Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rental Safety and Health - Report on the City Council Hearing of 27 Oct

At times, I find that another publication has presented such a succinct summary of the rental licensing and inspection issue here in Bellingham that it would serve little to write separately on the issue.  The article below is from the 29 Oct 2014 of the Cascadia Weekly in the Gristle*, written by Tim Johnson.  It was penned just after a three hour hearing at the city council wherein the public commented on a version of a registration-only rental health and safety ordinance that had been submitted by council member Roxanne Murphy.

Of note but not mentioned in the article was the announcement by council member Terry Bornemann that he would be supportive of rental registration with some form of inspection. 

See No Evil, Speak No Evil

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

SEE NO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL: The end was in the beginning; and after a long, long and ambitious evening session filled with impassioned testimony on the issue of landlord licensing, Bellingham City Council appears ready to approve what was first set in front of them uncolored by the passion. They were determined not to kick the can down the road—though kick it they did, to another special work session in November to again consider testimony—and determined to resolve something on a rental housing registration concept that has boomeranged around the halls of city government for more than two decades. Beyond that, they’re determined not to do very much.

Bellingham City Council veteran Gene Knutson, who was feeling unwell, was excused from the meeting at 10:30pm, prompting council to continue their deliberations at a later date bolstered by additional information from staff. Council pressed on, completing city business at midnight. Gene also represents the very philosophic and historic heart of this ages-old issue—determined to do something, yes, about improving the health and safety of rentals; at a loss to know quite what to do, or to what extent to do it.

“If we’re going to do something,” Gene grumbled, “we need to do it. Either way, we need to move on. For God’s sake, let’s get this done before the end of the year.”

But moving on without achieving something meaningful only invites the issue back, and this issue has been bouncing back to Gene on council for 20 years.

On paper before them, City Council faces a mingy, bare bones licensing program that would place a little sticker somewhere in each of 6,000 rental units [Zonemaven note:  There are actually 17,000+ rental units in Bellingham of which about 3,000 are under another inspection regime such as HUD.  The 14,000 remaining units are found in 6,000 properties.] with a phone number renters can call when they perceive their health is in danger. This renters were already free to do. How might they know they’re in danger? Shrug. The proposed ordinance exempts entire classes of rental properties and provides little incentive for the classes that remain to comply. Scofflaws of the sort a rental inspection program was intended to bring into line can easily scoff off the passive requirements of this complaint-driven program.

Here’s the essential takeway: When a program is introduced to change the status quo and the beneficiaries of the status quo praise its final form and fall upon one another with fierce hugs of triumphant joy, you know the program you introduced hasn’t accomplished much to change the status quo. If it doesn’t change the status quo, what’s the point of the legislation?

Council’s current proposal does nothing to shift the power imbalance between those who hold all the rights of property owners versus those who hold few of those rights as tenants, yet who nevertheless form roughly half the city’s population. This is not democracy; this is rentier capitalism unchecked. The proposed ordinance does very little to improve health and safety beyond what’s already available in the legal toolkit.

“A complaint-based system does not work,” the York Neighborhood Association board asserted in comments to council. “It has failed in Bellingham and other cities. It puts the burden on the tenant to fight one-on-one with the landlord who has an unfair advantage and can retaliate by raising the rent, not giving a good reference, or just ignoring the complaint altogether, which does happen.”

A more robust proposal that included a modest audit of the interiors of Bellingham’s rental housing stock (currently obtainable only through warrant and judicial process) was driven off the rails earlier this year by Council member Roxanne Murphy, who proposed a model similar to one she was familiar with in the City of Tacoma: The exteriors of units provide sufficient evidence about the interiors of units; a trimmed lawn correlates with an IEEE-approved UL-compliant breaker box.

This is obviously an error in class and in kind: Bellingham does not have blighted or shabby boroughs that reveal themselves on pass-through. It does have a large number of rentals converted by builders of all skill ranges from aging housing stock in well-maintained neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Murphy’s passionate advocacy for a “see no evil, speak no evil” minimalist approach drew support from the target audience of landlords and property managers who in turn have knocked away the pins in support of a more robust program. Faced with division and aggressive counterfactuals, council policy has descended to the lowest common points upon which they might all agree.

“It’s not about loud parties, garbage, and unmowed lawns,” York board members commented. “Other enforcement tools exist to manage nuisances. No enforcement tools exist to evaluate the internal conditions of Bellingham’s rental housing. It’s about decent housing for all and thriving neighborhoods. Bellingham’s neighborhoods, particularly the older ones, are a patchwork quilt of decaying, neglected properties amongst well-maintained historic housing.”

Judging from the public testimony of landlords, tenants and property managers, 95 percent of Bellingham’s rental housing is in great shape, hurrah. From what data does this estimate arrive? Apparently (but by no means certainly) from complaints in the system about the remaining 5 percent of stock submitted by tenants who risk reprisal in the form of eviction and loss of referrals and deposits. It’s a spurious statistic—it might even be true—but the proposed ordinance does nothing to improve collection of this data, which in early years might just be the most important component of a licensing program: actual facts upon which to frame wise policy.

