Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Space Heaters

Two recent area fires involved the improper use of space heaters. One incident took place on January 19th in Bellingham on Cedarwood Rd . The owner of a vacant house, who also owns several other small homes in Bellingham, attempted to keep an unheated crawl space warm enough to avoid frozen water pipes by putting a space heater underneath the home. In a similar fire in Ferndale, renters were burned out of their house after they placed a space heater under the home, also in an attempt to keep water pipes from freezing. You can read the Herald account of the fires by clicking here. The Fire Chief's press release on the Bellingham fire can be read here and the investigative report from the Fire Marshal here.

The commonality of these two fires is, of course, the improper use of the space heaters. Here we have an instance in which both a landlord and a renter were ignorant of safety issues. Critics of inspection of rentals for safety and health reasons often state that landlords have sufficient knowledge to care for their units and that renters can depend upon either themselves or their landlords to ensure rentals are safe. These two stories belie such contentions.

Note the condition of this vacant property on Cedarwood to begin with. It is in very poor condition. Homes like these attract vagrants and vermin while their appearance depresses property values in the neighborhood. Moreover such dilapidated structures are a fire danger to adjacent homes, especially in this case in that the houses in this area tend to have been built close together. In this particular instance, two homes share a single lot with little space separating them.

Our city council last year was considering an ordinance that, had it been approved, would have had as its theme going after the "bad apples" so as not to "punish" all the good landlords. Exactly how these "bad apples" were to be identified was not so apparent. The owner of this vacant home has several other properties in Bellingham, although the one on Cedarwood happened to be empty. There is no indication that he is a "bad apple", yet clearly he operated unaware of basic safety. He may be, for all intents and purposes, a good landlord notwithstanding the fact that he lacks knowledge, an ignorance that could be a threat to those living in the other three properties he owns.

The fact is that , although the city council has refused to accept it, there is no way to find all the "bad apples" absent an inspection program that looks at all rentals. Any reliance on a renter complaint-based program is doomed to failure for that is the present state of affairs. The health department does not go after the "bad apple" restaurants nor do they rely solely on complaints or self-inspections. It looks at all restaurants and all restaurants pay into the system to finance these inspections. This is basic common sense that the public recognizes and supports. Nobody purposely takes his family to a filthy restaurant nor do we expect diners to check out the kitchen with their own punch list. We count on our local authorities to ensure that these establishments are safe and pose no health problem. Why should we expect less of landlords who offer their properties to the public for money?

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