Friday, December 2, 2011

Maple Street Fire - Some Unresolved Questions

On the 30th of November a house fire at 718 E. Maple Street was essentially totally destroyed by fire. You can read the Bellingham Herald's account of this fire by clicking here. Five young women, WWU students, rented the home that the County Assessor's office records show is owned by David Hansen. Hansen also owns the home at 1404 Grant St. that was destroyed by fire earlier this year. (Click here to read about that incident) There is not yet a positive indication that this second fire was the fault of any one person, however, there remains some question about the fire's origin that must be answered by the investigation to determine if either the renters or the landlord carries responsibility.

Although the Zonemaven spoke with the fire inspector, Jason Napier, about the blaze, it would not be helpful to speculate based on Mr. Napier's initial thoughts. After the investigative report is released, the Zonemaven will comment further.

In the meantime, we might speak again about smoke/fire detectors. These alarms saved the lives of the renters in this case, however, the alarms are, as has been said in this blog before, only a last resort. In other words, the more important issue is the cause of the fire in the first place and the steps the renter, the landlord and the city should take to eliminate the root cause of these fires. Alarms are no substitute for enduring poor conditions in rentals.

We may also have a conversation about the apparent absence of a fire extinguisher in the rental unit. Extinguishers are not required in single family rentals in Bellingham because there is no control over these rentals whatsoever. Therein lies a great problem, the health and safety of all renters in this city. Our new mayor is supportive of treating these rentals as businesses. Businesses that deal with the public, i.e. renters, ought to conform to basic safety and health standards. An ordinance to do so should be a priority in 2012.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Infill Tool Kit Abuse - What Took So Long?

The Bellingham version of a bail-out is the Type VI rezone process which allows developers to ask for a rezone on their property. Couple this process with the infamous Infill Tool Kit and you have a recipe for disaster in a neighborhood. (Read the InfillTool Kit ordinance by clicking here) You no doubt remember the sham “academy” put together by Tim Stewart, our former Planning Director, to gain enough faux citizen involvement in creating the Tool Kit to claim that it underwent a “public process”. Shortly thereafter, Stewart, having ladled the Infill Tool Kit turd into the zoning punchbowl, skulked off to Mercer Island, leaving the citizens here to drink from the contaminated tureen.

There were those of us who fought the Tool Kit and thought that the city accepted that this device, although approved by the city council, was not to be used in single family zoned neighborhoods. “Yes, yes, three bags full” was the response, “Only for use in urban villages and the city center – multi-family zoned areas.” Unfortunately, one need go no farther than the present Sunnyland Neighborhood opposition to the rezone of the former DOT site to find an early prime example of the attempted misuse of the Tool Kit to provide for the financial well being of a developer at the expense of the desires of the people who actually live there.

So late in 2010 the owners of the 113 acres in the Samish Neighborhood known as Padden Trails filed for a rezone of their property from single family residential to multi-family residential. The land, located east of I-5 and south of Connelly at the very edge of the city limits, is characterized by steep slopes and wetlands. It was zoned in 1969 to accommodate about 246 single family homes, although this zoning to half-acre lots was apparently done by folks who would not know a contour interval on the map, if it them in the face. Be that as it may, since the terrain will not readily allow such use, the developers have sought to rezone the property and have used as justification, in part, the infamous Infill Tool Kit ordinance. In essence, these developers are attempting to make a silk purse from their sow’s ear purchase by asking the city to bail them out and ignoring the desires of the Samish Neighborhood and the realities of the inappropriateness (dare I say quasi-legality) of placing dense zoning in the form 292 single family homes (i.e., Infill Tool Kit types such as cottages and townhomes) plus 200 multi-family units, for instance condominiums.

