Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Four Years of Western Front Editorials and Still No Action on Rental Health and Safety

For the fourth year in a row, the editorial board of the student run newspaper, the Western Front, has called on the city government to ensure the safety and health of the renters in Bellingham.  You can read about the three previous editorials by clicking here, here and here.

The most recent editorial is dated 5 Nov and entitled "In Support of the Tenant Rights Advocacy Proposal".   (Click here to read that piece.) The editorial states in part, "This proposal targets the Bellingham City Council and mayor, who have failed to pass any ordinances regarding licensing and inspection, increasing renter safety while staying consistent with state law. Bellingham, Wash., tenants continue to be subject to the state’s Residential Landlord-Tenant Act of 1973."

Unfortunately, there is as yet no concrete proposal.  In an email exchange with Western student Theo Bikel, who is working on the proposal, I learned that we are likely to see the document early next week (25 Nov).   We do know from the editorial that the students are seeking redress not only for poor rental conditions that are a danger to health and safety but also for redress for mistreatment by landlords over such issues as un-returned security deposits, un-reimbursed repairs and overall unresponsiveness.   The former problems come under the toothless Residential Landlord-Tenant Act which gives the tenant a right to legal avenues that are, to a great extent, mostly unworkable and unaffordable.  For the past 50 years or more the landlords have had the upper hand.  It is time to establish a just equity.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Western Students Talk of Dangers in Renting in Bellingham

Students are gearing up yet again this year in an attempt to get the City Council to listen and act on their complaints of mistreatment by landlords and of unsafe and unhealthy living conditions in rentals throughout the city.  On election eve, 5 October, students met to discuss the dangers of renting in Bellingham.  An account of their meeting was published in the student newspaper, the Western Front.  You can read that article by clicking here.

The departure of Stan Snapp and Seth Fleetwood from the council eliminates two voices that have consistently worked to slow down or stop an ordinance to license and inspect rentals in Bellingham.  The apparent election victory of Pinky Vargas and Roxanne Murphy will change that dynamic, however, it remains to be seen by how much.  Pinky's grasp of the issue is thin and Roxanne is operating with experience of a flawed rental licensing ordinance in Tacoma, WA.   You can read my assessment of their thoughts on rental inspections on NWCitizen by clicking here

The issue will come before the "new"  council again in 2014.  The proposal brought forth by Jack Weiss should be re-introduced but given a healthy dose of scrutiny.  The Mayor, who has been talking about a proposal during 2013, should bring that forward formally, too.  To date we have few specifics from her.  You can read about what we do know about both in my blog entry of 29 July entitled Rental Health and Safety Pushed into 2014.  Click here to read that entry.

The need for action is stunningly obvious to the student renters (10,000+/-).  The Mayor and the City Council should heed their voices.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dick’s Picks for City Council - Burr and Petree

[ Note: This is a copy of a column that I wrote for the NWCitizen that appeared on 28 Oct 2013.  You can also view that column by clicking here.]

Since the primary election, I have been speaking to candidates, reading their positions as reported in local media and watching the debates. Of all the candidates, only Roxanne Murphy has not responded to my emails asking for a meeting. I have met with Clayton Petree on two occasions, once with Bob Burr and once with Pinky Vargas.   

At-Large Seat

As for Roxanne, I am flabbergasted that a candidate for an at-large position on the Bellingham City Council, which essentially represents all wards, would not even respond to a prospective constituent’s email. All I know about her is from some statements published in various media, and her performance during the League of Women Voters debate. I am not a single issue voter, but some topics are of greater interest to me and I regard these subjects, to some extent, as bellwethers to gauge a candidate's thought processes and the use, or lack of, factual data. From what I have been able to determine, her opinion on rental health and safety has been muddled by an experience in Tacoma, a city with a badly flawed ordinance that is no more effective, and a lot more cumbersome, than what we currently have here in Bellingham. You can read my exchange with Riley Sweeney in the comment section of his blog entry on candidates by clicking here. When asked for a statement on issues for the Voters’ Pamphlet distributed by the Whatcom Couny Auditor, Roxanne wasted valuable space listing the people and organizations that have endorsed her. Endorsements are not ideas.  Endorsements are not policy concepts.  Endorsements are not positions on issues. Endorsements proffered by a candidate are nothing more than statements of obligations to groups or individuals.

