Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hearing Examiner Halts Seattle’s ADU Ordinance

[Note:  This article first appeared at NWCitizen

In a decision that may have an impact on the planned update of Bellingham’s accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance in 2017, Sue Tanner, the hearing examiner in Seattle, remanded to the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) for further work their environmental impact Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) on the SEPA Environmental Checklist prepared for an update to Seattle’s ADU ordinance . Although the decision is not binding on Bellingham, aspects of the hearing examiner’s decision should have an indirect effect on the decision process on ADUs here.

As reported in the Seattle Times, “Seattle must halt a proposal to allow more and larger backyard cottages in order to conduct a more thorough review of potential environmental consequences, including the possibility that it could lead to gentrification.” Tanner’s decision states, ““The record demonstrates that the challenged DNS (determination of non-significance) was not based on information sufficient to evaluate the proposal’s impacts…” In fact, most of the questions in the SEPA checklist are answered “not applicable”. To think that the SEPA statement provides any useful information whatsoever in determining the long-term effects of the creation of ADUs in all of Seattle’s single family zoned areas is a risible notion.

As in Bellingham, certain ADUs are already allowed in the city of Seattle. The Seattle ordinance would greatly expand their use by allowing ADUs on smaller lots and even allow building of a cottage and an ADU on single lot, thus creating three dwelling units on a single family zoned property. The hearing examiner also found that the OPCD was not only the proponent but also the decision maker on the DNS, a clear conflict.

Not surprisingly, the same issues raised by Bellingham citizens during the Comprehensive Plan update this year were in play in the Seattle decision. These issues are the impact of parking, affordability, gentrification, public services/utilities, height/bulk/scale and lifetime effects. The examiner found that these aspects were not sufficiently studied.

Here, the city can expect a substantial push-back by citizens who, although generally supportive of carefully planned use of ADUs, suspect that Bellingham’s ADU ordinance update may be used to effectively eliminate single family zoning creating severe negative effects on the character of neighborhoods. The year 2017 may prove to be an interesting one for housing and land use decisions.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Misleading/Incomplete Report on Rental Inspection Results

Pass/Fail Rate Misrepresented
[Note: This article first appeared at NWCitizen

Before the committee of the whole of the Bellingham City Council on 26 September, the planning director presented a "correction" to the figures on the pass/fail rate of rental units inspected over the previous three months in the Sehome neighborhood.  In fact, the figures presented differed little from previous reports. (see my prior column on these statistics here)  The new figures were 242 passed and 239 failed  with a fail rate of 50%.  [The minor differences from previous figures of 231 and 237 respectively are due to constant updates as new units are inspected each day.] The director's report (see pie chart) goes on to say that after a SECOND inspection, another 142 units passed.  The claim then was that 80% of our rental stock inspected to date passed!  Woohoo!  This is true but terribly misleading since the initial failure rate was 50%.  With the logic of the pie chart pictured above, the passing on a second inspection of the remaining 95 failed units would bring the failure rate for our rental stock to 0% when, in fact, the initial go around was a miserable 50% pass rate demonstrating the true condition of the rental units before any inspections whatsoever. This wretched failure rate should bring a collective gasp of dumbfoundedness to the city of Bellingham.

This leads us to the incomplete.

Even more alarming was that there was no specification that 310 rental units (35%) of the 880 units in Sehome are being inspected by private inspectors.  The use of private inspectors is allowed by state law, however, at the moment there appears to be no means by which the city can compel the private inspector to turn over the actual inspection sheet.  All the city receives is a "pass" document, attested to by the inspector.  There will be no indication about the number of failed inspections made before the pass attestation is given to the city.  This not only paves the way for shenanigans on the part of the landlord (inspector-landlord collusion) but it also deprives the city and, more importantly, the tenants of vital, detailed information regarding the problems found within the rental units.  [To date there has been no indication of any collusion.]  Nevertheless, the 310 units (35%) in Sehome to be inspected by private inspectors leaves an enormous lacuna in the information on deficiencies available to the city.  Furthermore, the city is finding that landlords using private inspectors tend to be the large management/real estate firms, many of which have checkered histories in dealing with tenants.  This is unacceptable.  The planning director indicated that the city is awaiting a legal case now in Seattle that may clarify the private inspector issue and its consequences.