Furthermore, the process for this rezone is a mess, in and of itself. In a comment to my article on this same subject on the NWCitizen site (click here to read that article and its links to the data) Wendy Harris made these cogent observations:

“This is an extremely poor planning effort. Just try to reconcile the Staff report, the zoning application and the supporting documents, including an Amended SEPA checklist. The final application is for 615 housing units, while the supporting documents are for 492 units. Why was a SEPA determination and Staff report drafted for units that do not correspond to the application?

The City references site plans and building schematics that were submitted in support of the application, but then admits that the site plan and schematics contain inadequate information for a substantive review, and have not been reviewed for feasibility or consistency with City Code.

If an area is too steep and environmentally sensitive to allow much development, as admitted by the City, it should not be rezoned residential multi-family. Note that even after the proposed rezone, this will remain a low density area. Infill is being used here not to increase density, as intended, but to provide for development “flexibility” and clustering (i.e., inappropriate development in critical areas.)

It is clear that the City did not want to say no to a project that the developer intended to develop in the future. Intentions do not vest...; only land use applications vest. The rezone is an attempt to justify development that is discouraged under current land use regulations.”

Given the relatively lower cost of these units, one might reasonably imagine reversion to rentals and the kind of degradation seen already in the Magnolia Hills development where investors swooped in after the initial cohort of owner-occupiers sold their homes (on small lots) and moved out or up. The area nowadays is a rental horror show, full of cars, trucks, boats, RVs and all such similar objects that seem to be prized in this city as lawn ornaments. Given the total lack of parking restrictions, the roads within Magnolia Hills can barely accommodate a single lane of traffic. Need we recreate that within Padden Hills?

All of the above observations are but a few examples regarding not only the inadvisability of this particular Padden Trails rezone but also the distorted planning process and inherent disadvantage of neighborhoods attempting to resist the monied interests during Type VI rezones. The developers can count on money, staff, attorneys, other paladins and their associated mountebanks whose normal paid workday is that of schmoozing city officials and preparing myriad documentation and slick promotional material at which altar the Planning Department appears to worship. The neighborhoods depend on unpaid effort and time with little or no financing except for voluntary contributions from those who already have jobs, families and related obligations. The city aids and abets this obvious imbalance. You should be worried, for this could be a show coming to your neighborhood soon.

The Planning Commission will meet to consider this rezone application on Thursday, December 1st at 7:00pm. Click here for more information.

[Note: For the purposes of disclosure, I am a member of the Board of Directors of the Samish Neighborhood. My comments above are in no way meant to represent the position of the Board of Directors or the members of the Samish Neighborhood Association. ]

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mayor Pike! Stop the Obfuscation on Rental Licensing & Inspection

Mayor Pike,

Twice in the last several weeks you have spoken to the issue of rental licensing during debates with your challenger, Kelli Linville. Both times, to justify your lack of support for the licensing and inspection of rentals, you referred to problems that the city of Puyallup had with its program that you heard from a former employee who is now works for the city of Bellingham. Perhaps you misspoke, but the fact is that Puyallup does not have a rental licensing and inspection program. I checked.

Might I remind you that in the past you have brought up the city of Auburn as an example of licensing that did not work. In that case, you referred to Mr. Jim Tinner who was hired by Bellingham from Auburn. The story at that time was that they had tried licensing but that it did not work for reasons that were never clearly delineated. Moreover, you failed to mention that they have licensing but have never tried inspections for health and safety.

You have also stated that there was some difficulty in Puyallup (or was that Auburn?) and that 90% of the "costs" there went to trying to figure out who owned the houses and that there was not a way to know who owned these rentals (My readers can view the Mayor's response by clicking here and going to 145 on the video counter.) 90%? What does that mean? Is this a percentage of start-up costs? Of total program costs? The figure does not make sense but it does tend to stoke the fear factor, if that is, in fact, the objective.

