Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Council Planning Committee Continues Rental Health and Safety Discussion

The Planning Committee of the Bellingham City Council will continue its discussion of the health and safety issues with respect to rental housing on Monday, 25 February at 10:30am in council chambers at city hall.  The topic for this meeting will be the creation of a list of conditions that could be subject of an inspection of a rental unit.  You can view some of the documents that will feed the discussion by clicking here, here and here

I have asked Council Member Weiss, who chairs the committee, to also add the problem of mold to the lists.  Also, under the category of electrical systems, I suggested the inclusion of the hidden problem of aluminum wiring.  This topic arose after a fire in a duplex unit on 24th St. in early 2012.  The unit was found to have aluminum wiring.  See the story at my blog entry here.  Former Fire Chief Boyd told me at the time that aluminum wiring scares him to death.  Many homes build in the 1970s were wired with aluminum and some of these homes are now rentals.  Renters are sitting on a powder keg.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A Window into Rental Conditions

A short while ago, I connected with a young man (whom I will call Warren) whose job it is to clean apartments and other rentals at the end of lease periods.  Warren offered a window into the type of health and safety issues one finds in such rentals.  His accounts are all the more disturbing in that this cleaning company has standards that tend to make problem landlords, looking for a cheap deal, go elsewhere for their cleaning services.  What Warren sees then are mostly the "good" rentals.

Topping the list of the problems is mold.  For a good number of us who are not sensitive to mold spores, the presence of mold may just be a nuisance or an eyesore.  However, mold may also indicate a persistent problem with plumbing or general humidity which could eventually be destructive to plaster, drywall and flooring.  For some unfortunate few, mold is a chronic irritant to the lungs and may produce more serious problems.  The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America* has this to say about mold:  

"Mold spores can deposit on the lining of the nose and cause hay fever symptoms. They also can reach the lungs, to cause asthma or another serious illness called allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Sometimes the reaction is immediate, and sometimes the reaction is delayed. Symptoms often worsen in a damp or moldy room such as a basement; this may suggest mold allergy."

Also related to mold and, moreover to filth, is rotten carpeting.  Warren described to me an instance where a landlord, who has about 8 rental units in Bellingham, pulled carpeting from a dumpster to save money and had it installed in a rental unit.  He then asked Warren to clean the carpet which, of course, was dirty with stains of unknown origin from its stay in the dumpster or its previous use in a dwelling unit.  The only upside was that the dumpster carpet was less filthy than the carpet that had previously been in the unit.  Warren also indicated that common areas in apartments are often the site of the most filth since renters only pass through these places and often ignore the problems.  He was once called in to clean a common area hall carpet on which someone had vomited a week before.  Nobody had complained for days while the residents used the hallway as usual.

Since Warren and his colleagues use electrical equipment to clean various parts of rentals, the ability of the system to handle the load is important.  It is not unusual for the circuit breakers to trip while these cleanups are in progress.  These incidents indicate an outdated electrical system.  Such systems can easily be the cause of electrical fires.  Four WWU students were burned out of their home in 2011.  They had repeatedly reported to the landlord that the circuit breakers were tripping.  Renters are more and more apt to bring with them a host of electronic devices such as televisions, computers, printers, game consoles and DVD players, not to mention telephones that need charging regularly.  Other tenants buy electric space-heaters to deal with heating systems that work poorly thus putting tremendous demands on the electrical system.

The lack of three-pronged (grounded) plugs is also a problem for Warren and his fellow workers, so each truck is equipped with plug adapters which, in effect, defeat the purpose of the three prong grounding.  Worse yet,  Warren noted, is the lack of the proper ground fault interrupters in the bathrooms and kitchens.  More commonly known as GFIs, these plugs are designed to sense a change in current in the hot and neutral wires.  This type of plug will trip a breaker within the device and stop the current flow.  This is especially handy when it is a person who becomes involved in the current flow - commonly known as electrocution.  A typical GFI plug for the kitchen or bathroom costs less than $20 and can be installed in minutes.

Warren has also run into situations in which a toilet has overflowed at one point with the water travelling through the floor and into another unit.  This, of course, contaminates everything that has been soaked with this "black water"  (what we call sewage).  Repairs (mostly cosmetic) have then been made to the flooring around the toilet without further repairing or removing other contaminated material such as drywall or insulation.  

As part of their services, Warren and his colleagues also haul junk from rentals, usually from unused basements where material has been gather dust for years.  Some areas, he has found, have been contaminated with cat urine which has a distinctive odor.  The problem is not so much one for the renters but for those who have to eventually clean these areas as they are exposed (if not wearing proper protective gear) not only to dust and animal urine but also fecal matter from mice and rats.  Dried fecal matter can become airborne and when breathed in can be the transmission vector for many diseases, among which is the Hantavirus that can be fatal in humans.  Nonetheless, renters need be alert for rodent infestations.  I reported on one such infestation, of an especially egregious nature, in the York Neighborhood in 2011.

As the summer ends and the August/September turnover of leases (mostly students) begins, Warren is called in for his cleaning services.  His experience is that landlords, not wishing to lose a day of rent, will schedule the move-out and move-in within a single 24 hour period.  New renters often sleep in their U-Haul trucks parked in the driveway of the rental so that they can move in on a moment's notice. This allows little time for cleaning crews to do a good job and practically no time for the incoming renters to adequately inspect the unit, even if they knew in the first place what they were looking for in the way of health and safety problems.  

I invite my readers to take a second look at the survey of rental conditions conducted by several WWU campus groups in  2011.  The results confirm the experience of Warren and his fellow workers.

*Blue type indicates clickable links.