Monday, March 9, 2015

A Brief History of Bellingham's Rental Ordinance

This month's Whatcom Watch published my account of the events surrounding the development and passage of Bellingham's rental registration and inspection ordinance.  The article, entitled simply Rental Inspections in Bellingham, traces the ordinance from recognition of the problem of unsafe rentals, even as far back as the 1990s.  Click on the title (in blue) above to read the article.

Final consideration (third reading) of the ordinance will take place at tonight's (9 March) city council meeting at 7pm.  Earlier in the day (1:25pm)  the Committee of the Whole will discuss the measure with staff.  See the agenda bill here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dealing with Meth Contamination - A Race to the Bottom in Whatcom County

 [This article by me first appeared on 25  February 2014 on NWCitizen.]

Methamphetamine contamination of homes in Whatcom County is a serious problem that can affect all housing: private homes, rental units and motel rooms. One need go no further than the recent condemnation of the Aloha Motel which had severe meth contamination of many of its rooms, some of which were occupied by families with small children. Just one year ago a rental home on Myrtle St. was condemned as unfit for human habitation due to meth contamination. A short while ago I asked the Bellingham City Council to add inspection for meth contamination to the checklist for rental inspections that is being developed in conjunction with a rental registration program. Council demured.

With this as a background, the Whatcom County Health Department approached the Whatcom Health Advisory Board last May and June asking them to modify the county ordinance on meth contamination of illegal use sites (as opposed to meth manufacturing sites) such as hotel rooms and dwelling units. The Public Health Advisory Board agreed and the County Council is scheduled to consider these changes in a hearing on 3 March. (You can read the agenda bill from 10 February with the draft ordinance here.)

Presently, the mitigation of a contaminated site is the same regardless of whether the site was for manufacture or illicit use of meth; contamination levels are contamination levels in either case. Under current law, the supervision of a mandatory cleanup costs the Health Department about $1,000, and because the department supervises about 15-20 of these remediation efforts per year, they were feeling the fiscal pinch after losing grant money that previously covered the cost. As awareness of possible contamination rises, whether for manufacture or illicit use, the county is on the hook for managing an increasing number of cleanup sites.

The idea behind the new recommendations is to “decrease financial and enforcement barriers to self reporting and cleanup” of these illicit use units - which includes rentals. The changes would substitute “technical assistance” to property owners versus the mandatory cleanup regimen currently used for meth manufacturing. It is not clear how this substitution will encourage property owners to come forward.

The revised county ordinance would also increase permissible levels of meth contamination from .01mg/100 square centimeters to 1.5mg/100 square centimeters, although no level of contamination has been proven to be safe.  Those who have compromised health to begin with can indeed be at greater risk than the general public. [Note: This change in contamination levels is not optional for the county since it must conform to levels stated in the RCW.]

The landlord of the Myrtle St. rental refused to pay for testing of the home when the student tenants reported health problems.  (Read more on this here and here)  The students paid for the tests themselves and discovered a contamination level of 1.4 mg/100 square centimeters, well above the .01mg/100 square centimeters which was the minimum acceptable level at the time. By raising the minimal levels to 1.5mg/square centimeters as in the proposed ordinance, the Myrtle St. property would not be considered contaminated. Not surprisingly, further testing at Myrtle St. at the time by a contamination abatement contractor found levels at 4.2mg/100 square centimeters, well above even the expanded levels proposed to the County Council. Under the current changes, these extremely high levels would never have surfaced and the women would have been left to their own, limited devices.

So who loses under this proposed scenario? The tenants, the hotel room occupier, the purchaser of a home.  With contamination considered anything over 1.5mg/100 square centimeters, the property owner, landlord and hotel management get a pass. Nothing will cloud the property title with respect to meth use sites under the new regime. Furthermore, it all comes down to money: the county will save on abatement management costs and the landlord/home owner will save with more lenient clean up rules. The home purchaser, the tenant and hotel guest will take on more risk. This is a race to the bottom in health management.

Note to readers:  An agenda bill for the proposed 3 March hearing is now posted on the county council's website

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.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Bellingham City Council Passes Rental Ordinance - Includes Mandatory Inspections

On December 15, 2014 the Bellingham City Council passed a rental ordinance that includes not only registration but mandatory inspections.  The draft ordinance minus a few last minute edits by the city council can be found here.

I was not in town but through the NWCitizen editor I was able to post the following to the site regarding the passage of this law:

"One must catch one's breath! 

The vote of the Bellingham City Council on Monday night [15 December] is a stunning reversal of the consensus of the council from earlier this year, at which time only a weak rental registration program was under consideration.  Much of the credit for the passage of this ordinance surely goes to the Western Washington University students who have worked hard over the past 4-5 years.  They spoke the truth to the opposition (the landlords) whose arguments to defeat this measure were astoundingly repudiated by the 7-0 vote.  No stronger message could have been sent. 

Also in for thanks are council members Jack Weiss and Michael Lilliquist who worked hard behind the scenes to shepherd this measure to passage.  Dozens of Bellingham citizens also worked diligently over the last 10 years to speak to the reality of renting in Bellingham. 

Based on a meeting I had several weeks ago with our new planning director, Rick Sepler, I expect we will see rapid action in putting this measure into effect.  Rick seems to me to be a no-nonsense manager who will meet deadlines and develop accurate information for the council.   Nevertheless, we still need to be vigilant about a process that has yet to be developed to register rentals and then begin inspections in 2015.

Again, thanks to our City Council for this measure to ensure the health and safety of the tenants in Bellingham."