By contrast, Bob Burr is long time resident of Bellingham whose learning curve on the problems facing Bellingham is not an issue. This is a man who put himself on the (rail) line for a cause (anti-coal) and was arrested during that protest. He is still facing legal action. This alone should qualify him for a council seat! Bob is a progressive thinker who will bring a badly-needed fresh presence to the council. He takes no money and therefore creates no obligations. Having been here for almost two decades he is very well informed about rental safety and health, supporting the registration and inspection of all rental units through a revenue neutral fee system that will not affect the city's general fund one whit. Bob’s statement in the Voters’ Pamphlet is about ideas and approaches to problems. It is about specific stances on issues and not at all like Roxanne’s generalized statements about endorsements and believing in Bellingham, whatever that means.

Ward 4

Pinky Vargas should have waited a few more years before running for City Council. She is lively and engaging but that is not the stuff of policy and speaks little to knowledge about issues. I enjoyed speaking with her and she listened intently. The problem is that running for office is about having knowledge and positions on issues before becoming a candidate. All candidates learn while seeking office, but running for office is not a process during which one begins to cobble together ideas for a coherent campaign. Her response to me on rental health and safety was tardy, as she evidently had no position when she began her campaign. When I did get a response, it was a mish-mash of incomplete and fuzzy thoughts that she had already provided in written form to the Bellingham Herald. You can read her comments by clicking here. It looks like a statement written by a committee. She mixes in talk of affordable housing. She "wonders" if we can have an inspection program without dipping into the general fund even though I told her that a $2 per month per unit fee would bring in over $400,000. The funding of registering and inspecting rentals would be revenue neutral. If $2 is not enough, make it $2.50. The fact that $1.5 million of our general fund goes to the museum department each year might be something for Pinky to examine, but I am not hearing anything about that.

I have met and spoken with Clayton Petree before his candidacy and twice since he began his run for City Council. We certainly do not agree on everything, but Clayton has a command of facts about the issues facing Bellingham that far surpasses Pinky’s knowledge. Clayton can hit the ground running. My friend Pat McKee of the Sunnyland neighborhood recently wrote to his neighbors, “Clayton Petree is an independent thinker, with good analytical skills. Clayton's viewpoint and talent are needed on the City Council.” I agree. When I spoke to Clayton about rental licensing, he was not an enthusiastic proponent, however, after a long conversation he came back to me in an email saying he could support the concept of licensing and inspection of rentals. This is a candidate who listens and processes facts. I can work with that.

I will not automatically support party favorites. I want some clear thinking and innovative voices on the City Council. Bob Burr and Clayton Petree are my picks to turn the council into an effective and forward-looking legislative body. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Community Forum on Recent Riot, Parties and Rental Safety

The Sehome Neighborhood is hosting a community forum on Monday, 21 October at 6:30 pm (WECU Education Center) to discuss the recent riot, skills for keeping parties safe and greater accountability for health and safety in rentals.  See the announcement here.

You also may wish to read my article in NWCitizen on the recent riot and the implications with respect to the proposal to create a private dormitory for nearly 600 students in the Puget Neighborhood, called University Ridge. Click here to read that article.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rental Health and Safety Pushed into 2014

By a vote of 6-0 (with Council Member Fleetwood absent) the Bellingham City Council agreed on June 17th to place the issue of rental licensing and inspections for discussion at the 2014 budget priority planning session. Largely because the City Council failed to place rental health and safety as a budget priority at its planning session for 2013, the Mayor was able to claim that the city did not have funds to start up any new program during the 2013 fiscal year without identifying offset funds from another program. Fiscally speaking, the Mayor is correct. She has to work with the budget that the Council approves. That being said, safety and health is an urgent consideration and such issues should not be delayed.  Click here to see the minutes of that council meeting. 

