A few weeks ago I was contacted by a couple who had just moved into an apartment unit on Cottonwood Ave. The unit is part of a small complex consisting of 20 units "operated" by Lakeway Realty. (See other Lakeway rentals featured in my blog here and here.) Due to health conditions of the couple and in their effort to save several hundred dollars a month in rent, they fell into rental hell. Hell in the way of the condition of the rental. Hell in the way of getting anything repaired properly or repaired at all. Hell in the way of removing themselves from an untenable situation. A rental licensing and inspection program would have gone a long way toward alleviating the problems encountered by this couple.
[Follow the blue links to photos and documents]
Inexpensive rent does not mean that people should live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. After moving in, the couple began to discover some serious problems with their unit. The water tank did not produce any warm water nor was there any water pressure. There was loose and unprotected wiring next water sources and the water stream in the bathroom would just disappear. A plumber came by and said that the hot water tank needed to be replaced. When the water heater was eventually replaced a pipe valve broke during the night. This water leak led to the discovery of a long term problem that had soaked the wall board behind the cabinetry in the kitchen. That led to the discovery of a faulty water heater and exposed wiring.
Attempts to repair the damage produced some downstream problems for the tenants who were forced to spend a night in a hotel (repayment promised by the landlord) only to find that the landlord would provide only half of the one night's hotel charge and refused to pay for any additional nights although the apartment was not ready. A call to the city brought out an inspector who, in spite of the apparent lack licensed plumbers and electricians, approved the installation of a new water heater and associated electrical work. In an email to the tenants the inspector stated,
At this point the couple's only option was to seek another apartment merely weeks after having moved into the one on Cottonwood. The couple was told verbally by the management that they could get a release from the lease. However, written confirmation was not forthcoming for a week or more. The next several weeks were spent attempting to get that release from the Lakeway Property's lease so that a new contract could be signed elsewhere. Complicating the issue, aside from the couple's modest income, was a limited number of apartments available to meet the physical needs of the husband who, having had both knees replaced, could only live in a ground floor unit without stairs.
Much of that which this couple experienced could be attenuated or eliminated if there were a rental licensing and inspection program in this city. The chances of an apartment with the kinds of problems described above being approved for rental would be greatly reduced. The landlord of this unit could not have been unaware of the issues that would face a new set of renters. Although this couple was fierce in their pursuit of repairs, not all tenants are so aggressive, especially in the face of a possible bad reference from a vindictive landlord or the confiscation, without justification, of a security deposit. Landlords know that few tenants will pursue the recovery of such deposits through the court system.
This city must move this year on approving an ordinance to mandate inspection of our rental units. The Zonemaven recently met with representatives of the Associated Students of WWU. They are planning on pushing for safe rentals as a priority issue for students this year. The city would do well to listen to the voices representing the 10,000 student renters and others who hit our rental market each year.
[You can read more about the student efforts on rental inspections in my prior blog entry by clicking here.]