Thursday, June 5, 2014

Rental Health and Safety Chugs Along at City Council

The effort to bring a minimum level of health and safety to the renters of thousands and thousands of rental units in Bellingham chugs along with another meeting of the Planning Committee of the city council this coming Monday.  There is a lot not to recommend the draft ordinance in its present form.  To that end, I have sent the following commentary to the city council.

"Dear Council Members,

I have reviewed the redraft of the rental safety ordinance provided in the agenda packet for the 9 Jun Planning Committee meeting  [then click on agenda item 20382] and have the following comments:

Paragraph 6.15.030 B  states that “ cosmetic conditions that do not affect structural systems, fire safety systems, sanitation components or weather resistive systems shall not be considered as part of any declaration of compliance or certificate of inspection required under this chapter.”   I would suggest adding “electrical systems” which do not appear to be captured by the categories already stated.

The ordinance 6.15.040 B 4 further states that no fee is required for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) when the owner resides in either the single-family residence or the ADU.   The idea behind this is that an owner, if living on the property, will pay more attention to either the ADU or the main home.  Perhaps one might make a case for this if the owner lives in an attached ADU or the main house as he/she will be living under the same conditions as the renter and subject to the same dangers.   With unattached ADUs the dynamic is different, the danger to the owner is less or not present.  For that reason unattached ADUs and/or the main dwelling on the property ought to come completely under this ordinance and pay the required fee.

6.15.040 requires a Declaration of Compliance. “As a condition to the issuance and/or renewal of a residential rental registration, an applicant shall provide a valid Declaration of Compliance prior to  the issuance of a registration. A Declaration of Compliance submitted under this chapter must state that each unit complies with the requirements and standards listed in BMC 6.15.050.-B.1-13 and/or authorized under BMC 6.15.050.C using a checklist provided by the City, and state that there are no conditions presented in the units that endanger or impair or could endanger or impair the health or safety of a tenant.”  This is an unwarranted requirement to place upon a property owner who is not trained to make such declarations.  Such declarations, if made, will present a false notion to potential renters that somehow the rental unit is a safe and healthy one.  This is a disservice to our renters as well as being superfluous.

The continued call for an annual audit of merely no more than .5% of the city’s rental units is a ridiculously small number from which to gain any useful information that may be extrapolated to estimate the condition of rest of the rental housing stock.  Again, I refer you to my comments in an earlier email to the council that gives a real world picture of an existing inspection regime.

'After the presentation by Jeff Thomas on the rental ordinance budget estimates at the council’s Planning Committee meeting last Monday morning,  I phoned Debbie Scott, a senior code enforcement officer in Pasco, WA.   They have had an inspection program for over 15 years.  I went over with her some of the information that you received from the Planning Dept that morning and got a quite different story from her.  

She has been inspecting rental units in Pasco for 13 years.  Here is her experience.  A single family home rental takes about 20 minutes to inspect.  For apartment buildings, they do about 10% of the units.  Accordingly, in a 100 unit building she looks at 10 units (unless she begins to find more problems) and is done in about an hour.   She schedules inspections at about 30 minute intervals so that she can write up reports, call owners, etc.  A single inspector usually can do about 8 (maybe more) at day unless the inspector encounters a really bad property, then the number of inspections would drop to about 4 or so since they may have to immediately get people out of an uninhabitable unit.  The first round of inspections in Pasco 15 years ago (about 4,000 units) was done by one inspector in a two year time period.   Scheduling may be an issue from time to time but they pretty well have it down to a science.'

Based on the above, my contention is that the staff has grossly overestimated/inflated the cost of providing inspections at various levels and that we can, with a reasonable fee per unit, engage in a systematic inspection (using city inspectors) of all rental units at the rate of 20% per year, or 2,600 to 2,800 units (by inspecting, for example, only 10% of units within apartment complexes the actual number of inspected dwelling units would be greatly reduced) .  I refer you to the agenda packet item prepared by Mark Gardner with the comparative costs/estimates of programs in other cities and of options with respect to Bellingham.  See attached.

The draft ordinance paragraph 6.15.170 provides for a City Council Review and Sunset Provision. “Before January 1, 2019, the City Council shall review the chapter's effects on the community and the problems the chapter was intended to remedy and shall repeal, continue or modify this chapter. Failure by the City Council to act in accordance with this section shall cause this chapter to expire at 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2019.”   This is a totally unnecessary limitation to the ordinance which can be repealed at any time by an act of the city council.   Because of restrictive portions of the ordinance, such as the audit of no more than .5% of the units, a future council will have little in the way of statistically valid information (approximately 200 inspected units maximum) on which to base a judgment regarding the efficacy of the program.  This sunset clause can only be a sop to those who oppose this ordinance by providing an expectation that the ordinance will be allowed to languish into oblivion by a future council without a cumbersome debate.

The changing of the name of the ordinance to Residential Safety Program seems odd in that any reference to rentals has been omitted.  This ordinance is about health and safety of housing units that are not merely “residential” but specifically offered for occupancy by an owner for a price.   I suggest the ordinance be properly identified as applying to rentals, e.g.,  Residential Rental Safety Program. 

I would also like to point out that there is a growing proliferation of so-called “vacation homes” for rent within the city limits.  These homes, if not otherwise actually occupied by the owner for  a significant period of the year or licensed to operate as a transient rental, ought to fall under this ordinance.  It is not altogether clear that this is the case according to 6.15.020 V regarding transients.  For an idea regarding vacation rentals I refer you to [this] site that lists such homes.  (Note: some of the rentals listed are in Whatcom County)."

I encourage my readers to contact the city council at to encourage them to pass an ordinance that calls for the inspection of all rental units.  We have already had several renters seriously burned in a preventable rental fire while nearly two dozen have lost their residences and belongings because of fire or contamination.  

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