Mr Mayor - there is an extensive property data base run by Whatcom County that can easily provide the vast majority of the information to identify rentals. One need only compare the address of the owner with the address of the property. If the addresses differ, it is likely a rental in that landlords would not normally have their business mail go to the rental's mail box. Part of any such ordinance can also call for landlords to register with the city by a certain date. A substantive fine for not doing so would ensure compliance. Pasco succeeded. So did Gresham, Oregon. Why do we continue to talk about failure in Auburn (Puyallup?) when this has all been done successfully elsewhere?

[If you need a volunteer to assist in identifying these rentals, I would be happy to help - no charge. The last 15 years of my career were spent, in part, managing the installation of computer systems and supervising the creation and modification of data bases.]

Over a year ago, I wrote to you about the claims you make on this issue. My comments were very specific. Your reply ignored them. My readers can look at my letter and your response by clicking here.

I find it disingenuous that you keep bringing up Auburn (or Puyallup in a forgetful moment) as the poster child for licensing and inspection that failed, when Auburn never tried inspections. (I called them to check. They have licensing only.) You seem to avoid talking about Pasco, WA that has had a successful licensing and inspection program for over a decade. You also avoid mentioning that the cities of Prosser, Tukwila and Seattle have recently passed rental inspection and licensing ordinances.

I think you need to be straight with the electorate and stop fuzzing over your objections to licensing and inspections to ensure the health and safety of our rental population. If your opposition to licensing and inspection is based on facts, let us hear them. That you do not think an ordinance is appropriate, we need to know the reasons. References to mythical programs in other cities will not do. Reliance on FUD* tactics is not in the best interest of the voting public.

Mr. Mayor, if you have some definitive facts and figures that you wish to convey to the citizens of Bellingham in order to support your opposition to licensing, I would be happy to publish that information. You can reach me at zonemaven AT hotmail DOT com.

*FUD - Fear - Uncertainty - Doubt

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bellingham Creates Web Page on Landlord/Tenant Resources

Shortly after the City Council voted on June 20th not to continue down this year's path toward licensing and inspecting rentals, the City of Bellingham added a page to its website that outlines resources for landlords and tenants. You can peruse this web page by clicking here. Warning: Dependence on this site may be hazardous to your health and welfare!

The page provides links to various statutes that cover landlord/tenant relationships and directs tenants to some organizations that assist tenants who may be in conflict with their landlord over issues such as rental unit condition, withholding of security deposits and other legal problems.

Unfortunately, the site is passive. You have to look for it. If you have no computer, you are out of luck. Furthermore, the site does not, nor can it ever provide to the tenant an assurance regarding the safety and health conditions of a rental. Under current circumstances, the tenant is on his or her own.

Therein lies the problem that I have discussed many times on this blog. The tenant is in no position to judge the condition of a rental - nor, for that matter, are most landlords. It is not stupidity. It is ignorance. Regrettably, no amount of information on a web page can provide tenants the wherewithal to ensure that the unit he or she is about to rent is safe and presents no health hazards. For that assurance one needs the eye of a trained and state approved housing inspector or code enforcement officer.

The solution for Bellingham is rental housing health and safety inspections; the key to a decent, habitable and secure rental stock.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Western Front Notes Failure of Rental Licensing to Pass

Just after the Bellingham City Council voted not to initiate a process to develop a rental licensing and inspection ordinance in the city, the WWU student newspaper, the Western Front, published this brief editorial comment on 30 June.

“Rental revamp would have protected tenants...
On June 20, the Bellingham City Council voted against a motion to require rental licensing and an inspection program for rental properties. These inspections would make sure rental properties were safe to live in.

Councilmember Terry Bornemann said the cost of the inspections would come with a fee, which the rental agencies would pass onto their tenants.

In an environment where 18,000 residents live in rental houses and apartments, there needs to be a way for renters to be protected. The small cost for inspections is minuscule to ensure that unsafe living conditions in Bellingham diminish.

If the main concern of the Bellingham City Council is the cost being passed onto tenants, then they should create a regulation to make sure it won’t happen. Stricter inspections and a zero-tolerance policy could make rental agencies change their practices when dealing with tenants."