Since my return to Bellingham last week, I have been reviewing the video of the discussion of this ordinance at the afternoon session of the Committee of the Whole and at the evening session of the full council at which the vote to approve was taken.  I will have more comments on those council discussions and the unfolding process over the next few weeks.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

City Council Moving Rapidly on Rental Registration and Inspections

After a hearing on a draft registration-only rental ordinance and a work session on the same on 17 November, the City Council asked the city staff to prepare cost information and other data that would support an inspection component to a city ordinance on rental health and safety.  Then on 24 November, the council made and passed several motions to amend the draft "registration only" proposal that had been proposed by Roxanne Murphy and approved earlier for further consideration by the full council.  The first motion read "that all rental units subject to inspection be inspected once every three years provided that an exception be made for units that pass inspection or first re-inspection, whereby the inspection frequency shall be every five years."   Staff was instructed to return to the council with an amended draft ordinance on 15 December.  In addition, the council voted to eliminate the sunset provision (1 January 2019) in the draft before them and to add that "the rental unit associated with properties containing a detached accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or carriage house be required to be inspected as provided for in the ordinance."

These are sea changes in the approach the council had been taking with respect to rental registration and inspection.  Greatly boosting the chances for the passage of a registration and inspection ordinance was the announcement by Terry Bornemann that he would now support inspection of rental units. 

The only problematic portion of the ordinance is that regarding inspectors.  Washington state law allows landlords to choose a private inspector.  This stemmed from the Washington Supreme Courtdecision on the rental inspection ordinance (Chapter 5.78)  that Pasco, WA passed in the late 1990s. Our city attorney stated at the 14 November city council meeting that Bellingham may not be able to mandate that a landlord turn over to the city the private inspector's inspection report even though RCW 59.18.125 6.e states: "If a rental property owner chooses to hire a qualified inspector other than a municipal housing code enforcement officer, and a selected unit of the rental property fails the initial inspection, both the results of the initial inspection and any certificate of inspection must be provided to the local municipality."   The city attorney argues that language in the Pasco Supreme Court decision overrides that portion of the RCW.

While this is being resolved, the reliance on private inspectors raises the specter of the privatization or semi-privatization of what should be an inherently governmental function, that of health and safety of its citizens.  It is not yet clear if the City Council intends to emphasize private over municipal inspectors.  The council will hear more on the draft ordinance and receive a report from the Bellingham Planning Department at its 15 December meeting.

[Note:  This blog entry also appeared today on the site of NWCitizen.]

Thursday, November 13, 2014

City Council Work Session on Rental Registration and Inspections

At the 1pm meeting of the city council's Committee of the Whole this coming Monday (17 Nov), the members will have a work session on the draft ordinance that was the subject of a city council hearing on 27 October.  That hearing lasted nearly three hours during which time dozens of citizens voiced their concern that the draft measure did not contain an inspection component.  After the citizens' comment period, council member Terry Bornemann stated that he had changed his mind and that that he would be supportive of an inspection component.

Although there will be no comment period during the work session next Monday, I encourage all of you to attend the session as an indication of our support of a rental registration AND inspection ordinance.  [Note that the Committee of the Whole will meet earlier at 11am to consider the city budget.  They will reconvene after lunch at 1pm to consider the rental ordinance.]

My most recent letter to the city council follows:

Dear Council Members,

In advance of the work session on rental registration and inspection on 17 November, I would like to suggest the following while you consider development of a program for the city:

There seems to have been a morphing from a per unit fee to a per "property" fee.  I am not sure what occasioned that but it is unnecessarily restrictive.  It weighs favorably on the side of those with the largest properties (for what reason?) and it markedly reduces the potential income to finance the hiring of staff and the administration of a program.  The program with all its facets should be developed and then costed out in order to define the fee structure.  This is basic program management.

I ask also that you challenge the bloated estimates provided by staff months ago on the cost of hiring code enforcement personnel and running the program.  We know that the local HUD inspector can do almost 2,000 unit inspections per year.  This tracks also with Pasco, WA whose inspector also does the same number of inspections per year.  That flies in the face of the estimate given to us by the Planning Director.  Granted there will be some start-up lag but with proper planning, that lag can be minimized.

Any inspection program should be included in the fee structure so that landlords will be encouraged to participate with city inspectors rather than hire private firms. Relying primarily on private inspectors for periodic inspections means that the city neither gains nor retains any institutional knowledge of the city’s rental units. Paper reports from private inspectors are no substitute for the experience of a city inspector whose employment is, for all intents and purposes, long term. The Mayor and the Planning Director would have no group of in-house code enforcement officers to whom they can go for experiential knowledge.  Furthermore, there is no indication that there are sufficient private sector home inspectors to fulfill the needs of the landlords who might want to hire one.

Granted, the use of private inspectors is allowed under law. In fact, this was one of the challenges to the Pasco licensing ordinance, that city inspectors would be the sole inspectors. The landlords there wanted the option to hire their own. They have that option now and is written into the state law passed a few years ago. I am not sure how that serves the landlords since a properly structured program with a revenue neutral fee system (the program fees will pay for the program) will spread the cost of inspections over all landlords and result in much lower per unit inspection costs.

I also suggest that you replace any sunset provision with a provision that mandates a program review after 4 or 5 years.  At that point, the council can, based on the facts surfaced by the review, decide to maintain, modify or end the program.  The review should be inclusive of city staff (based on data), landlord experience and renter experience that would be surface through a hearing and/or a professional random survey.


Dick Conoboy