Kirsti introduced the topic by citing the recent fire on Grant St. that almost killed 4 WWU students. (Click here and here to read about the fire) She had a special relationship to the event as she lives in the home next to the now-burned out rental. Kirsti also had an excellent relationship with the tenants. Had the fire not been discovered at its onset, it is likely her home would have been caught in the conflagration.
Anne Mackie, the York Neighborhood Association President spoke about the fire and her relief that instead of having a candlelight vigil for 4 victims, we were having a discussion of licensing and inspection, which, in the future could prevent such fires. Surely a teachable moment without a major catastrophe. Anne called upon the commission members to write letters to the City Council to again call upon them to move on a licensing and inspection program.
The Zonemaven provided information to the representatives present regarding the statistics of inspections in some of those cities that had already introduced inspections of rental units. To wit: 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?
Dave Hopkinson, a resident of the York Neighborhood and himself a rental property owner gave remarks about the rationale for inspections by saying that "we take for granted that when we make a reservation at a hotel, there will be fire alarms, fire extinguishers, as wells as little maps that say "Egress is Here" and "Don't use the elevators in case of fire", and a lighted sign on the corridor that says "Exit" and there will have been an inspection that will be dated on the little tags that are attached to the fire extinguishers. Secondly, that when we eat in a restaurant, it is not necessary to go into the kitchen and look for evidence of cleanliness and absence of vermin, etc. However, for every rental, nothing can be taken for granted, except the good will - or lack of it - on the part of the rental-owner. And even that may not be enough, given the technical difficulty of health and safety inspection (and our collective power of denial)."
The MNAC decided to take up a discussion of rental licensing and inspection at its next meeting. They asked for additional information about the concept. Many had not read, nor were they aware, of the reports and studies that had been prepared for the council on the issue in years past. Of special note in this regard is the study on rental licensing prepared for the council in October 2008. You can read this document by clicking here.
The Zonemaven has written about the dangers of uninspected rentals. Several years ago the Zonemaven wrote a piece on fires in house rentals (Click here to read the piece.) The blog entry ended with this:
Well, what is known about rentals of single family homes here in Bellingham?
Have landlords added or modified bedrooms? We do not know.
Do all bedrooms have fire exits? We do not know.
Do these rentals have smoke detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have carbon monoxide detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate wiring? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate plumbing? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate heating? We do not know.
Do these rentals have mold or mildew problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have insect infestations? We do not know.
Do these rentals have gas leaks? We do not know.
Do these rentals have structural problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have other safety or health issues? We do not know.
Is there overcrowding in these rentals? We do not know.
Are necessary repairs made by landlords? We do not know.
Is there price gouging by landlords? We do not know.
Is there a system of inspections of rental homes in Bellingham? We do know. None.
Are landlords of rental homes licensed by the city? We do know. None.
Will it take a death or serious injury to spur the city to action?
Do we want to know?