Above left you will find a copy of the motion that was passed asking the mayor to allocate resources to a health and safety program for rentals in the 2014 budget. I have argued previously to the council and the mayor that if we can afford $1.5 million per year to fund a museum department, we can find sufficient monies for start-up costs for a licensing and inspection program. After that, the program can easily be self-supporting from registration fees collected yearly from landlords. A mere $2 per month charge per rental unit, less than your simple latte at a downtown coffee shop, will bring in over $400,000 per year to run effective licensing and inspection of all of the city's 17,000 rental units. This will ensure long-term viability at an manifestly low cost.

That being said, there are several aspects of the council's proposal that I find troubling. Under section II "Outcomes or options to be included or considered" is (number 7) "Consider a self-certification option as part of any inspection program".  This option sounds reasonable until examined more closely. Such an option would require that a landlord sign and submit a certification that his/her rental units are in acceptable condition given a list of areas to be inspected, such as the electrical system, structural integrity, etc. I am not a landlord but even I would be very hesitant about signing such a document unless I had the advice of an expert who has already examined the rental unit. To do otherwise is to invite disaster in the way of a lawsuit should an accident happen in an area declared (by oneself as landlord) acceptable. No landlord, unless he/she happens to be a certified home inspector, has the knowledge to self-certify. So this "option" of self-certification effectively forces landlords to have their units inspected by a professional - and at their own expense. This defeats the purpose of an inspection program run by city inspectors which is provided for all landlords who pay low and reasonable fees to a common program.

Another problem with relying primarily on private inspectors for periodic inspections is that the city neither gains nor retains any institutional knowledge of the city’s rental units. Paper reports from private inspectors are no substitute for the experience of a city inspector whose employment is, for all intents and purposes, long term. The Mayor and the Planning Director will have no group of in-house code enforcement officers to whom they can go for experiential knowledge.

The use of private inspectors is allowed under law. In fact, this was one of the challenges to the Pasco licensing ordinance, that city inspectors would be the sole inspectors. The landlords there wanted the option to hire their own. They have that option now and is written into the state law passed a few years ago. I am not sure how that serves the landlords since, as I mentioned above, a properly structured program with a revenue neutral fee system (the program fees will pay for the program) will spread the cost of inspections over all landlords and result in much lower per inspection costs. The Mayor and the city council are underestimating the capability of a small team of city inspectors over time. Again, I bring up Pasco, a a city that has the institutional experience of these inspections that are based on an inspection checklist easily adoptable without re-inventing the wheel. We should also explore their cost data and performance data regarding the time necessary for an inspection of a unit. The Code Inspector in Pasco told me that one inspector could do 8-10 inspections per day.

Reliance primarily on private inspectors for the verification of our rental units is a de facto privatization of an inherently governmental function, that of health and safety. (Fire departments were once a private sector function and we know how that worked out.) Such a reliance invites collusion between the inspector and the inspected while depriving all landlords of a well supervised and even-handed inspection regime whose inspectors are accountable as city employees.   I have made these concerns available in an email to the Mayor who had expressed to me her desire to have an licensing ordinance that relies primarily on private, certified inspectors.  She has not, as yet, responded to my comments.

Item 8 Under section II "Outcomes or options to be included or considered" also gives me pause. It reads "Consider inspection of sample units as an 'audit' function". Although this may sound reasonable, this should not be an option at the outset of any safety and health program. An audit option may be adequate after an inspection program of all units has been operating for some time, however, Bellingham's rental stock HAS NEVER BEEN INSPECTED. This means that the likelihood of violations in thousands of units is very high. In fact, the two surveys run by Western Washington Students have demonstrated that very situation. (See these reports here and here). Audits will not do the job up front.

