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: ccmail@cob.org.  

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). 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Councilmember Murphy’s Proposed Rental Ordinance Is Deeply Flawed

Summary: Council Member Roxanne Murphy has championed a "registration-only"rental ordinance program for Bellingham based on what she considers is a successful program in Tacoma, from where she recently moved.  After conducting a series of interviews with Tacoma officials and neighborhood leaders, I have determined that the program in Tacoma was designed to clean up drug houses and fight gang problems but has barely scraped the surface of correcting unsafe rental housing conditions. To use Tacoma's ordinance as a model for Bellingham moves us in the wrong direction. While the ordinance in Tacoma cleaned up neighborhoods -- ridding them of junk and improving exteriors -- it did very little to correct the substandard conditions of rental housing with regard to wiring, plumbing, mold, structural problems, and vermin. One official even said rental owners had learned how to "game" the system: clean up the outside to avoid an internal inspection.

In May of this year, At-Large City Council Representative Roxanne Murphy proposed a rental ordinance she indicated was modeled from a similar ordinance in effect in Tacoma, WA (pop. 200,000), from which she had recently moved. This version of a rental ordinance for Bellingham has been chosen for further consideration and an eventual hearing later this year, possibly in September. Ms Murphy indicated that the Tacoma ordinance was very successful, although it relied on complaints only and mandated no inspections on a regular basis. In an effort to verify these claims, I spoke to several Tacoma officials including the head of the Community Services Department, the manager of the office of Taxation and Licensing and the head of the Code Enforcement office. I also contacted the heads of Tacoma’s eight neighborhood councils, however, only three responded by email. One I was able to contact by telephone. Only one neighborhood council head was able to speak to the issue of rental licensing in Tacoma. The others referred me to city officials, claiming they did not know much about the legislation or its effectiveness. The reality of Tacoma’s program does not inspire confidence.

I learned that Tacoma has had a requirement since 2006 for all landlords to register as businesses. Their code mandated no periodic inspections. In essence, their complaint-only system was a failure. In 2012, the Tacoma City Council added a requirement for regular inspections only if a complaint was received on a rental unit, and as a result, the “points” given during the exterior inspection exceeded a certain number based on their inspection criteria. The rewrite of the ordinance was part of Tacoma’s city-wide effort to take care of some festering problems by revising ordinances in order to clean up neighborhoods and combat serious crime in the form of rental units being used as gang and drug houses. Of special focus was the Hilltop area of Tacoma which overlapped two of the city’s official neighborhoods. This effort to attack the health and safety issues inside rentals throughout the city was only incidental to the overall effort to “clean up” neighborhoods in a much broader sense. Evidently, the Hilltop neighborhood was transformed with respect to junky, unkempt looking rentals and the gangs and druggies fled to other places. Much trash was removed and lawns mowed. 

The reality behind Tacoma’s rental licensing ordinance is that nearly one-half of all the city’s landlords, who number about 10,000, have failed to register as businesses since 2006. There are no active efforts to pursue landlords who have not obtained a license. Scofflaws are discovered only incidental to other actions, such as a complaint about the appearance of a rental unit. Complaints, at the rate of 50 or 60 per week, that flow into the city code enforcement office are mostly about nuisances, trash, hulk vehicles and lack of permits. Only about 3 each week concern rental building violations, their conditions.  These complaints trigger minimally an inspection of the outside of the rental unit. At that time, an assumption is made that the inside of the unit is also in poor condition if the number of points accumulated during the outside inspection exceeds a certain level. If that level is exceeded, the landlord will have to pay for an additional and “provisional” license which requires re-inspections for a certain period.  Of course if a tenant complains about the interior conditions, an inspection is made of the inside of the unit immediately, however, that is rare since most tenants do not even know what to look for in the way of dangerous conditions. Since the inception of the inspection requirement in 2012, there have been only 70 such “provisional” licenses mandated. With 40,000 rental units in Tacoma, that means a mere 0.18% (eighteen one hundredths of one percent) have been subject to any periodic inspection regime for safety and health issues inside rental units. Otherwise, success is measured by repaired gutters, towed cars, junk removal and outside paint jobs. As mentioned in the summary above, over the past several years the landlords have, not surprisingly, started to game the system. By mowing the lawn and picking up trash, landlords avoid complaints by neighbors that would lead to a more thorough inspection of the interior of the unit.  

On 9 June, Councilmember Murphy stated from the Bellingham council dais that “maybe 5%” of Bellingham’s rentals could be a threat to tenants’ health and safety. She provided absolutely no basis for that estimate nor did she respond to my invitations to review data. The Tacoma code, which Ms Murphy is promoting, actually states that the city of Tacoma estimates 3-5% of the rental units in the city are “below the minimum building standards” under RCW 59.18.060. Could this be the source of Ms Murphy’s contention that Bellingham has a similar percentage of rentals that present a health or safety threat?  When I inquired about the 3-5% figure in my conversations with Tacoma city officials, I learned the percentage was merely a guess based upon the previous history of complaints developed under the former (failed) complaint-only system which has, in essence, been perpetuated as of 2012. Consequently, Tacoma used that as part of the rationale for its rental inspection ordinance. I was not surprised to find out that the local Rental Housing Association assisted in writing the revised ordinance after the real estate and rental industries vehemently rejected earlier versions.