Imagine if the city monitored its restaurants in the same way, based on customer complaints of gagging and stomach pains. A list on the city’s website of eateries that do not induce gastric suffering.

Oy, no wonder Gene was feeling unwell! Get well.

* Reproduced with Permission of the author.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

York Neighborhood Supports Rental Registration AND Inspections

The York Neighborhood has just sent (see below) a second letter this year to the City Council in support of a Rental Health and Safety Ordinance in Bellingham.  York joins with other neighborhoods that have already gone on the record with the City Council in support of not only licensing but inspecting all rentals.  You can read the letters of the other neighborhoods that have joined in this call for action by clicking on the name of the neighborhood:  Samish, Fairhaven, Sehome, and WWU (Associated Students). The Roosevelt Neighborhood also voiced support of an ordinance in a statement to the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission at its July meeting. 

There will be a hearing on this proposal next Monday, evening, October 27th at the 7pm City Council meeting.  You can sign up after 6:30pm to speak in support of adding an inspections component to the draft "registration-only" ordinance to be considered.  Tell the council that a rental registration ordinance only perpetuates the current failed system and that regular inspections are required to protect the 40,000 or more Bellingham citizens who live in rentals. To view the hearing materials click here and then scroll to and click on Agenda item 20382.

Here is the York Neighborhood letter:

October 20, 2014

Dear City Council:

We are writing to urge you to support a Rental Health and Safety Ordinance that will include mandatory inspections of properties. On January 11, 2011, there were two fires in the York Neighborhood – both preventable and both related to poor maintenance by the property owners.

One fire at 1408 Grant St. happened in the middle of the night while the three tenants were sleeping. One of them got up to get something to eat and heard the fire in the attic as a piece of the ceiling fell into the second floor bathroom. Fortunately, all three escaped unharmed. The cause of the fire, as reported by the Fire Marshall Jason Napier,was “electrical failure” and “malfunction” in the electrical junction box in the attic. There were no working smoke alarms in the house.

The second fire happened earlier the same day at 1418 Ellis St. The cause of the fire was a fan that was part of the heating system was not properly bolted on; it fell to the floor and caught the rug on fire. Fire Marshall Jason Napier reported: “The building was rewired by the owner some years ago. None of it was ever inspected for code compliance.”

We do not think these failures in rental property maintenance are an anomaly. We

believe our city has numerous properties that would not pass a basic building safety inspection. Housing safety standards should be enforced through an inspection program, with expert guidance on how to fix problems. Enforcement should include penalties. An inspection “check-list,” such as the one used for Section 8 housing is 1½ pages and is a subset of the building code. It is a fair and reasonable list of basic safety expectations. A “registry” of rental properties does nothing to create better code enforcement.

A complaint-based system does not work. It has failed in Bellingham and other cities. It puts the burden on the tenant to fight one-on-one with the landlord who has an unfair advantage and can retaliate by raising the rent, not giving a good reference, or just ignoring the complaint all together which does happen.

We support “healthy homes” for our city. Half of our city’s housing is rentals and are an essential part of the community’s quality of life. Substandard housing creates hazards for the tenants, neighbors and deteriorates our neighborhoods.

We urge the City Council to proactively regulate the rental industry. Rentals are

businesses, and like other businesses they should be expected to comply with licensing, inspections and oversight. Treating rentals as businesses is a fair practice.

It’s not about loud parties, garbage, and unmowed lawns. Other enforcement tools exist to manage nuisances. No enforcement tools exist to evaluate the internal conditions of Bellingham’s rental housing. It’s about decent housing for all and thriving neighborhoods. Bellingham’s neighborhoods, particularly the older ones, are a patchwork quilt of decaying, neglected properties amongst well-maintained historic housing.

Please vote to support rental licensing with inspections.


Members of the York Neighborhood Association Board

Don Hilty-Jones - President

Mark Schofield - Vice President

Anne Mackie - Secretary

Lisa Anderson - Treasurer

At-Large Board Members: Cory Anderson, Kirsti Charlton, Robb Correll, Tom Scott

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rentals and Meth

Unfit for habitation - rooms red-tagged at the Aloha Motel
The city of Bellingham is learning that renting a place to stay can be extremely dangerous to one's health.  The Aloha and Villa motels on Samish Way now have a total of 17 rooms declared unfit for human habitation due to contamination caused by methamphetamine smokers.  For more information you can read the Bellingham Herald story of 12 October, Tests Show Meth Contamination in 17 Rooms at Two Samish Way Motels.  

It is not too difficult to make the assumption that some of our rental houses and apartments are similarly contaminated.  In late 2013 a rental home on Myrtle St. was closed by the health department when three student renters were made ill by meth contamination.  I wrote about this in my 13 February 2014 blog entry entitled Meth Contaminated Rental Shut Down.

However, meth contamination is but one of many problems renters face in living in leased dwellings in Bellingham.  The Herald article quoted Mayor Linville as saying, "Dangerous public health risks such as meth contamination are unacceptable, no matter where they are in Bellingham."   The fact is that we do have a dangerous public health and safety risk that has been ignored for decades, our uninspected rental housing stock.