The Associated Students (the student governing body) approved a resolution supporting rental licensing and inspections last year. (Click here to read that resolution)The Western Front is also previously on record in support of such legislation. (Click here to read that editorial)

The student body is becoming more aware of the manner in which they are placed at risk by substandard housing. Perhaps they can persuade the City Council of the same during the coming academic year.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rats! It Is Rats Galore with No Rental Inspections

John and his wife, Amy, (not their real names)moved into their small York rental home in December 2010. John, an Iraq veteran, works in a local supermarket minutes away from his rental. Shortly after they moved in, Amy gave birth to their son. Nobody told them that the rats were already in the home, a place where their newborn would eat and sleep. They discovered the rats after being in the house for a few months. Rat droppings in the basement. The odor of rat feces as the heating system was turned on. The noise of rats scurrying inside the walls. The threat of Hantavirus or other maladies should they even attempt to clean up the rat droppings.

Repeated contact with the landlord provided no relief. The landlord blamed the tenants, saying that they had brought the rodents with them when they moved. A look at neighboring properties suggests that the rats have been there long before the renters moved in. With an intransigent landlord, the couple had no choice but to move out. Not being able to find affordable housing in town, the couple now lives on the city's outskirts in a trailer home and John has become a commuter.

To add insult to injury, the landlord, who owns about 5 other rentals in Bellingham, demanded (as a condition for the return of the couple's security deposit of nearly $1,000) that they sign a waiver, absolving the landlord of responsibility for the rats. Having no short term recourse, they were forced to sign to get their deposit back.

Let us take a tour of the home:

Rat droppings at the basement level click here, here, here and here.

Rat entry points - click here and here.

Rats' hideout at abutting neighbor's tool shed - click here, here and here.

Lest we overlook them, there are other problems in the home. Take a look.

Unsafe electrical outlets and wiring - click here, here, here and here.

Sewer drain pipe supported only by cloth band. Click here.

Rotted siding. Click here.

And to feed the rats, there are trash heaps such as this one a few doors away. Click here.

This is yet another sad example of the conditions of rental housing in Bellingham. It also points out the problems inherent in a system in which the government has opted out of the business of safety and health, allowing tenants and landlords to sort it out on their own with the obvious downside for the tenant who has little leverage, little spare time and usually less money to spend on a civil court action. Since the council recently defeated even a most minimal effort to license rentals and hold landlords accountable for conditions, it will be a while before our renters will be able to count on safe housing in this city.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dueling Op-Eds on Rental Licensing

After a recent work session of the Planning Committee of the Bellingham City Council on the topic of rental licensing and inspections, John Stark published an article on the meeting. You can read the article by clicking here. The article elicited over a hundred comments, most of which were of little value and amounted to little more than mud wrestling. Posting some more serious comments to the article and to the question of rental licensing was Perry Eskridge, the Government Affairs Director for the Whatcom Realtors ®.

As a result of the lengthy comments by Mr. Eskridge and the Zonemaven on Mr. Stark's article, the two of us were invited by the Herald to write op-eds on the subject of rental licensing. These pieces appeared in the Herald on Sunday, 19 June 2011. You can read them by clicking here.

Naturally, it is difficult to present an argument in all its facets in an op-ed of 700 words. To gain a better appreciation of the difference in the various aspects of the topic, it may be useful to read our comments to the Stark article. I have extracted and reprinted them below. It may be a long read but you may find it worthwhile.

Perry: This is an interesting issue. As with many things, the devil is in the details.

People say this will not increase rents. Wrong. The Proposal will require that all rentals be maintained according to the International Property Maintenance Code. For those of you that don't know, housing is usually required to meet the code in effect when the structure was built or, if a substantial remodel, at the time the remodel occurs. This WILL be a wholesale change of the standards to which the landlord will be required to meet resulting in substantially increased costs that, ultimately, must be passed on to the tenants. The average age of housing in Bellingham is well over twenty years old, so you can imaging the code changes that have taken place in that time and the cost that will be necessary to meet this code! If you think those upgrades are going to be free, you are sorely mistaken. If you don't believe me, ask your landlord.

