Friday, June 11, 2010

Rationale for Rental Licensing in Bellingham is Substantial

[This blog entry is a follow-up to the 24 May City Council meeting during which the topic of rental licensing and inspections was on the agenda. The Council agreed to have a further work session on the issue. The text below was sent in modified form in an email to the City Council]

There continues to be a refrain from some members of the council that they have not heard enough to discern a genuine need for inspections of rentals here. Let me summarize the rationale for licensing and inspections and lay that thought to rest.

The council has already heard from several neighborhoods that support rental licensing and inspections to include Samish, on whose board (for the record) I serve. I am aware that you have received similar letters from the York and Sunnyland Neighborhoods. On 17 March, the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission (MNAC) recommended that “a rental housing licensing and inspection ordinance be drawn up for review and discussion in 2010 in a public process." This recommendation was approved by an overwhelming vote by neighborhood representatives that implies some support for the concept of rental licensing and inspection.

There is the definitive experience of cities that have already adopted rental licensing and inspections in the face of exactly the same opposition as we are seeing in Bellingham. Ultimately, each of these cities was proven correct in its resolve to move ahead to protect the safety and health of the renters. We already know that the city of Pasco, WA found that 15% of the units inspected under their program had serious life/safety issues. 10% had mold problems. A full 85% had problems of varying degrees. The city of Gresham, OR performed over 1600 inspections in 2009 and issued, as a result, over 4,000 citations. Lexington, KY performed inspections of units near the University of Kentucky and found that 50% had life/safety issues. Sacramento, CA began an inspection program during which one third of the units inspected had serious safety and health issues. The question for doubting council members is why do you believe that the condition of rental housing here in Bellingham does not mirror that which is found in cities that have the statistics to show that time and time again the condition of rentals in our cities is problematic? All we have to date from those who oppose licensing are broad statements by the landlords and their paladins that are completely and utterly unsubstantiated. I have searched in vain for the horror stories that these opponents of licensing and inspections have predicted. On the other hand, I did find over 100 cities that have licensing AND inspections without the catastrophic effect for the rental markets that the landlords would have you believe. (see this blog's sidebar at bottom left for list)

On top of these statistics we have the experience of fire related incidents, to wit: 1985 - A rental house on High St. near Laurel Park exploded and burned to the ground due to a gas leak. The WWU students renting the place had thought they smelled gas months before but ignored it. Luckily they moved out prior to the incident. 1995 - Six people lost their lives in a Meridian St. rental home that was equipped with smoke detectors that contained no batteries. 2009 - A fire caused by poor wiring destroyed a rental home on Tremont Ave. in the Guide Meridian/Cordata area. Just last week another fire destroyed the rented house at 3130 Cottonwood Ave. The fire inspector is looking into the cause and should have a report shortly. There was also the unfortunate woman in Blaine last February (admittedly out of our jurisdiction but demonstrative) who was burned out of her rental unit (bad wiring). (Click here to read about that incident)

With respect to Pasco, there is a successful program in place there that can serve as an example for us. Both cities have to contend with transient populations (in spite of Mayor Pike’s incorrect assertions to the contrary). We have thousands and thousands of highly mobile students and Pasco has migrant workers. Mitch Nickolds, their code enforcement officer, has told me and I have relayed this to Mark Gardner, the Council’s Legislative Policy Analyst, and to Council President Gene Knutson back in February, that he (Mr. Nickolds) would be pleased to come to Bellingham to present their program. Instead the council gets a second hand briefing on Sacramento, CA and its experience, Sacramento being nothing like Bellingham in size or in rental situation.

NB. We also get oblique comments during a 24 May committee meeting from Tim Stewart and Mayor Pike implying vaguely that Auburn had tried licensing/inspections of some sort but that they had not worked out especially in single family areas. There is not now nor has there ever been a rental inspection program in Auburn. I talked to several people in their planning department who indicated that they have rental licensing only ($50 a license). Embedded in their licensing code is language pertaining to continuing criminal or nuisance activities within rental units (to which Stewart and the Mayor seem to have been actually referring) and that is the issue for which Auburn will take action against a landlord. To compare the licensing program in Auburn or to suggest that there is some similarity to that which we are discussing in Bellingham is disingenuous. Even their licensing application contains the phrase: “The issuance of this business license does not imply compliance with the Zoning Code and International Fire and Building Codes.” The Auburn code portion (Title 5, Chapter 5.22) on rental licensing is available to read by clicking here. No self-certifications, no mandatory safety/health inspections, nada, zilch, zero.

The Mayor claims that he has not been convinced of the sustainability of such a licensing program although the study from Mark Gardner, that appeared over 18 months ago, has ample data that a modest annual fee per unit would provide nearly a half million dollars per year. It is difficult to fathom the reason for which such monies would not finance a fairly robust inspection regime. Program costs would eventually decrease as rental units are brought into compliance and the rate of inspections naturally slows. The Mayor also attempts to dissuade and distract the council by saying that the push for licensing comes from a few disgruntled people whose true aim is to ensure the enforcement of single family zoning codes. This is a red herring argument, one which I have repeatedly dismissed (read my blog entry on this topic here) even as I am a member of the so-called “disgruntled”. The code on illegal rooming houses must be dealt with but within its own context. I urge the council to take up this issue in a separate venue for the purpose of decriminalizing violations and ensuring the inclusion of Washington statutes on domestic partnerships in our code. Additionally, Mayor Pike’s unfortunate and continued reference to the “unconstitutionality” of the single family zoning code injects a dollop of doubt into the argument that is not supported by case law, to include a Supreme Court decision in 1974. Mayor Pike’s own City Attorney prepared an agenda item several years ago in which this bugaboo of “unconstitutionality” was definitively debunked. You can read that agenda item (Agenda Bill 18021) by clicking here.

The Mayor also suggested that there are more imposing priorities (than health and safety?) without actually outlining them. Big Box stores or maybe the Waterfront? Were these priorities enumerated, we might have a rational discussion, however, briefly plopping the suggestion on the table (as one would a dead skunk) that other problems are more pressing is not helpful to the debate and suggest a lack of awareness of those issues of importance to the neighborhoods (I refer to the MNAC recommendation mentioned above.).

I also note that the City Council’s own document on Legacies and Strategic Commitments to “future generations” indicates that it wishes to “support safe, affordable housing.” If not an inspection program, what does the council propose to ensure this housing safety? Self-certification? That is no more than the status quo, gussied up by making a roster of landlords who will continue to operate as usual. Any program relying on self-certification is not worth pursuing unless it is based on and preceded by a mandatory inspection of registered units. Without an initial mandatory inspection, there is no guarantee of safe housing. Worse yet is our complaint-driven system of code enforcement that is, unfortunately, still the national norm and remains our default arrangement. Such systems simply do not work. Complaint-driven systems protect neither renters nor the buildings in which they live. The Centers for Disease Control concluded in a study of these systems that renters do not complain. In the absence of complaints, problems fester. As problems fester, buildings deteriorate and become more dangerous. As buildings decay, they take neighborhoods down with them. The remainder is called a slum.

And now we hear from the students who have finally realized that for decades the rental market here has not operated with their well being in mind. You have seen the Associated Students resolution (read a copy of the ASWWU resolution by clicking here.) and the various articles and editorials recently in the Western Front. (Click here and here) Any further debate on the rental licensing issue should include student input, especially during any hearing, and should therefore be postponed until the students return in Sept/Oct.

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