Unfortunately for the tens of thousands of renters in Bellingham, the proposed ordinance on rentals that will be considered at a city council hearing on 27 October, has no mandatory inspection provision.   This is a continuation of the current and failed complaint based system.  It is time for the city to begin to "red-tag" the dangerous rental homes and apartment units.

In order for the current proposal to provide any meaningful protection whatsoever for Bellingham's renters it must be modified to include these elements.

 1.  Periodic inspections of all rentals in accordance with the limits established by current RCW.  We should envision an inspection of a rental unit once every three years, exceptions being those units inspected under other government programs.   Inspections of apartment complexes can be made by using a percentage factor that will provide an adequate representation of the condition of the units throughout. 
2.   Hiring of sufficient city inspectors (government employees) to effect the inspections to achieve the periodic rate. 
3.  The fixing of the rental licensing rate as a function of the cost of the program as established, i.e.,  administration, inspections, salaries, equipment, etc.  In other words, the council creates the program which is then costed out and fees established as a function of that amount.  The cost of the periodic inspections would be included in the licensing fee but landlords may be assessed a surcharge for reinspections due to life/safety findings.  [Note:  RCW allows a landlord to hire a private inspector but that should be at his/her own cost.  If so, he/she would forfeit the city conducted inspection that is included in the licensing fee.] 
4.  Annual reports to the council and the public on the results of the inspection regime. 
5.  Elimination of the sunset provision

There is still time before the 27 October hearing to write to your council representatives and insist on an inspection program that is worthwhile and effective.  Write to them now at:  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Rental Conditions – A Real Estate Inspector’s View

Dangerous electrical wiring in rental on Grant St.
Reality check.  What do real estate inspectors find here in Bellingham when they conduct inspections for potential buyers of existing rental properties?   Plenty, it seems.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a home inspector who has spent over twenty years in commercial and residential construction and the last ten years as an inspector of homes, both rental and owner-occupied units.  This individual has thoroughly inspected hundreds of rentals - single family, duplexes, and various multi-unit apartment complexes.  He stated that the conditions vary greatly due to the age and condition of the property. 

In Bellingham he claims that there are two distinct types of rental properties, rentals for college students and rentals for the general market.  His experience is that often the college rentals are older homes converted to rented rooms where the renters share bathrooms and kitchens.

Overall he has discovered that the college rentals tend to be less well maintained with more reported findings such as:

1) Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors removed
2) Damaged electrical system
3) Leaking plumbing systems
4) Poor ventilation in bathrooms and kitchens causing mildew or mold
5) Drywall, door, window or flooring damage
6) Old heating systems that may cause carbon monoxide to leak in to the home

Similarly, he has experienced that rental units for the general population of renters are found with the following issues:

1) Improperly installed or damaged exterior stairs or decks
2) Leaking plumbing systems
3) Lack of smoke or carbon monoxide detectors in proper locations
4) Lack of ventilation causing mildew or mold
5) Electrical systems without GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interruption) protection
6) Old heating systems that may cause carbon monoxide to leak in to the home

He also states that there are those landlords who buy a property, collect rent, and spend little money on repairs. In these cases, he continues, rent is often low and living conditions are poor. Renters do not report problems for fear that the rent will go up. The landlords can then easily turn a blind eye to problems. 

He continues by saying that while many landlords see their rentals as investments and work to keep them in good condition by repairing items brought to their attention, the problem is they are not often educated on operations and safety requirements making them unaware of serious conditions that may exist. 

Of the hundreds of rentals this inspector has seen, he estimates that about 15% have serious condition issues that render the unit dangerous to live in.   But do not let the percentage figure mislead you. This percentage, if extrapolated into a number of rental units, indicates that an inspection of all rental units in Bellingham (about 14,000*) would uncover approximately 2,000 to 2,500 unfit units.  Furthermore, given the average occupancy of a dwelling unit in Bellingham, that means that from 4,500 to 5,500 human beings (adults and children) are,  AT THE MOMENT YOU ARE READING THIS, living in dangerous conditions.

None of this information is new or surprising.  I have been reporting this kind of data for years.  (Check my articles here and here for examples)  The problem is that few are paying attention while the real estate and landlord groups claim the problem can be solved by being nice to them and educating the tenants.

On October 27th the city council will conduct a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would require landlords merely to register their properties with the city.   No inspections would be required.   This proposal  by council member Roxanne Murphy is based on a similar ordinance Murphy encountered in Tacoma , WA where she lived prior to moving to Bellingham recently.  Although the ordinance met with some success in correcting exterior signs of blight, it failed in correcting serious interior defects in unsafe and unhealthy rental units across the board.  My article "Councilmember Murphy's Proposed Rental Ordinance Is Deeply Flawed" contains more information on Tacoma’s experience and belies Murphy's claim that "maybe 5%" of Bellingham rentals are in poor condition.

*There are over 17,000 rental units in Bellingham, however, approximately 3,000 are controlled by and already inspected by other agencies such as HUD (Housing and Urban Development).