Also, would someone explain to me where the city is going to find ONE inspector qualified to do electrical, plumbing, environmental, and structural inspections for $100,000/year who is also willing to try and conduct 5-10 inspections per day AND be available for court AND be available for follow-up inspections AND be able to drive to the various rentals every day AND take time to write reports? Anyone that thinks that one inspector is going to do all this HAS to be a bureaucrat! So, when the city realizes that $24 isn't going to cut it, what happens then? The fees go up and the rents go up.

This proposal makes tenants second-class citizens. A Tenancy is, legally speaking, an "estate in land." It is distinguished from a Fee Estate in that the tenant does not have all the rights a Fee owner has, but the Tenant does retain many ownership rights. Included in those rights is the right to possession of the home free from unreasonable intrusion by the Fee owner, the right to exclude persons from the home, the ability to benefit from the "quiet enjoyment" of the property, etc. But let's look at some of the hallmarks of this proposal.

First, the government wants to come into your home and inspect for violations. This is something that does NOT happen to a fee owner absent a warrant, subject to due process protections, and the opportunity to oppose the issuance of a warrant to the judge the government has asked to issue the warrant. Now, if you are a tenant, the city is giving itself the right to come into your home to be sure that you are living in a safe manner. Remember, some of the violations that the City is looking for will be fines for which the Tenant is responsible, so the landlord isn't the only one on the hook here when the inspection occurs.

Also, what happens if a city inspector is in your home and finds evidence of criminal activity? Don't think for a moment that such a circumstance will go unnoticed or unpunished. Even better, you aren't notified that you have the ability to oppose the inspection if you wish. Better hide that water pipe, that prescription that isn't yours, make sure your computer is turned off, etc., because anything you say, or do, will be used against you in a court of law! Ever tried to get the government out of your house after you invite/allow them in?

What happens when you oppose? Well, the council thought of that as well. They have inserted a provision that allows the City to go to court and obtain a civil warrant. If you oppose the inspection, the City proposes to take you to court and force you to submit to the inspections. This means that you will take time to appear before the judge and have to provide evidence that your home should not be inspected for violations. Not increased rent, but lawyers are more expensive! And if the landlord has to hire a lawyer, any guess as to who will ultimately pay? Sure, the inspections will be a random percentage, but as with many games of chance, we know the house always wins!

Make no mistake, this is a loser proposition from the word, "Go." Even a council member yesterday confessed that they don't really have a good handle on how big -or small- this problem is. The Mayor and the former Planning Director have stated time and again that they receive, on average, less than two dozen complaints a year. Too bad the council refuses to work with the information they have.

I could go on about how the proposal flies in the face of Washington corporate law, how the city already has an effective process if they would just use it, and how this is a $300,000 solution looking for a problem. If you think the council is concerned about the real impacts of this proposal, just take a look at whether a public hearing is required. The staff report says "No." Zonemaven will scream if I don't point out that I am the Government Affairs Director for the Whatcom REALTORS(R). As the spokesperson for the County's largest professional association, an association that counts many landlords as members, I have offered to make any and all information in our possession available to council members concerning this proposal. To date, only one member has accepted, but refused to believe anything we said sticking to the mantra that this is about public safety. Public safety may be an issue in a handful of situations, but it is also about affordable housing, privacy rights and due process, and it is about private property rights, not just for tenants, but landlords as well. A council member joked that perhaps it was time to put cameras into rentals. Funny right now, but when you start digging into the proposal, you will realize just how close that statement is to the truth. Remember, it is an election year! Perry Eskridge Whatcom REALTORS(R)

The Zonemaven: Except that for your $30 you get an analysis that plays fast and loose with the facts and suppositions that are not based on any data whatsoever. I would ask for my money back. Read my blog and then have a conversation with Perry.

