Monday, April 14, 2014

Six Rental Fires and a Meth Contamination since 2011.

In mid-February a group of five WWU female students were the victims of a 
fire which left the Garden St. home they rented uninhabitable (see photos).
Hole made by firefighters
Fire burned through roof at top
  The young women escaped unharmed but lost much of their possessions to the flames or smoke and water damage.  The cause of the fire is still undetermined as the fire department awaits the actions of one of the insurance companies that may perform its own investigation.  Absent arson, the determination of the cause and any attendant fault, often falls to the insurance companies, some of which are not eager to share the information they gather.  One of the residents claimed that the fire was electrical in origin, however, the fire marshal was not able to confirm that the cause was in the electrical system.  Although the home was old, the electrical system had been updated.

This is the sixth rental home fire since 2011.  Let us review these fires to see if any of them qualify as having been reported under Bellingham's current complaint-driven system that many, mostly landlords, insist is perfectly adequate.  Let us also look at the meth contaminated rental that sickened its occupants.

1404 Grant St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts in electrical junction box.  Tenants had noted problems with electrical system and alerted landlord several times.  Landlord failed to act.   No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1418 Ellis St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts when loosely connected electrical fan on apartment heater system falls to the floor and ignites carpeting.  Officials also find house rewired without permits.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

718 E. Maple St. on 30 Nov 2011.   Fire starts behind couch.  Possible cause is heater in proximity to combustible upholstery.  Tenants unaware. No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1208 24th St. on 1 Jan 2012.  Fire starts near baseboard heater that is fed by nearby and notoriously dangerous aluminum branch wiring.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

2338 Humboldt St. on 6 Mar 2013.  Electrical fire starts in attic.  Very old rental with frayed knob and tube wiring. Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

1117 Garden St. on 19 Feb 2014.  Fire, possibly electric in origin, starts inside wall near kitchen.  Tenants unaware except shortly before fire breaks out.  No prior report to the city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

 618 Myrtle St. on 4 Nov 1013.   Student renters become ill after moving in.  Complaints made to landlord.  No action.  Renters contact the Health Department and made to pay for inspection.  Meth contamination confirmed.  House condemned.  No prior report made to city.

Complaint-driven system PARTIAL FAIL.

As far as I can tell, Bellingham's complaint-driven system failed miserably in all of these cases.  On what basis might one defend it then?  Beats me.  Complaint- driven systems are inherently and demonstrably unable to capture the extent of the danger presented by poorly maintained and un-inspected rental housing.  Furthermore, there is no reason to hang onto the shaky remnants of such code enforcement systems and "build" upon them.  It is a waste of effort, time and money. The city's own inadequate and poorly presented statistics on the risibly few reported violations are prima facie evidence that you cannot count on the knowledge of either the tenant or the landlord when it comes to assessing the condition of a rental home.

We need a system like so many other across the country in which periodic inspections are made of all rental unitsWashington State law specifically provides for this. 

Will someone have to die in one of these rentals before we establish an effective program to inspect them?  We almost achieved that with the 24th St. fire where several were grievously injured.  Since these registration/licensing and inspection programs can easily pay for themselves from the fees gathered, whose interests are being served by not creating a robust ordinance?

The mayor and her staff will be proposing a plan and a draft ordinance in the next few days.  Pay attention to the inspection portion of what comes forward.  If that is missing or weak, we essentially continue our present complaint-driven system with its terrible consequences.

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