With respect to part III "Guidelines for Creating a Least-Cost Program" there appears to be some hidden agenda items in the several guidelines enumerated.   Here are my thoughts (in italics) following each of the numbered items:

1. Keep fees as low as possible to ensure that a program does not unduly impact the rental market.    The fee, although not having been set yet, has widely been spoken about as being about $2 per month per rental unit.  This cannot, in any sense, be construed as being "unduly" impactful.  Even a $3 per month/unit fee is not going to break the bank. So to what does this "guideline" refer?  The intent is unclear.  

There are already impacts on the rental market every year as landlords raise their rates if for no reason other than they can do so.  After all, the market here is tight (low vacancy) and renters have little bargaining margin, if any at all.   [Perhaps the city council might want to take up that issue at a later date.]  Absent a declaration from the council, one might imagine this guideline would have to do with the cost of repairs to units in order for them to be habitable.  The rental industry has placed fear in the hearts of some council members that these inspections might occasion prohibitively expensive repairs in order for the units to be safe and healthy.  An odd position in that landlords already claim that there are only a few bad apples.  Also odd in that nobody is claiming that the council wants to use the International Building Code book in its entirety to seek out unconforming bannister or window heights and mandate expensive remodeling.  Council Planning Committee head, Jack Weiss, has stated this during several work sessions of the committee.

2. Consider a minimum three-year program with sufficient data collection mechanisms to provide information to Council for a program extension, if necessary.   There is no reason to take the time and effort to register and license rental properties for a three-year program that has to be re-authorized by a future council - even if it proves successful.  If we are to establish a rental health and safety program it should be permanent since rentals come and go as landlords come and go.  Constant surveillance is necessary.  The health department does not inspect a restaurant kitchen once and then abandon all further efforts to ensure the owner adheres to regulations.  In my conversations with the rental code enforcement officer in Pasco, he indicated that after the initial inspection of all the city's rental units, the inspector returned to previously inspected units after 2 years and found that some units had already begun to deteriorate. 

3. Focus attention on properties with violations to reduce burdens on other owners.  This guideline is totally inexplicable as I have said time and again in this blog.  Nobody has ever satisfactorily articulated how this methodology will play out.  The presumption is that the "bad apple" landlords will somehow be "outed" and that then the city can then "focus attention" on them.  With thousands of single family home rentals and small apartment buildings, there is no mechanism I can imagine that will magically expose the bad ones except an inspection of each unit.  Anything else relies on spot checks (that will miss dangerous units), complaint driven programs (the city's current ineffective ordinance) or self-certification (a poor method as I explained above).  

And just what are these "burdens" that will be place on the "other owners"?  That once every three years at the most they must open their units for inspection to ensure the health and safety of the tenants?  That they may have to actually spend money on repairs to protect those who are paying them money to live in a rental unit? That they have to renew a license each year?

4. Emphasize a program educational approach that helps prevent health and safety violations from occurring through encouraging proper and frequent owner self-inspection and maintenance. The emphasis ought to be on an inspection program that is supplemented by an educational element. The difficulty with any such education program, a poor substitute for code enforcement entering the property, is reaching the target audience. The landlords can be contacted through their professional organizations such as the Whatcom Realtors or the Northwest Rental Owners Association. There are no such groups available to reach tenants who are a very diverse population. Student renters can be reached through the various educational institutions and through student government bodies but even this presents a challenge in that every 3-4 years there is an entirely new cohort of thousands of young student renters as they pass through the university/college system.