Perry: Really Dick? Tell me what part you find as "fast and loose" and then we'll have a conversation. Kind of like that house fire in the York neighborhood that you tried to pin on the landlord, only to discover that it was most likely the tenants' fault? I asked you to give me a copy of the report to prove me wrong; nothing ever showed up.

You also went after another property that I recall claiming a bad landlord, only to discover the property was owned by a Canadian Corporation who had not authorized the property manager to make changes.

I had 10 landlords at that meeting with me yesterday. Perhaps you want to talk to them about their business/investments and how they calculate their costs and set rents before you accuse me of not having facts.

Anytime, anywhere Dick!

The Zonemaven: The fire marshal’s report for the Ellis St. and the Grant St. fires have been on my blog since 7 Feb. You can check them out here. You will note that the Grant St. fire was occasioned by a suspected loose wire and not due to actions by the tenants. The Ellis St. fire was occasioned by loose bolts on a heater in the living room. The house had been also been rewired by the owner without being inspected for code compliance. No fault to the tenant here either.

The house with the Canadian ownership was cited by the city code inspector and the student was able to break her lease. You can read about that on my blog entry of 3 Mar 2011 or you can watch her comments before the city council on 28 Feb 2011. The video is on the city’s website. The fact that the owner in Canada did not want to approve the fixes to the house prior to being cited by the code inspector speaks volumes in and of itself.

I am not much interested in finding out the manner in which the landlords calculate their costs. I have no problem with the math of $24 per year. Divided by 12 is $2. If the landlords claim that this will drive up their rents, then I am a confused person. Now if they have been neglecting their properties for years and the place needs repairs, that is the price of doing business and those repairs are deductible on income tax, right? Unless the landlord is not reporting his income from the rentals. Then the situation becomes dicey. And then there were all those rent increases over the decades. What occasioned those if the upkeep was not being done?

As for the items to be inspected, you should look at the inspection list from Sacramento, CA or from Pasco, WA. These are not nit-picky lists that look for banister or window heights. They are straightforward categories that deal with health and safety. The Pasco checklist is on my blog entry of 9 Feb 2011.

The city of Pasco seems to be able to do thousands of inspections each year with one inspector. Your claims that Bellingham will not be able to do the relatively low number of random inspections it now envisions does not hold water. And just how many times do you think that these cases will end up being challenged? Pasco ended up with about 20 cases that were referred to their code enforcement board in 2010. These cases had to do with landlords who did not get a license or who did not present a certificate of inspection.

Perry: This is great. Thanks Dick for posting this information.

York Neighborhood: Yes, loose connection that arced . . . in an electrical box in the attic above the bathroom . . . on a circuit that, from the landlord's own mouth, had three space heaters plugged into the same circuit. No operating smoke detectors (tenant responsibility under the RCW by the way!)

Loose bolts on a heater? An inspector doing an inspection every 15-30 minutes is going to check the attach points on a heater? By the way, I can do some re-wiring in my own home if I want to. The question is when was the wiring done, who did it, and was it, in fact, illegal?

The Canadian house is a debacle to be sure. I will not defend the condition of that home. In any event, however, there is a lesson with respect to this proposal First, the City proposes to demand a real live person to be personally responsible for the actions of a corporation! Well, I've got news for you. I can have a corporation that owns property and the WHOLE reason for corporate law is so that I don't have personal liability beyond my investment. I know that many people in Bellingham disagree with the exitence of corporations, but in any event, that is the law. Look it up. Moreover, there are corporations that have more than one house and do a good job of renting to tenants. You can be sure that a couple suits by the City against those corporations is going to cost more than $300,000.

The other point about that case is even more compelling. You admit that the current process employed by the city was effective. As soon as the complaint was made by the tenant to an existing compliance officer, the matter reached a resolution. Why do we need an entirely new program to accomplish something that, in your own words, was possible before?

