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.


Anonymous said...

You know that replacing the batteries in detectors is the TENANT's responsibility, per RCW, right? I wonder how many of those fires are just college kids being college kids? I wonder the actual causes of these fires. In this case, it very well sounds like it could have been an inattentive college kid using a space heater. Also, it is notable that the girls were well aware of the tradeoffs beforehand: substandard home for a deeply discounted price. There are plenty of apartments and nice homes available in Bellingham and saying the opposite is simply banter. There will always be subpar places to live at deeply discounted prices, as these girls very well could have found an apartment but, of course, chose not to in order to pay cheap rent. That said, I am pro-inspection and anti-slacker landlord. To whatever extent these fires are the result of gross mis-maintenance on the part of the landlord, shame on them. They should feel the burn.

Zonemaven said...

Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are not sources of fires but are warning devices that are placed in rentals in the event there is a problem that actually causes a fire. So it is the event, not the detector that is the issue. Your statement "There are plenty of apartments and nice homes available in Bellingham and saying the opposite is simply banter." is patently false. The city and the real estate industry have been speaking about the low vacancy rate for years that translates into renters having to put up with rat holes because there is nothing else available. You and I have no idea why these young women chose this duplex to rent so I would not put words in their mouths or infer their intent without speaking to them. I am glad that you support inspections but let's keep to the facts of the matter.

Anonymous said...

Detectors- Your article pointed out the detectors didn't go off, with an undertone that it was the owner's fault. Apologies if you weren't suggesting that. The point remains though that the tenants, not the owner, was responsible by LAW for the detectors' operation. The RCW imposes a fine upon tenants who do not comply. Do you think the girls should pay the fine? We are imposing duties on landlords, most (not all) rightly so, and there must be some simple, brainless duties for tenants.

Their Choice- As you stated in your article, the girls knew that this realtor is a very shady character with a history of mis-maintenance. They knew that, went forward anyhow, and decided not to insist on further touring the property (if they even cared, which many students don't.) I think it is a logical inference to presume the student-gals took the place because the rent is cheap compared to the other options.

Market- There are always apartments available on Craigslist. Like you said, its not an abundant supply, but they're out there. In Seattle, there is also no shortage of apartments. Students, nonetheless, seek out and often choose to rent a house and buy bunkbeds than rent an apartment. Its more affordable. Even if Bham builds student housing, you will still and always have kids trying to save money. Want inspections? I'm on board. But lets be realistic: the kids (nor their parents) are harmless, innocent victims -- they're saving money by living in a sub-par place. BTDT.

Cause- Any chance we can find the cause of the fire? I read the report which is oddly vague. Sounds like a space heater fire to me.

Zonemaven said...

Actually, I made only a factual statement about the smoke alarms ["Smoke alarms failed to sound due to “discharged or dead” batteries according to the fire marshal’s report."] I fail to see how one can infer any undertones. Again, regardless of the state of the alarms, the problem with the rental was its condition which I would place squarely in the lap of the landlord. Nobody I know has been killed by a smoke alarm unless they are electrocuted wiring one into the ceiling. They are killed by fires.

The young women took the rental because there were no other choices at the time. That is what they told me. I actually sat and talked to them face to face about this. If you have had another accounting from meeting with them, please let me know.

Cheap does not have to mean sub-par and dangerous. Let's not begin the blame the victim game.

The cause of the fire was improperly installed wiring that came in contact with the wood framing. I admit that the fire-marshal-speak is a bit tortured but the wiring was bad so that it overloaded. There was no space heater mentioned in the report and the tenants mentioned no such equipment to me in the 40 minutes I spent with them.

Anonymous said...

With regard to the detectors, you mention the detectors and then immediately go into your assertions about this owner being terribly negligent. The reasonable inference is that the detectors are part of your thought that the landlord is negligent. And, in reading your articles, you don't seem too critical of college students.

I decided to search for Bham house fires to see your point. The first article to come up is one from a month ago of a student destroying a house after setting the couch on fire! Hm, I wonder how that happened! Again, I have little tolerance for grossly negligent landlords. But I think that part of the discussion is: college kids aren't always the most responsible group. They burn down houses; they also meander around a house that is afire, unaware because they are too irresponsible to make sure detectors have batteries, in accordance with the duh and the law. While there should be regulation, I highly doubt the existing checklist will be looking into walls and examining wiring. Should landlords be required to have reasonably safe conditions? Yes. Should students expect the most modern, newest wiring and appliances throughout their house? Sure -- if they want to pay for a nicer place and not take the first cheap place they find, which, from experience, at least a bare majority do. http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/crime/article48241925.html

Could you point me to where it talks about wiring being the cause? The report says the cause was "radiated, conducted heat" upon structural members.

There are ALWAYS houses and apartments for rent in Bellingham. Whether one is within a renter's price point is another question. I would venture a guess that the girls meant there were no other relatively cheap-cheap places for rent. I would find it highly suspect if they were to say that this was the only house available in all the land.

I agree that cheap doesn't mean dangerous due to negligence. I also think you get what you pay for.