There is still much in the way of discussion to be had on an effective program to license and inspect our rentals for the health and safety of the tenants.  This discussion should be an active part of the coming elections for city council.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Students Not on Summer Break from Rental Health and Safety Issues

It may be the “summer break” at Western Washington University but the students have not forgotten about the condition of rentals as many of them prepare for another rental season and the ensuing crap shoot of finding a place that is safe.  Absent any rental inspection law in Bellingham, students often vie for the best of the worst.  The city council voted recently to push the noodle of licensing and inspection up the hill a bit more by deciding to place the topic on the agenda of budget priorities for 2014.  [More on that decision in an article later this week.]  Here is a recent editorial opinion from the Western Front:

Students deserve decent housing

Opinions of the Editorial Board | Posted: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 7:45 am 

Everyone who’s rented property in Bellingham, Wash. for more than a year probably knows at least two people who have had problems with their rental company. Whether insects, leakage or the ever-present black mold that is the scourge of our moist seaside climate, renting in Bellingham can be a nightmare if tenants are forced to deal with unresponsive rental companies. Never mind the unsightly or unhygienic elements in living in such conditions; the health risks associated with black mold inhalation can be serious, even life-threatening.

It’s easy to understand a business’ reluctance to rent to college students. Images of wild parties, cigarette-burned carpets and gaping holes punched through drywall must dance through a landlord’s head every time pen touches lease agreement. The large college population in Bellingham leaves them little choice in tenants, too. However, ensuring that a property is up to code is not optional, and certainly in a landlord’s best interest. The lawsuits that can result from shoddy maintenance can be worth much more than mere cosmetic damage.

Having cleaner, safer apartments is in everyone’s best interest. People will be more inclined to treat their apartments with respect if it’s respectable to begin with. There is not a lot of initiative for either landlord or tenant to maintain a disgusting apartment, any more than someone would feel the need to repaint a car in a junkyard.

Just because students typically rent lower priced units doesn’t mean our health and well being are any less important.

The editorial board is comprised of Editor- in-Chief Steve Guntli and Managing Editor Shannen Kuest.

This is not the first Western Front editorial on the squalor that students meet yearly in their quest for housing.   The Editorial Board speaks to the students regularly from the pages of the Front.  You can read prior editorials by clicking on each of the years:  2010, 2011, 2012.  Perhaps a 2014 editorial may announce the passage of a rental health and safety ordinance.  With a city council election this fall that will see new council members replacing Stan Snapp and Seth Fleetwood, who have consistently opposed attempts to clean up Bellingham’s rentals, the students and all other renters may finally get the legislation they deserve.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Are We Making Progress? Rental Licensing Recap.

[Note:  A version of this blog entry below was sent to the Planning Committee of the City Council and to the Mayor] 

I am concerned about the pace with which the rental health and safety measure is progressing.  Council member Jack Weiss, more than any other person in recent years, has advanced the debate on this important issue.  Interest in the topic has been high over the last few months since he has been conducting the Planning Committee sessions and allowing the public to chime in.  One of the largest interest groups, the students at WWU, has been especially active as the committee has witnessed.  They, among renters, have the most to lose if there is no measure to clean up the horror show that is our rental situation.  We need go no further than the rental surveys of  several WWU organizations to realize that there are disasters waiting to happen.  We have narrowly missed student deaths over the past two years in five fires in which over a dozen students have lost their housing. 

Associate Student leader Patrick Stickney spoke a note of caution earlier this year when he urged the Planning Committee to take action on an ordinance before May.  After that time, students finish the trimester and, for all intents and purposes, do not return until late September.  So the discussion on rental health and safety now continues, in effect,  without the spokespersons for a group of 10,000 renters.  This undermines the public process and deprives the city council and the city staff of valuable input.  Meanwhile, the landlords and their paid lobbyists can continue unabated their efforts to influence. 

Having been a budget manager for the last 10 years or so of my federal career, I well understand the concerns of the Mayor and her attempts to put the city’s fiscal house in order by establishing and sticking by budget priorities.  At the same time, the city ought to be able to contend with priority issues that gain importance even after budget decisions have been made.  Surely such priority issues encompass threats to health and safety.  I find it difficult to yield to calls for other items of a budgetary nature when rental health and safety has been on the radar for more than a decade and at a time when $1,500,000 of general fund money goes yearly to supporting a museum department.   I love museums.  I have visited them all over the world but I would trade any one of them for a human life or the well-being of tens of thousands of renters. 

