You can read my blog comments on that bill by clicking here.

There is no hearing on rental licensing at this council meeting although the agenda calls for a discussion of options by the council. In March, the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission had recommended that "a rental licensing and inspection ordinance be drawn up for review and discussion in 2010 in a public process". (Click here to read the minutes of that discussion)