Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fire Marshal Declares "Unsafe Conditions" at Daylight Building Rental - Students Displaced

Several WWU students have been displaced as a result of the action of Fire Marshal Jason Napier, who posted a notice of Unsafe Conditions on an apartment in the Daylight Building. The building was the site of a fire last week that destroyed a portion of the inside of a restaurant on the main floor. After the blaze and as a result of questions raised regarding the adequacy of emergency exits in other areas of the building , the Fire Marshal contacted one of the tenants at the Chestnut St. side and discovered that two of the sleeping areas within an apartment had no adequate fire emergency egress. (Click here to read a previous blog entry on the subject)

Two of the five students will have to move and their sleeping areas must remain unoccupied and not rentable until such time as Daylight Properties corrects the violation of the fire codes. Unfortunately, this takes place at a time when the students are approaching the end of the quarter and should be spending their time on theme papers and preparation for exams, not on dealing with unsafe rental conditions. Had the city already had a robust rental licensing and inspection program, we likely would not be talking about this.

[Photo at left of "fire escape" serving as entrance in the Daylight Building. Several bedrooms in the unit in question did not have adequate emergency egress.]

As the City Council considers rental licensing, it may wish to avoid a variation of inspection that would allow for landlords to self-certify, i.e., sign a form that declares that their rental units meet certain standards. The manager of the Daylight Building, Mr. Kane Hall, declared before the council in February, that there was no need for licensing and inspection of rentals. The implication was that the landlords, Mr. Hall included, can take care of their own properties.

That seems not to be the case here as either Mr. Hall was unaware of the dangerous condition in this rental unit or he was aware and rented it nonetheless. If he was not aware, then that calls into question the ability of a landlord to self-certify since, in essence, he had already made an implied certification of rental unit safety in leasing the unit in the first place. If he was aware of the safety issue and rented the unit in spite of that knowledge, that calls into question his motives in placing his renters in danger. In either case, mandatory inspection of rental units would have uncovered this safety issue while self-certification, which depends on knowledge that Mr. Hall appears to lack, would have proven useless.

How many other rentals in Bellingham contain similar problems with lack of egress? Ironically, one of the tenants had already encountered a similar situation while looking for a rental in a prior year. (She described this encounter to the City Council the very same evening as Mr. Hall was railing against licensing and inspection. (Click here to view the video of those comments at the 11:29 mark) Looking for a rental with 5 bedrooms, she and her companions visited a home that, although advertised as having five bedrooms, only had four. When they asked the landlord about the fifth bedroom, he indicated that he would install a plywood partition in the living room.

Yes, these incidents are anecdotal, however, when one considers the life/safety issues found in other cities with rental inspections and the disturbing results of the WWU student-sponsored survey of rentals in Bellingham(Click here to read the survey), there is little room for doubt that a rental licensing and mandatory inspection program is needed - NOW.

Note: Thanks to our Fire Chief, Bill Boyd, and our Fire Marshal, Jason Napier, for their rapid investigation.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

WWU Students Do The "Joe Show" on Rental Licensing

Three Western Washington University students appeared on the Joe Show (KBAI 930AM ) on Tuesday, 10 May to present the findings of the survey on rental conditions that they sponsored over the past 7 months. Appearing on the show were Wesley Dyer of the Viking Community Builders; and Nicole Hicks and Chris Chatburn of the Western Democrats. You can hear a podcast of the show by clicking here.

For those who are not familiar with the survey of rental conditions, you can read the survey executive summary and the detailed survey results and comments by going to the site of Neighbors for Safe Rentals (click here). Follow the links to the survey.

From the survey executive summary: "Results from the rental survey suggest that many buildings would have failed inspection at the time of the survey. Many of these code violations represent an immediate threat to health or safety. Given the low number of official complaints that are made to the city, this survey indicates a substantial void between existing problems and reported problems. A “complaint based system”, as exists now, is not a solution that will bring the deficiencies into the open. Rental housing stock needs oversight and enforcement to correct substandard housing and to motivate unresponsive landlords and rental management companies to make repairs."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Rental Inspection Story Behind the State Street Fire, 10 May

Yesterday morning around 5 o'clock, a fire destroyed a good portion of a restaurant in the Daylight Building on N. State Street in Bellingham. (Click here to read the Herald article and here for some video of the fire.) The blaze was essentially confined to the restaurant, however, some businesses and residential apartment units had some smoke damage. Among those fleeing the building was Western Washington University student, Nicole Hicks. Nicole lives in an upper floor apartment that she rents with several other Western women.

Just a few months ago, Nicole presented before the city council an account of an emergency safety problem in her apartment. (You can view Nicole's comments by clicking here and going to minute 11:29 on the video) She was there to urge the council to pass an ordinance mandating health and safety inspections of rentals. She described her apartment in the very same Daylight Building whose MAIN access was via a fire escape in the alley behind the building. The sole window in her room only opened a mere 6 inches. The only other "FIRE EXIT" was by a ladder in one of the bedrooms that gave access to a skylight that when opened allowed the residents to climb yet another ladder leading to the roof. It is there, on the roof, that these young renters would have to take refuge during a fire that blocked the "main" entrance. A recipe for disaster for we all know that fire tends to burn upward.

The irony of this situation is that just after Nicole spoke to the city council in support of licensing and inspecting rentals, the manager of Daylight Properties, Mr. Kane Hall, told the council, in a curiously incoherent and rambling plea for more crime fighting in the downtown area, that landlord licensing and inspection was not needed to fight crime or to do anything else for that matter. Licensing was an unnecessary burden that would create an out-of-control bureaucracy, said Mr. Hall. The connection between rental licensing and decreasing crime in the downtown area was not apparent. (Click here to listen to Mr. Hall before the city council at minute marker 30:30.)

Yet the very property (the Daylight Building) that he manages and offers to renters has a unit that has no viable emergency exit. Before the council, Mr. Hall called for fines for those who do not manage their properties responsibly. The Zonemaven hears Mr. Hall's plea and agrees wholeheartedly. Perhaps those fines might be levied on those who rent units without proper emergency exits.

Luckily for Nicole and her roommates yesterday , the MAIN ENTRANCE, i.e., fire escape, was not blocked by the fire, however, the outcome might not have been such. Not surprisingly, Nicole is now, more than ever, apprehensive about living in that rental unit. Moreover, this was the second fire at the Daylight Building in the last several months. The earlier fire was in a recycling bin near the mailboxes at the principal entrance to the upper floors of the building that, luckily again, was extinguished before any lives were lost.

I call on our Fire Chief, Bill Boyd, to take a closer look at the Daylight Building. We have had several reprieves with respect to fires in rentals this year, notably in the York Neighborhood. (Click here to refresh your memories) How much closer to a tragedy do we have to get for there to be action on licensing and inspecting rentals?