I am also concerned that too much is being made of the “stats” provided by the Planning Department at the last Planning Ccommittee work session.  [Click here to view the video at 92.40 on the counter] These were actually no stats at all.  No specific numbers were given.  Only a generalized characterization of the complaints over the last several years was made.  Compounding this lack of specifics was the application of percentages to numbers that were not provided, such as how many of these complaints concerned rentals.  The response was 15% but 15% of what?  To draw any sort of conclusions from the presentation from Planning is not helpful in the least, especially since as  Council member Weiss pointed out so clearly, there are already two surveys extant [here and here]  that plainly arrive at the same conclusions which are that we have a serious problem with conditions of rentals in this town.

All the talk of making it easier for students or renters to contact the city or an ombudsman or a campus entity still does not solve the issue of fear of retaliation, ignorance of dangerous conditions, or downright indifference (even indifferent renters deserve to be in a safe place and certainly their neighbors deserve not to be placed in danger).   Similarly, building a program on an ineffective system that is already in place is problematic and only serves to delay the implementation of a demonstrably effective program undertaken in hundreds of cities. Complaint driven systems do not work (I again pointed the committee to the CDC report [click here] that actually studied the problem.). 

The endless iterations of discussion of this issue over the past decade have not changed any of the facts.  We still are dealing with a recalcitrant landlord population that fights tooth and nail any suggestion of inspection of their self-professed well-cared-for rental units.   They speak of their desire to see “bad landlords” shut down but offer no viable means to do so.  Even their professional organizations whose representatives constantly assure us that their industry is safe but for the few “bad apples” have not sanctioned a single landlord or brought any “bad apple” to the attention of the city.  Once and for all the rental industry is a business and businesses are regulated for the health and safety of the population that they serve and from whom they extract a significant amount of money.  All businesses in town are subject to some sort of control from some statutory entity even if it is the location of the fire doors. 

A mandatory inspection program that involves ALL Bellingham rentals solves the issues around reporting and education.  Other cities do inspection regimes successfully and certainly we can do similarly with the approximately $400,000+ the registrations fees are likely to bring in.  I invite the Planning Committee, the Mayor and the other members of the City Council to read my November 2010 email [reproduced below] to this same Planning Committee of which Council members Weiss and Lilliquist were members at the time.  We continue to turn ‘round and ‘round the same mulberry bush which is that of a vigorous program of mandatory inspections.  I cannot fathom the continued resistance to inspecting all properties especially if the fees will cover the cost.  

From: richard conoboy  
Sent: Monday, November 01, 2010 12:07 PM
To: 'Seth Fleetwood'; 'jweiss@cob.org'; 'tbornemann@cob.org'; 'MLilliquist@cob.org'
Subject: Thoughts on Rental Licensing Worksession of the Planning/Neighborhoods and Community Development Committee

Dear Committee Members,

There seemed to be several discernible areas of discussion at your 27 Oct  work session on rental licensing in Council chambers.  I would like to comment on each.

License rentals but retain a complaint based system.   That is essentially what Bellingham has at this moment absent the licenses.  The city is not flooded with complaints for the simple reason that complaint based systems do not work.  I have already sent to the Council a copy of a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study that determined that tenant complaint based systems are ineffectual.  I have attached the study again for your information.  It is not entirely clear why the Council  and your committee want to revisit this issue each time they meet.  Again, I will quote the first paragraph of the CDC paper:

“Code enforcement systems that operate solely in response to tenant complaints, although the prevailing norm nationwide, are highly ineffective and have limited impact.  This approach fosters the decline of rental housing conditions since tenants may not know how to register complaints or may be reluctant to complain out of fear of retaliation by the landlord.  In contrast to sole reliance on complaint-based approaches, proactive, periodic inspection programs can advance primary prevention more meaningfully. “

I might add that neither the landlord nor the tenant is aware of many life threatening conditions. 

