Thursday, October 23, 2014

York Neighborhood Supports Rental Registration AND Inspections

The York Neighborhood has just sent (see below) a second letter this year to the City Council in support of a Rental Health and Safety Ordinance in Bellingham.  York joins with other neighborhoods that have already gone on the record with the City Council in support of not only licensing but inspecting all rentals.  You can read the letters of the other neighborhoods that have joined in this call for action by clicking on the name of the neighborhood:  Samish, Fairhaven, Sehome, and WWU (Associated Students). The Roosevelt Neighborhood also voiced support of an ordinance in a statement to the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission at its July meeting. 

There will be a hearing on this proposal next Monday, evening, October 27th at the 7pm City Council meeting.  You can sign up after 6:30pm to speak in support of adding an inspections component to the draft "registration-only" ordinance to be considered.  Tell the council that a rental registration ordinance only perpetuates the current failed system and that regular inspections are required to protect the 40,000 or more Bellingham citizens who live in rentals. To view the hearing materials click here and then scroll to and click on Agenda item 20382.

Here is the York Neighborhood letter:

October 20, 2014

Dear City Council:

We are writing to urge you to support a Rental Health and Safety Ordinance that will include mandatory inspections of properties. On January 11, 2011, there were two fires in the York Neighborhood – both preventable and both related to poor maintenance by the property owners.

One fire at 1408 Grant St. happened in the middle of the night while the three tenants were sleeping. One of them got up to get something to eat and heard the fire in the attic as a piece of the ceiling fell into the second floor bathroom. Fortunately, all three escaped unharmed. The cause of the fire, as reported by the Fire Marshall Jason Napier,was “electrical failure” and “malfunction” in the electrical junction box in the attic. There were no working smoke alarms in the house.

The second fire happened earlier the same day at 1418 Ellis St. The cause of the fire was a fan that was part of the heating system was not properly bolted on; it fell to the floor and caught the rug on fire. Fire Marshall Jason Napier reported: “The building was rewired by the owner some years ago. None of it was ever inspected for code compliance.”

We do not think these failures in rental property maintenance are an anomaly. We

believe our city has numerous properties that would not pass a basic building safety inspection. Housing safety standards should be enforced through an inspection program, with expert guidance on how to fix problems. Enforcement should include penalties. An inspection “check-list,” such as the one used for Section 8 housing is 1½ pages and is a subset of the building code. It is a fair and reasonable list of basic safety expectations. A “registry” of rental properties does nothing to create better code enforcement.

A complaint-based system does not work. It has failed in Bellingham and other cities. It puts the burden on the tenant to fight one-on-one with the landlord who has an unfair advantage and can retaliate by raising the rent, not giving a good reference, or just ignoring the complaint all together which does happen.

We support “healthy homes” for our city. Half of our city’s housing is rentals and are an essential part of the community’s quality of life. Substandard housing creates hazards for the tenants, neighbors and deteriorates our neighborhoods.

We urge the City Council to proactively regulate the rental industry. Rentals are

businesses, and like other businesses they should be expected to comply with licensing, inspections and oversight. Treating rentals as businesses is a fair practice.

It’s not about loud parties, garbage, and unmowed lawns. Other enforcement tools exist to manage nuisances. No enforcement tools exist to evaluate the internal conditions of Bellingham’s rental housing. It’s about decent housing for all and thriving neighborhoods. Bellingham’s neighborhoods, particularly the older ones, are a patchwork quilt of decaying, neglected properties amongst well-maintained historic housing.

Please vote to support rental licensing with inspections.


Members of the York Neighborhood Association Board

Don Hilty-Jones - President

Mark Schofield - Vice President

Anne Mackie - Secretary

Lisa Anderson - Treasurer

At-Large Board Members: Cory Anderson, Kirsti Charlton, Robb Correll, Tom Scott

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:  

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.