Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tacoma Passes Weak Rental Inpsection Ordinance

The City of Tacoma, Washington has passed a rental inspection ordinance - "lite". Landlords in Tacoma have already had to obtain a business license to operate a rental since 2004 (Click here for more information) Unfortunately, the addition to the municipal code, entitled Provisional Rental Property License, passed by the Tacoma City Council earlier this year, calls for inspections only at the time the city discovers that there are problems with the rental.

A report of poor conditions can come from a renter; from an official of the city, who may incidentally view violations; or any citizen, such as a neighbor who might have knowledge of a problem. This is equivalent to the complaint-based systems, in existence in many cities, that do not work. The Centers for Disease Control have spoken on complaint-based systems and has judged them ineffective (click here to read the document).

You can read the new Tacoma ordinance by clicking here. You can read a Tacoma Weekly article and a King5 News piece on the topic by clicking here and here.

The Zonemaven immediately became suspicious regarding the strength of the law at the time he discovered that the Tacoma ordinance had been supported by the local rental owners' group, the Rental Housing Association. Our equivalent local Northwest Rental Owners' Association is vehemently opposed to any rental licensing in Bellingham. Any indication that this group begins to support rental licensing is a flag that the specific licensing proposal is not really worth considering as it will be inherently weak.

Other cities in Washington have passed more robust licensing and inspection ordinances. Pasco has had a very effective licensing ordinance for over a decade. Tukwila, Prosser and Seattle passed rental licensing ordinances in 2010. Unfortunately, Bellingham appears poised to follow the example of Tacoma with a rental-licensing-"lite" proposal, soon to be on the table. More on that in a later blog entry.

The Tacoma ordinance is scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2012.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

WWU Students Recount Dangerous Rental Conditions To The City Council

Four WWU students described dangerous rental conditions before the Bellingham City Council on February 28th. During the public comment period, they told Council members about mold, water leaks, sagging floors, collapsing ceilings, inoperable heating systems and inadequate safety exits. You can review the video of the Council meeting by clicking here. Student comments begin at 8 minutes into the video.

Nicole Hicks stated that she became involved as she thought it was the right thing to do when she found out that there was no rental licensing and inspection in this city. While salons and restaurants where one spends relatively little time are licensed, she said, rentals in which one spends much more time are not inspected by the city. She then described her present apartment the entrance to which is a fire escape on an alley. The only other egress is a ladder that leads to a skylight (and then another ladder to the roof) and a window that opens inward but only with a 6 inch gap. Nicole also described an encounter with a prospective landlord who, when challenged about the existence of a 5th bedroom in a house advertised as a 5 bedroom, said that he would create the 5th bedroom in the living room by installing a panel.

Wesley Dyer, a senior and the leader of the Viking Community Builders club, described problems with mold in the units he has rented. [Mold can be very dangerous to those with allergies.] He went on to tell of a friend whose unit was infiltrated by water leaking from above, a ceiling that had partially collapsed and flooring under a tub above that was about to fall through to his floor.

Christopher Brown told of a "landlord" who admitted that no repairs had been done in his rental for 18 years. There was mold, trash from a previous tenant, broken heaters and cracked windows. The "landlord's" excuse was that the organization that owned the rental was low on money and could not effect the repairs.

Andrea Lavelle spoke about her rental unit that had slugs and mold when she moved in. When she complained, she was given a can of bug spray and some bleach. [Note: Bleach kills only certain molds on particular (hard) surfaces. It is not a universal means for mold abatement. OSHA and EPA have revised their guidelines to reflect this remediation problem. Click here and here for more information.] Conditions in her rental became so intolerable (there was a large hole in the side of the building where the wood siding and exposed insulation had rotted) that she complained to the city. The inspector declared the building structurally unsound and thus inhabitable. She was eventually able to break the lease based on the inspector's report.

These students also spoke more generally about rental conditions and the lack of knowledge among their peers. They spoke of not having sufficient expertise to judge the worthiness of a rental before moving in. They spoke of the need for expert evaluation of rentals within the context of a rental licensing and inspection program. They referred to the proposal that was made by the Planning Committee of the City Council on March 24th as being a tentative first step but inadequate to the task at hand, complete rental safety. (Click here to see Councilman Weiss's proposal adopted by the committee.) They specifically spoke to the inadequacies of self-certification, complaint-based systems and licensing/inspection-lite, i.e., going after bad apples only.

Two weeks earlier at the City Council meeting, WWU student Chris Chatburn told the City Council during the comment period "The problem that I am talking about is, of course, sub-standard rental housing in our Bellingham community. As the coordinator of the Associated Students Legal Information Center, I’ve heard hundreds of horror stories from renters detailing significant and serious problems with their homes. An incredibly high percentage of Western students are renters in the community and I have yet to meet one of them that hasn’t run into some problem renting in our community. I have myself been a victim of sub-standard rental housing. We must act now to implement rental licensing with inspections in our city." (Click here to read Chris's entire statement.)

Thanks to these committed and articulate students, the City Council has yet another window onto the realities of the rental market in Bellingham.