Which brings me to…

Education as an approach:  I am interested in the methodology that the Council might employ to educate the tenants of 17,000 rental units.  Even if there were an efficient and inexpensive method to reach all of these people at least once, what level of expertise on the condition of properties might one impart to this highly varied group?   (Not only that, each year Western Washington University alone deposits about 4,000 new renters into our neighborhoods as the freshman class leaves the dorms.)  This educational approach is no more than a close corollary of the complaint based system for it depends entirely on the tenant to move forward on a complaint after finding (with every limited knowledge and skills)  a hazardous condition.  I refer you again to the CDC report.  As for educating landlords, the same condition applies.  How does one educate a property owner sufficiently to identify serious or hidden defects in a rental unit?  Nevertheless, the self-described  “rental industry” claims that there are only a few bad apples, although the manner in which they have come to this conclusion is not evident not having had any training.  If they have some information about these bad apples, let them come forward and save everyone the time and effort to inspect all these properties.  Do the landlords even have a list of all the rental properties in town?   If they do not have a list, then the city would have to create and maintain a list, if only for the purpose of “educating” them, let alone finding the properties with appalling conditions – all those bad apples that the “rental industry” tells us about. 

NB.  One might also, while we are at it, ask that the city approach the Health Department to demand that it stop the health and safety inspections of restaurants.  Instead the Health Department can establish a website where a checklist for restaurants will be posted so that diners can carry out their own inspections before having a meal.  Would not that inspire confidence in our eateries?  We can also get rid of several FTEs of food inspectors for additional savings for Whatcom County.  J

Which brings me to…

Identifying rental properties:  As some say, this should not be rocket science.  The County Assessor maintains a comprehensive data base of all property owners and their holdings.  For those properties for which the mailing address differs from the property address, one can rightly assume that the property is rented.  Thus identified, to be exempt,  the property owner would have to demonstrate that he or she is, in fact, living at the property.   Stiff fines for misrepresentation or failure to register a rental would discourage scofflaws. Of course, creating the data base implies resources.

Which brings me to…

Identifying start-up costs:   Anything short of a licensing and inspection program is essentially ineffective, so I will not dwell on the costs of any lesser measures.  It is preferable that the Council do nothing at all rather than adopt a program that places a thin veneer over the issue that gives the appearance of having done something substantial for the health and safety of our renters.  Again, I would refer the committee and the Council to the City of Pasco where they have already have done all this preparatory work and whose code enforcement officer has already indicated to me his willingness to assist us.  The fact that we are facing tough budget times is no reason to be timid before a health and safety issue.  The cost for the portion of an FTE needed to establish the data base of landlords probably could have been covered by the price of the new truck that was recently bought for the Neighborhood Compliance Officer.  The city might also look to volunteers to assist in scrubbing the Whatcom Assessor’s property records to establish a Bellingham rental data base for licensing purposes.  I would volunteer and might easily find several others to join me in the project.

Looking for meaning in data on complaints to date:  Some on the committee seek to find meaning in the statistics on property related complaints filed over the past several years.  The assumption is that these complaints are indicative of the problem so that lack of complaints equals lack of problem.  More confusing is that the reporting on complaints mixes all sorts of property issues such as lack of permits and violations of various and unrelated city codes.  The number of complaints about dangerous conditions in rentals is, therefore, extremely small in number but given the inability of renters to recognize dangerous situations and their reticence in making a complaint to the city, this is not surprising.   Having only a handful of complaints each year on a rental stock of 17,000 units should be a surprise to all.  That either means that we have a pristine rental market or, as the CDC report says: complaint based systems do not work and we have a hidden problem.  You chose the most plausible.   As the celebrated scientist Carl Sagan once declared, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  The Council would do well not to draw conclusions from this gloubi boulga of limited statistics. 


Dick Conoboy