As the inspections wind down in the Sehome neighborhood, the city will fix its attention next on the York neighborhood with its 575 rental units, a mix of single and mutli-family zoned areas.  54% of York's 479 single family homes are rentals.  In fact, 31 of those individual homes are owned by Dave and Jonathan Hansen.  At total of 27 other single family rentals are owned variously and separately by four landlords.  The number of landlords who will use private inspectors in the York neighborhood remains to be seen but the situation should give any thinking person pause
After the York neighborhood the city will move south to Happy Valley and then finish the south end with South Hill, Fairhaven, Edgemoor and South neighborhoods.  An explanatory map of the inspection zones can be found here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The War Has Just Begun

Quality Rental in Bellingham (photo: Dick Conoboy)
 [Note: This entry was first published on 16 Sep on NWCitizen.]

 [Note:  September 28, 2016 - the percentage figure of failures was initially reported at 42%.  In fact, the correct failure rate was 50% (227 of 458 inspections.]

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
— Winston Churchill

Bellingham's war on slum housing has just begun and in the first round of rental inspections since June 1 in the Sehome neighborhood the enemy has been rousted. Out of the dark corners, hidden from the public eye emerges the truth about Bellingham's dirty little secret: Slum landlords are alive and thriving.

Although landlords have had about two years to fix up their units since the rental inspection ordinance was passed, a shocking 50% [corrected]of the units (according to the city's preliminary figures below) failed their initial inspection.  Even the ones that passed had some "conditions" at the initial visit.  This demonstrates  the arrogance of landlords who, knowing that inspections were coming, did nothing.  After years of ignoring basic health and safety standards they, as business owners, are now being held accountable to business standards for the very first time!

Here is the preliminary breakdown for the Sehome neighborhood where inspections officially wrap up at the end of September.

Between 6/1/16 and 9/13/16 a total of 267 properties (or approximately 458 [corrected] units) have been inspected:
• 231 units passed or passed w/ conditions at initial inspection
• 227 units failed at initial inspection
• 78 units were marked as missed appointments at initial inspection (these are scheduled again as "initial inspection" and would show back up in the passed or failed categories)
• 115 units passed or passed w/ conditions at 1st re-inspection
• 7 units failed at 1st re-inspection
• 19 units were marked as missed appointments at 1st re-inspection  (these are scheduled again as "1st re-inspection" and would show back up in the passed or failed categories)
• 2 units passed or passed w/ conditions at 2nd re-inspection

Advocates for the new rental inspection program challenged the city and the rental industry to prove us wrong. Local anti-inspection landlords said their industry was better here. They promoted that myth during a long 15-year battle against implementation of inspections and registration. Unfortunately, the claims of those supporting rental inspections for the last decade or more were born out in this first round of code enforcement.  Fortunately the Bellingham City Council finally, albeit for some members very reluctantly, bit the bullet two years ago and created an ordinance to inspect rental units and ensure the health and safety of half of the city's residents, tenants.

The war on slum housing has just begun. The faulty wiring, bad plumbing, infestation of rats, leaky roofs, mold and unsafe structures are finally being exposed. Bellingham's liberation from its dirty little secret has just begun.

It will be interesting to see how the "rental industry" leadership responds to this, if at all.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Durham, NH, - Surprise! - Rental Inspections Worked

Durham, NH Where Rental Inspections Worked!
[Note: This article first appeared in NWCitizen]

In 2013 Durham, NH, passed a rental registration and inspection law over the objections of the "rental industry."   Within a year, the results demonstrated the need for inspections by unearthing problems the landlords denied existed, especially among professionally managed units.  In a report issued by the city of Durham only three months after passage of the law we find this:
"The DLA [Durham Landlord Association] has also argued that it is the non-owner occupied, single family rentals managed by non-professional landlords that represent the problem properties in terms of safety concerns in Durham.  The new inspection program does not bear out that contention.  Rental properties of all types have been found deficient in meeting fire/safety standards."
The report also indicated:
"Inspection results have substantiated the long-held concerns of the Town’s Code Enforcement Department, Fire Department, Assessing Office, and some members of the Rental Housing Commission – that many rental properties in town do not meet basic health and safety standards as required by state statute putting young and inexperienced, largely college-aged tenants in harms way."
Two years later, the city website reported this to the citizens of Durham:
"Between 2013 and today, a total of 1,784 inspections [bolding mine] have taken place within off campus rental dwelling units (apartments) by the inspection division at the Durham Fire Department.  The Fire Department staff has found 4,021 violations [bolding mine] to date, of which 3,213 have been addressed by owners.  There are 808 outstanding issues for which re-inspections are required/pending. 
The top five life/safety/health deficiencies include:
    Detection/Alarms (smoke/co)
    Electrical violations
    Separation from hazards
    Fire Protection Systems not being property maintained (fire alarms/sprinklers)

Durham's Housing Standards Ordinance is serving the purpose for which it was intended -- to make living conditions much safer for inexperienced students as well as adult tenants living off campus in the broader community."