Furthermore, this 3-5 % number given by Ms Murphy flies in the face of the results of inspection ordinances in other cities in the U.S., such as Pasco, WA; Gresham, OR; or Sacramento, CA, where from 10% to 30% of units were found to have health and safety issues. These results were mirrored in Bellingham by two student surveys indicating the city’s rentals may have serious deficiencies in 20-30% of the units. While these percentages may seem small, when calculated, the number of actual units affected in Bellingham’s rental market ranges from 2,800 to 4,200 units that would house from 5,000 to 9,000 tenants based on average occupancy figures. Using Tacoma’s experience and complaint rate, it would take any complaint-only system in Bellingham hundreds of years to surface all the poor rental units…maybe.

Tacoma may have met with some success but Bellingham has no comparable crime-ridden neighborhoods. The Tacoma ordinance was merely one part of a wide effort to clean up the city, but the rental ordinance they put in place has been manifestly inadequate to address the health and safety of tenants as there are no overall periodic inspections of the interior of the rental units. Furthermore, to cite Tacoma’s efforts as an example of a licensing and inspection program that has gone well is misleading at best and a serious disservice to tenants at worst. 

The Bellingham City Council should take this information into consideration and reject the draft ordinance of Ms Murphy. The experience of Tacoma is a prime example of the abject failure of complaint-based systems in getting to the heart of the problem of resolving health and safety dangers inside rental units. Yet, this same system is being promoted as the solution to eliminating dangerous health and safety conditions here. The council should redraft a proposal to include periodic inspections of all rentals. Anything less will perpetuate the danger renters face in this city on a daily basis.

Note:  This article appeared on 1 Aug 2014 on NWCitizen.  Click here to see the article on that site.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

What Landlords Need to Know about Rental Registration

[Note: The following was published in NWCitizen on 21 Jul 2014 by Theo Bickel, a recent Political Science graduate of Western Washington University.  It is reproduced here with his permission.Theo has been working with  members of the student body and the student government to ensure that Bellingham landlords offer safe rental housing and that the city provide inspections of all rentals.]

A Robust Inspection of This Burned Rental Would Have Saved This Landlord Time and Money 
When discussing rental code enforcement, you may think it's a dispute between tenants and landlords, or a new draconian tax targeting landlords. This is not true. Washington law has already established a landlord’s legal responsibilities and the minimum health and safety standards of rental properties. The city of Bellingham is discussing the proactive enforcement of existing laws. Most landlords in this town abide by the laws and work hard to keep their properties in the best condition they can. However, in a town with 13,000 rental properties and around 40,000 tenants, many rental properties contain serious safety code violations and put the lives of tenants, neighbors, and our entire community at risk.

Since rental properties are an essential part of our community, their safety is the city's top priority. The city  is discussing proactive code enforcement by requiring rental properties to be registered with the city after a “self-declaration of compliance with a published checklist of minimum standards.” This lays out a checklist of standards that all properties must comply with to make sure there are no unsafe conditions “that endanger or impair or could endanger or impair the health or safety of a tenant.” If a rental property is found to be in violation of these conditions the city will require the landlord bring the property back up to safe standards with a “certificate of inspection” confirming repairs have been done. This program would be funded by a baseline fee to all landlords – similar to a business license. The city would apply fines and civil infractions for violations of health and safety laws to keep housing up to safe levels.

Rental registration would be a city service providing new resources and benefits to landlords. Here are the advantages to landlords in Rental Registration and Code Enforcement.

1. Levels the Playing Field – Currently, landlords who maintain their properties to safety standards compete against those who do not maintain their properties, allowing them to decay to unsafe levels. The registration system is structured to have a minimal impact on landlords who pass inspections and do not have a history of code violations. Fines escalate on landlords who have repeated safety violations in their rental properties. Therefore, this program will lead to a more fair market.

2. Creates Certainty in Rental Market – Registering all rental properties and bringing unsafe housing up to code will lead to greater market confidence, sustainable business practices and greater future investment in the rental market.

3. Enhances Communication between the City and Landlords – Understanding one’s rights and responsibilities may be difficult for new landlords. This program will make city resources and support more accessible. Some examples are:

 - Listing of landlord rights and responsibilities,
 - Standards for rental property health and safety,
 - Identification of unsafe conditions,
 - Assistance of licensed inspectors with professional knowledge about health and safety standards in buildings,
 - Coordinated access to community development non-profits and HUD programs to help low-income landlords in need of assistance.

4. Creates Advertising – A complete on-line list of rental properties with valid registration will be available to tenants. Not only will this site be easy to navigate, but it will also provide advertising to interested customers. After registered properties are certified, the non-registered properties will be avoided by tenants.

5. Improves Safety – Greater maintenance in rental properties will decrease rental fires and create safer communities that benefit everyone in Bellingham. Through registration, the city will be able to contact landlords during emergencies.

6. Increases Property Values – Rental housing will be improved by the enforcement of rental property health and safety standards. Neighborhoods with substandard housing will see new investments and a significant reduction in blight, leading to healthier and more valuable communities.

The Rental Registration program being discussed in the city of Bellingham is based upon data from successful implementation of proactive code enforcement policies in cities across America. These advantages are real, and they are tangible. Landlords, tenants, and all citizens in the city of Bellingham will benefit from the registration of rental properties and the proactive enforcement of health and safety standards. When the worst players of the rental market take advantage of their tenants, ignore their responsibilities, and put people in danger, this impacts community members and landlords who fulfill their duties. Not only is this unfair but it makes it harder to run an honest business. By having a universal registration system and a baseline of safety standards, this program can help bring landlords and city staff together to improve housing in Bellingham.

Support Rental Registration in Bellingham. Write to the mayor (klinville@cob.org) and to the city council (ccmail@cob.org)

Sources (Each item is a hyperlink):