Sunday, April 20, 2014

Comments on Mayor's Proposed Ordinance for Rental Registration

I have sent the email below to the city council's Planning Committee to voice my concerns regarding the proposed ordinance to ensure the health and safety of the renters in Bellingham.   They will meet to consider this agenda bill at 10:30am on 21 April in council chambers.

From: richard conoboy
Sent: Sunday, April 20, 2014 4:50 PM
To: 'Weiss, Jack'; ''; ''
Cc: ''; 'Lilliquist, Michael W.'; ''; ''; 'Linville, Kelli J.'; ''; ''; ''
Subject: Mayor's Rental Registration Proposal

Members of the Planning Committee,

I have had the opportunity to review the proposal by the mayor for registration and inspection of rental units (Agenda Bill 20382) and would like to offer several preliminary comments to you prior to the Planning Committee meeting [on Monday].   That being said, I would like to say also that it is obvious that a lot of work went into this draft ordinance and that not all portions are insufficient to the task of ensuring the health and safety of our renters.  Such parts of this draft should be maintained.  There are some major problems, nevertheless, and these I outline below.

Regrettably, the essence of this proposed ordinance is a continuation of the current complaint-driven system with the addition of registration and a dollop of self-certification.  Without a strong, comprehensive and cyclical inspection system of all units predominantly carried out by city employed-code inspectors, substandard housing will continue.  We know that complaint-driven systems do not work.  For evidence look at the past 50 years or so.  If this system had worked, we would not be discussing this issue today.

The self-certification component is essentially asking that a landlord act as an inspector.  No one has been able to demonstrate that either landlords or tenants have sufficient knowledge of building issues (even if provided a checklist) to make determinations about health and safety problems.  Were landlords so capable, professional inspectors would already be out of a job and the state and professional certification of code inspectors would have no purpose.  Such a requirement for self-certification is not likely to produce safer units but to lull both landlord and tenant into a false sense of security.  What happens after the first electrical fire maims or kills a tenant after the landlord self-certifies that the rental unit’s electrical system is just hunky-dory?  What takes place after a landlord is unable to recognize that the deck at the back of his unit is structurally unsound and it collapses with a dozen party-goers on it?

The provision for an “audit”  of  “no more than”  .5% of the registered rentals each year is a manifestly insufficient replacement for cyclical inspections of all units.  .5% is equal to approximately 65 units based on the city’s estimate of 13,000 rental units eligible to be brought into the system.  In fact, the ordinance does not even require the inspection of the maximum number of units under the .5% rule but any number up to the equivalent of .5%.   So the city could safely inspect anywhere from 1 to 65 units and call it a job done – requirement met.  Even at 65 units per year, it will take the city about 200 years to eventually inspect/audit all the units. 

The 3 year sunset provision is unnecessarily short and perhaps even unnecessary.  The city has to have some leeway for start-up time to register all rental units and then begin inspections.  On what basis will a future city council decide  3 years hence that the ordinance is successful?   How many units will have been inspected under this proposal by the sunset date – 65?  130? maximum, maybe?   That about equals the same useless statistical data and basis for action that the enforcement staff presented to the city council months ago about code enforcement complaints received in recent years. 

There should be no exemption for detached ADUs and  carriage houses associated with single family homes.   Given that these units are separate, even owner occupation of one of the units is not sufficient incentive that the owner will routinely take care of the other, separate unit in which the renters live.   Look right now at all the unregistered and poorly maintained detached ADUs where the owner is living in the main unit.  In fact, the incentive is to rent both the main house and the ADU/Carriage house to make additional money.  Duplexes and single family rental homes in which the landlord lives in an attached ADU or in one of the duplex units might well be appropriately exempt.  With the landlord actually living under the same roof and physically sharing the same quality of maintenance, the incentive for safety becomes a tad more personal to the owner.

Last, I think the stated purpose in the introduction of the draft ordinance should be made stronger by saying “ensuring the proper maintenance of residential rental housing” .  The idea of merely “encouraging” landlords to maintain their units is not a sufficiently strong statement.  We do not encourage builders to adhere to building codes but require them to do so.  Why should we only “encourage” landlords to maintain rental units for which members of the public will pay money to live?


Dick Conoboy
Bellingham, WA


Anonymous said...


What sort of problem do you expect to resolve with your Landlord licensing and rental inspection proposals?

My experience with rental life safety issues indicates that most hazards are caused by the tenants themselves, by plugging in too many devices into old wiring systems not designed for 2014 usage. This is not typical (of course most apartments do not burn down), but does seem to be the leading cause of failed apartment housing. The only way this hazard might be avoided is to have a professional determine load capacity of the existing wiring and then closely monitor the tenants to not exceed this capacity. The remedy will be onerous, tearing out walls to add electrical capacity, capacity that is not needed by the majority of tenants.

As remedial work is likely to exceed City of Bellingham authority, the exercise will become a bureaucratic requirement only with no material improvement in rental life safety issues. The large rental companies will have their lawyers draft risk mitigating paperwork to be in place as soon as the new requirement is codified, and the small landlords will be faced with another expense that gets eventually passed on to the tenant.


Zonemaven said...


Thanks for taking the time to comment. Indeed, checking the electrical system would be a component of any inspection program. They have had such an inspection program in Pasco for the last 15 years or more and none of the terrible consequences that you describe have come to pass. There is no horrendous bureaucracy and no flurry of action from attorneys. I get many comments about gloom and doom if this city begins to look at the condition of the rentals. We are not looking for fault to be specified for either tenants or landlords. An inspection is a neutral review of the condition of a unit to prevent accidents, injuries and death not to assign blame. All will benefit.

I would be interested in your providing some examples of cities where these rental inspections have produced the results you describe.