Monday, January 17, 2011

Rental Association Email Distorts Licensing Issue

The Zonemaven has obtained a copy of an email that the Northwest Rental Owners Association has sent to its membership regarding the issue of rental licensing and inspections. Let us take a look at several of the comments in the email. You can read the entire text of the email by clicking on the images on the left. [The text has been transferred from the email to an image to enhance readability. Errors in the text are those of the author of the email and marked with (sic). Email addresses have been removed. No other alterations have been made.] The email's author is Angela Barnes who is listed as the association's Secretary on their website.

The missive begins by stating that there does not appear to be too many complaints about landlords not maintaining their properties. The problem with this statement is that it ignores the fact that we have a complaint based system, i.e., one that is inherently defective. It is a system that demands that renters know that there is a problem to begin with. That implies that they are capable of judging all sorts of systems within the rental unit, e.g., heating, gas, plumbing and electric, not to mention structural integrity, pest control, mold and fire prevention. This requirement is manifestly absurd as applied to the tenant as well as the landlord. Neither is qualified to make judgments on rental safety unless they also happen to be qualified building inspectors.

So if there is a lack of complaints, one cannot assume that the reason is that there are no problems.

Ms. Barnes claims that she as a landlord immediately takes care of problems with her rentals. That is laudable, however, there are about 17,000 rental units in Bellingham. A look at the property data base at the office of the Whatcom County Assessor, shows that she owns, at least under her own name, four properties in Bellingham, one of which appears to be her residence. So then, what of the other 16,997 rental units over which Ms. Barnes has no control?

The Zonemaven allows that not all of these thousands of landlords are deficient in the maintenance of their properties. There is, however, a lacuna that cannot be denied and can only be filled by inspection of rentals.

Ms. Barnes then states that she will be forced to raise rents in order to comply with "new regulations", although there are no such regulations, since the law has not been drafted. One would think that as a good steward of her property, as she has told us she is, there would be no need for further maintenance expenses. The only cost to pass on to the renter, if she should so decide, would be a modest licensing fee, estimated to be around $3 per month per unit to fund the inspection program. She also assumes that she would have to pay a third party to do the inspections, although that also has not been determined since there is no draft ordinance. Surprisingly, that $3 per month for the licensing fee would bring in a substantial sum that could finance a fairly robust inspection by the city that would be of no further cost to the landlord.

She also declares that these inspections are a "duty most are capable to do themselves" This is a contention that I reject out of hand for the reasons I presented in the previous paragraphs. As I have pointed out over the years in this blog, landlords, as if out of the blue, claim to be worried about raising rents, however, that has not stopped them from doing so on their own over the past several decades, even in the absence of licensing and inspections.

Although not mentioned in the email, I would expect that the NROA would have on its agenda this week the house fire on Grant St. in the York Neighborhood that nearly took the lives of 4 WWU students. (Click here and here to read about this fire) In this case, the tenants did that which Ms. Barnes suggests is the solution to poor rental conditions but the management company ignored their pleas for smoke detectors and an inspection of an obviously faulty electrical system that produced the fire. Landlords have claimed time and again that they would police the few "bad eggs" in their midst. What a fine time to begin.

The landlords might also discuss the ways that a rental licensing and inspection will be of benefit to them. They can advertise that their property meets city standards for health and safety. There may even be insurance premium reductions for maintaining a certified property.

I do thank Ms. Barnes for publishing the instructions on taking the rental condition survey (click here to go to the survey) that is sponsored by the Viking Community Builders of WWU. Probably no body of renters knows more about the conditions of rentals in this city than the 8,000 students who are dumped on the rental market each year. Perhaps the landlords might be surprised in some cases with respect to the unvarnished experience of these renters, allowed to express themselves without fear of retaliation.

The Zonemaven's next blog entry this week will be about one such case.

Stay tuned.

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