Thursday, January 29, 2015

Rental Inspections - Start-Up Funded - Now Consider the Inspection Checklist

With the start-up funding for the rental registration and inspection program approved at the 26 January city council meeting, the council will soon take up one of the most important aspects of the new ordinance, the inspection checklist.  A draft checklist was provided by staff to the council at the last council meeting, however, there was little discussion at that time and council deferred consideration of the item until February.  You can find the proposed inspection list among the agenda items here.

The list appears fairly comprehensive, however, there are still several large issues to be decided by the council.  Those issues have to do with mold, lead paint and methamphetamine contamination.  The recent events surrounding the condemnation of the Aloha Motel for reasons having to do with meth contamination of most of its rooms have brought into question the very real possibility that many of our rentals are similarly contaminated without the knowledge of either the landlords or the tenants.

Just one year ago a rental home on E. Myrtle St. was shut down by the health department for meth contamination.  The three female student renters had been sickened by the meth vapors but pleas to the landlord for meth testing were rejected.  In desperation, the women contacted the county health department and paid for meth tests.  The tests came back positive, showing a meth contamination substantially beyond any tolerable amount.  The house was condemned until remediation could be carried out.  My fear is that a substantial number of our rentals in Bellingham are similarly contaminated and renters are sickened but do not know the reason.  They may be courting long term, negative and devastating health effects.

For that reason, I would like the council to add to the requirements for inspection under this ordinance that every three years the landlord present a meth inspection certificate indicating that the rental unit is free of contamination.  For apartment complexes, a percentage sample of units would suffice, however, for single family, duplexes, detached ADUs, etc., all units would have to be tested.  Testing requirements, such as number of rooms to be tested in a unit, must be worked out to ensure that the sampling is meaningful.  Coordination with the Whatcom County Health Department must be effected to ensure such a requirement placed on landlords is feasible through that agency or other means.

Mold is ubiquitous in this region but not all mold is a health hazard.  I understand that there is no testable danger level for mold (CDC source)  and that mold is a symptom of issues with other systems within a rental unit such as inadequate ventilation, poor heating, plumbing leaks, etc.  Mold may also particularly affect certain people who suffer from lung ailments such as asthma while others individuals are fine.  Once these deficiencies are found and corrected the mold can be cleaned up and further contamination stopped. However,  mold contamination can produce a serious hazard if it long time neglect leads to undermining the structural integrity of a rental unit.  In that case inspection of and repairs to joists, studs, wallboard, siding, etc., will be necessary.   

Lead toxicity is a problem mostly with respect to lead-based paint used in homes prior to 1978.  There is no testable limit for lead-based paint except to note that it is present (CDC Source).  Finding lead in the paint of rental units can serve as a notice to tenants to get their blood tested (the only way to test lead exposure) but this assumes that renters have adequate medical coverage.  At the minimum, the council should advocate that rental inspections of units build before 1978 occasion a warning to landlords and tenants about the dangers of lead-based paint and that any indication that paint in these units is flaking, notice of such imminent danger of contamination also be provided to the same parties.

For the first time in the years I have been advocating on the subject of rental inspections, I feel that the council and the city management are fully on board with producing an effective program to ensure the health and safety of tenants. I have spoken about the problems above to our new Planning Director, Rick Sepler and to our City Building Official, Jim Tinner.  Both are approaching these issues with diligence.  I expect that the council will be provided with the best information available in order to ensure the adoption of an inspection checklist that will protect our renters.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

City Council Takes Up Rental Registration Start-Up Funds

The Finance and Personnel Committee (Pinky Vargas Chair/ Michael Lilliquist; Daniel Hammill) will review the Planning Department's proposed start-up budget for the rental registration and inspection ordinance This is scheduled for 2:15 next Monday, 26 January at the committee meeting in council chambers. In the agenda packet is a draft ordinance with the financial changes and a proposed inspection checklist for information only as the list is still under development.  The start-up budget is reasonable and the monies provided will soon be offset by the  fees as more than 8,000 rental properties (with 14,000 units) are registered later this year. 

I have reviewed the checklist and it appears to be fairly comprehensive. It seems to be long but most of the space is taken up by explanatory notes that reference various building codes. I do note the absence of the categories of mold, methamphetamine and lead paint. This link will take you directly to the agenda item materials on the city's website.