Thursday, February 13, 2014

Meth Contaminated Rental Shut Down

Methamphetamine contaminated rental
If the Bellingham City Council finally gets around to enacting a rental health and safety ordinance in 2014, they can add another item to the health and safety inspection checklist for all rentals in Bellingham...contamination with methamphetamine.

On 6 December the student newspaper, The Western Front, reported on a rental home occupied by several WWU students that had been contaminated with methamphetamine, presumably from actions of a previous renter.  You can read the Western Front article here. [Photo by Dick Conoboy at left]

The house is located at 618 E. Myrtle St near the WWU campus and is owned by a couple who live in Blaine according to the Whatcom County Assessor's site.  (Click here to view the property report.)  County records also reveal that the couple owns another home on Pine St. in Bellingham that is also a rental.  As indicated in the Western Front article the rental on E. Myrtle St. was managed by All County Property Management (sic).   According to the Western Front, the property has since been condemned for further occupation, a fact that I was able to confirm during a phone call with All County Properties owner, Bethany, on 9 December. Bethany also stated that the owners of the rental were not aware of the contamination issue.  As of 21 January, the house was still unfit for occupancy according to Jeff Hegedus of the Whatcom County Health Department. 

The property management firm, All County Properties (the actual name of the firm), also claimed ignorance of the contamination according to the tenants.  This I confirmed during my phone conversation with the management company's owner.  It is not altogether clear how the tenants learned of the contamination (there are competing stories), the fact is that it is the tenants who contacted the Health Department and paid for the testing.  It is good that they did so given that the house walls contained 13 times the legal limit of methamphetamine contamination. [As far as I am concerned, any contamination regardless of the level is unacceptable.] A basic test kit costs about $80 and can be used to test one or two areas.  Testing more surfaces or objects will require more test kits. This scenario reinforces my contention that landlords cannot be depended upon to discover or even act upon, on their own, dangerous defects in their own rentals.  

So, these unfortunate students then found themselves scrambling for lodging at the end of the fall quarter when they should have been reviewing and studying for final exams that week. The management firm's owner did tell me that she offered some alternative housing to the tenants but that they refused.  I have not been able to confirm this with the renters but they have all since relocated. 

According to the Western Front, one of the renters stated that "even though they have a good case against the property management, their lawyers don’t believe they have a strong enough case to get more than their rent back and compensation for personal damages." With an effective rental licensing and inspection ordinance, renters might avoid having to take landlords to court.  This state of affairs is the result of a toothless and ineffective Washington State landlord-tenant law which largely states that landlords and tenants alike have the right to duke it out in court - if you have the money.  Court is an expensive process as attorneys do not work on the cheap.   Therefore, not many renters, be they students or not, have the wherewithal for legal action.  That is the reason for which the city must step in by enacting a comprehensive ordinance to preclude dangerous rental units from being on the market in the first place.

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