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

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