Finally, I don't care what other cities have done. Why? Because Bellingham's proposal is clear-Landlords must meet the requirements of the International property Maintenance Code (Pasco requires meeting a different code (Uniform Housing Code)). Speculate all you want about how that works in cities other than Bellingham, but in the end, the Bellingham ordinance is the Bellingham ordinance. It won't matter what Pasco or Sacramento or any other city does . . . it will matter what Bellingham does.

If you think you are going to inspect for compliance with an International code using a note card as the Council suggests, and have that inspection withstand scrutiny when you try to enforce against it, you are dreaming.

You may not intend to look for banister or window heights, but if they are in the code, then they must be enforced, whether you intend it or not. I don't make these rules up, Dick, the courts and the City do.

I think it is very instructive that your comments are formulated without caring about how the landlord/tenant relationship really works or what it is really like to be a landlord. Based on that, I'm looking forward to your future posts. Perhaps you will post some results from the survey with those "unbiased" questions phrased with the answer already included? That will be much fun!

The Zonemaven: The space heater story is from the landlord but even if we accept that version, the fact is that the heating system in that house was inadequate in the first place. Otherwise, why would the tenants be plugging in extra heaters AND how are they to know that the electrical system was inadequate for the load? As for the smoke alarms, we tend to forget that these are warning devices for when inadequate or unmaintained systems (electrical here) fail.

The heater in the house on Ellis was not being maintained by the owner. How is the tenant to know about heaters? As for the rewiring of the house without a permit, that was not a factor in this particular case but it does demonstrate that landlords do cut corners placing their tenants at risk. How many of your colleagues would want your kids to move into a home that was rewired by the owner and not permitted by the city. And how would you ever know that?

The issue of corporations, liability and having the name of a real person to contact are not synonymous. Nobody is suggesting, nor have I heard it said during council committee meetings, that the city wants to go after an individual behind the corporation. They do want to have a contact, a person who can respond to issues regarding the condition of the rental. The legal issues with respect to LLCs as corporate entities can still be recognized.

As for the current complaint-only system being effective as evidenced by the Canadian rental being cited by the inspector, you forgot to mention the history of the place to begin with and the horror story behind the young woman's fight to get something done over a long period. You also fail to recognize that tenants are not experts in housing conditions and are often living in units that are substandard because they are not aware of problems that might cause illness, injury or worse.

Well, Pasco and other cities also work under the International Building Codes and local requirements and they manage to inspect rentals without going into the minutiae. Look at the Pasco checklist and go to the Sacramento, CA website and you will find that these checklists are not onerous. If there were such great problems with Pasco's program, how can you account for the fact that it works?

I am not weeping for landlords. They are in business and must accept the risks. Since they offer a service/product to the public, what they offer must be safe and that safety should be verifiable. I suggest that the landlords do as they tell the tenants to do all the time - take action under the current Landlord-Tenant statute. If you continue to suggest that the current law is good enough for tenants then you must also accept that it is good enough for you. If it is not, then you and your associations can lobby for a stronger code. But don't look to me to do that for you.

As for the survey, it was intended to be a window into the state of rentals in this city and not a scientific product. You did not point out to the readers here that about two-thirds of those who took the survey were satisfied with their rental. Clearly those taking the survey were not steered into complaining about their units with tricky language or deliberately biased questions.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rental Rates Rising? Not Because of Rental Licensing

For years now, landlords and their associations have been telling the citizens of Bellingham of their concern over rental rates increasing if licensing and inspection of rentals is put into effect. The Zonemaven, not having been taken in by their feigned anguish, countered by saying that landlords have been raising rental rates for decades for reasons that have nothing to do with licensing. But the landlords stuck by their guns, so distressed were they with the thought that they might have to pass to their renters a $24 per year licensing fee.