That sounds like a successful program in a university city.

As in Bellingham, landlords tried unsuccessfully to fight inspections by creating uncertainty about the legality under the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution that spells out the need for warrants for searches and seizures.  This specious argument has nothing to do with entering dwelling units for safety and health reasons.  In Washington state, landlords already have the right to enter rental units after giving notice. It is ludicrous to posit that a city health and safety inspector operating as an agent of the municipality does not have a similar ability to enter a rental unit with notice.  Washington state law also allows issuing administrative warrants to enter units where a tenant or a landlord has refused access.  Rental inspectors are just not breaking down doors to find a tenant in his skivvies.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Stop the Rental Fires Now!

Ellis St. Duplex - Note Red Condemnation Sign and Protective Fencing

 [Note:  This article first appeared in NWCitizen on 8 Feb 2015] 

City inspections of Bellingham rentals are due to begin in the 2nd quarter of this year.  Over 18,000 rental units have so far been registered for the first round of an inspection regime to take place over the next three years.  And none too soon!  Since 2011 we have chalked up seven rental fires that have displaced about two dozen young student renters.  These fires must be stopped before someone is seriously injured or killed.

Most recently, on 14 December 2015, a fire broke out in an 85 year old duplex rental home on Ellis St.   The home is the property of the notoriously ubiquitous landlord Dave Hansen of Lakeway Realty who owns property citywide.  Most of the female occupants (three upstairs and three down) were on holiday break from WWU and WCC, however, one of the remaining young women was at home upstairs when she was alerted to the fire by a next door neighbor.  Smoke alarms failed to sound due to “discharged or dead” batteries according to the fire marshal’s report.  Unfortunately, this is not the first fire in a Hansen rental.  On January 11th, 2011 a fire in another of his rentals on Grant St. displaced student renters.  In December 2011 a fire in a Hansen rental on Maple St. left five young women renters from WWU homeless. 

Nearly half of the rental fires in Bellingham since 2011 have been in Hansen rentals, although the word out on local campuses is, “Do not rent from Lakeway Realty.”   Yet young student renters continue to rent from Lakeway because there is little to no choice.  The women who rented the home on Ellis St. had about 15 minutes to inspect the house prior to signing the lease even though they were aware of the reputation of Hansen and his property management firm.  They described mold on the crumbling ceiling of one of the bathrooms that had been painted over.  A window broken out after the move-in was not repaired but was finally replaced by the tenants themselves at their own expense.  At least one smoke alarm was beeping during and after the move-in but the tenants were not aware of the source of the warning signal which finally stopped.  Another smoke alarm in the downstairs unit was also not working.  In addition, nobody informed the renters of the separately rented upstairs unit that the heating system for the entire house had one thermostat control and that was located in the lower unit of the duplex (also separately rented) to which they had no access.  Notwithstanding the condition of this house, the landlord charged the tenants $1450/mo rental for the downstairs unit and $1200 for the upstairs unit. 

As in the Grant St. fire, the cause of the Ellis St. fire was electrical, in an attic space.  Contributing to the cause according to the official report was an “installation deficiency.”   The tenants also told of old, deteriorated electrical outlets.  There were no ground fault interrupters (GFI) in the bathrooms, but the tenants only realized that after having been given a description of the outlet that should have been installed.  At one point the stove caught fire.  It took two weeks to replace the stove while the tenants were advised to buy a camping stove to do their cooking.  These small stoves are notorious for giving off carbon monoxide, an odorless and deadly gas. 

To date, the renters of the Ellis St. duplex have not received their security deposit from the landlord.  The house was tagged as condemned by fire and city officials and some windows were boarded up.  The photos below show the second floor just after the fire.  This may have well been a scene of death.   Unfortunately for the renters, who had no insurance, the house was almost immediately broken into resulting in some property loss and additional trashing of the interior.  Inexplicably some of the electrical outlets were missing.   The young women received no assistance from the landlord after gathering a few belongings from the house.

The Bellingham rental registration and inspection ordinance may, at last, do away with these dangerous rentals.  Additional efforts are being made by WWU's Campus Community Coalition to educate incoming students about entering into rental agreements. This long time landlord tyranny in the rental market should eventually be eliminated.