Now we discover that, because rental availability is tight (the vacancy rate is 2.4% - or as low as 1.6% last fall), rental prices will be going up. (See the Herald article on the subject by clicking here.) The reason for the rise in rental rates has nothing to do with any factor other than the mere fact that landlords are taking advantage of a tight market. Nothing is forcing them to hike rates. So much for their concern for the pocketbooks of Bellingham's renters.

Friday, June 10, 2011

“Twenty-Three Years of Rental Licensing — Observations”

The following is a letter to the citizens of Aurora, IL from Albert Dennis, Sgt-at-Arms of the American Association of Code Enforcement. The original can be found on the site of the City of Aurora, IL by clicking here.

"Rental licensing is one systematic tool used by municipalities for maintenance of income housing stock. The City of Aurora adopted its licensing program in 1982 during my second year of employment. Aurora’s population was 90,000 (currently 157,000). Aurora modeled its ordinance on ideas from programs used in Oak Park, Illinois (program begun in 1958); Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, among others.

The initial ordinance pertained only to rental properties containing three or more units (1000 buildings). Inspections of rental properties prior to 1982 were complaint driven. City Fathers determined that approach was insufficient. The City Council passed the licensing ordinance over protests primarily from the local board of realtors.

Aurora has amended the ordinance over the years adding: All rental units in the downtown core (1990), rental condo units in complexes having at least fifty units in which at least fifty percent of the units are rental (1990), rental two-units (1995), rental portions of owner-occupied two-unit buildings (2003) and single-family rental units (2004).

Positive observations relating to twenty-three years of participation in rental licensing:

The lion’s share of complaints prior to adoption of rental licensing were from the thousand buildings containing three or more units. Today very few complaints originate from those buildings. The overall building maintenance is drastically improved. Many unsafe and ghastly living conditions have been eliminated from those multi-unit buildings. Property values have escalated in buildings that once appeared destined for demolition. Potential property buyers know the buildings have had regular minimum standard inspections.

Licensing gets us into all the units over time. Prior to licensing many tenants failed to complain about dreadful conditions for fear of landlord retribution. That was a much bigger issue in 1981 than now. Rental licensing has weeded out the old time, do nothing, rent collecting slumlords that infested the City of Aurora when I hired on in 1981. Regular inspections also aid in enforcing occupancy standards in rental properties.

Additionally, the registration process for new owners affords us the opportunity to educate them about code requirements and encourage them to attend the local landlord training school offered by the City of Aurora. Many landlords have improved their tenant screening practices as a result. Registration also provides an owner/agent database for easier contact should the need arise. Licensing can bring in some income depending on the fee schedule. Aurora’s rental license fees are low and do not cover the cost of the program.

Negative observations relating to twenty-three years of participation in rental licensing:

From my point of view the number one negative issue regarding rental licensing is the intrinsic bureaucracy that comes with it. Initially notifying and registering property owners is a major event. The better your database capabilities and relationship with your computer people the easier this task will be. Monitoring owner changes and registering the new owner must be done. Making inspection and re-inspection appointments is time consuming. You must have enough inspectors and support staff to operate the program.

Getting a licensing ordinance adopted can be difficult. Many municipal rental-licensing programs are started because of neighborhood activist initiation and support. Some have been blocked due to the town’s “old boy” network and connections with the council.

Initial inspections of poorly maintained buildings can be lengthy. I recall spending two or more hours in three and four unit buildings in 1982-85. Those inspections generated extensive violation notices and time-consuming follow-up inspections. Licensing also forces you to expend manpower on buildings that don’t really need it. In Aurora, this is offset by granting one or two-year waivers of fees and inspections on buildings found to be up to code. (Note: some municipal rental licensing program licensing periods are two, three, four or even five years, rather than annual, as in Aurora.)

Weighed together I believe the positives have outweighed the negatives in Aurora. Frankly, we had some deplorable rental buildings twenty-three years ago. Some still aren’t palaces, but they are much improved."