Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Let Us Get On with Rental Inspections

Unfortunately, the Zonemaven has come upon, yet again, a rental situation that manifestly emphasizes the need for a rental inspection program in Bellingham.  The circumstances below indicate a system that does not work for the tenants, the landlords, the city staff or various other organizations that operate quite separately, under little or no common ground or statutes.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a couple who had just moved into an apartment unit on Cottonwood Ave.  The unit is part of a small complex consisting of 20 units "operated" by Lakeway Realty.  (See other Lakeway rentals featured in my blog here and here.)  Due to health conditions of the couple and in their effort to save several hundred dollars a month in rent, they fell into rental hell.  Hell in the way of the condition of the rental.  Hell in the way of getting anything repaired properly or repaired at all. Hell in the way of removing themselves from an untenable situation.  A rental licensing and inspection program would have gone a long way toward alleviating the problems encountered by this couple.

[Follow the blue links to photos and documents]

Inexpensive rent does not mean that people should live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.  After moving in, the couple began to discover some serious problems with their unit.  The water tank did not produce any warm water nor was there any water pressure.  There was loose and unprotected wiring next water sources and the water stream in the bathroom would just disappear.  A plumber came by and said that the hot water tank needed to be replaced.    When the water heater was eventually replaced a pipe valve broke during the night.  This water leak led to the discovery of a long term problem that had soaked the wall board behind the cabinetry in the kitchen.  That led to the discovery of a faulty water heater and exposed wiring.

Attempts to repair the damage produced some downstream problems for the tenants who were forced to spend a night in a hotel (repayment promised by the landlord) only to find that the landlord would provide only half of the one night's hotel charge and refused to pay for any additional nights although the apartment was not ready.  A call to the city brought out an inspector who, in spite of the apparent lack licensed plumbers and electricians, approved the installation of a new water heater and associated electrical work.  In an email to the tenants the inspector stated,

"Without knowledge to the contrary, we are left to assume the work is safe regardless of licensing requirements."

The tenants contacted the Whatcom County Health Department to obtain information on removing mold and were advised to bring in an expert in air quality from the Northwest Clean Air Agency.  His report on the effects of the long term water leak was that there was extensive mold:  "The wall cavity behind your kitchen sink shows evidence of long term excess moisture issues.  The wallboard has been saturated is mold covered and has lost its structural integrity.  The reverse side is also mold covered."  The Zonemaven spoke with the clean air expert who indicated that he had no enforcement power to mandate abatement of the problems.   The city inspector claimed in an email that mold issues were not within his range of responsibilities and that...

"While mold can be disgusting, it’s spores are omnipresent, it’s actually harmful to very few people, and it can also be easily killed with bleach. I was told by the worker at your house that bleach was being employed." 

Unfortunately this is not entirely true, especially in this circumstance.  (See below about the couple's asthmatic son.) Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control says:  Absorbent or porous materials like ceiling tiles, drywall, and carpet may have to be thrown away if they become moldy.  Read more here.

Although the letter from Northwest Clean Air Agency clearly indicated that there were most likely similar mold problems in the adjoining unit, the city inspector remained uninterested in pursuing the issue with the landlord.  The landlord's answer to the mold issue was to wash and  wipe down the saturated wall board and replace only a small portion of it (around a shutoff valve) that had been completely destroyed by mold.  The CDC site above indicates that wall board cannot be merely wiped down as the mold penetrates the material as does any water that is used in the removal process.

Similar moisture problems were found in the bathroom.  The broken toilet exhibited large accumulations of mold on the underside.  The wallboard near the tub was high in moisture, confirmed by the environmental specialist.  Some shoddy attempts were made at repairs involving replacement of molding with various pieces of unpainted wood while painting of wall surfaces that were clearly disintegrating.  A badly installed shower/tub diverter (upside down?) appears to have been letting shower water flow between the tub and the wall.  A closet in the hallway that abuts the back of the shower wall showed signs of water damage from moisture wicking the entire width of some plywood that constituted the rear wall of the closet.  

As these shenanigans were taking place, the husband, who was asked by the management to repair by himself a faulty ceiling light fixture in the kitchen, discovered that the insulation on the wiring was crumbling and flaking easily exposing the wire.  Zonemaven's research indicated that the apartment units were built in the 1950s, likely not having been rewired since with the exception of a few places associated with appliances.  There may be problems throughout the complex not only of deteriorating insulation but also with lack of ground wiring a practice prevalent during the 1950s. 

Replacement of the cabinetry and minimal repairs to the dry wall in the kitchen produced a fine layer of dust throughout the apartment, likely containing mold spores.  This may not be a problem to healthy individuals but the couple's son suffers from severe asthma and the wife has a compromised immune system. Her husband is a recent cancer patient and has had his two knees replaced.  Furthermore, the cabinetry work was never completed while the hot water repairs produced only several minutes worth of warm water.  The carpenter, who had been called in to replace the kitchen cabinet said that the owner told him only to do patch work and that the city inspector and the clean air expert had to get off the property.

At this point the couple's only option was to seek another apartment merely weeks after having moved into the one on Cottonwood.  The couple was told verbally by the management that they could get a release from the lease.  However, written confirmation was not forthcoming for a week or more. The next several weeks were spent attempting to get that release from the Lakeway Property's lease so that a new contract could be signed elsewhere.    Complicating the issue, aside from the couple's modest income, was a limited number of apartments available to meet the physical needs of the husband who, having had both knees replaced, could only live in a ground floor unit without stairs.

Much of that which this couple experienced could be attenuated or eliminated if there were a rental licensing and inspection program in this city.  The chances of an apartment with the kinds of problems described above being approved for rental would be greatly reduced.  The landlord of this unit could not have been unaware of the issues that would face a new set of renters.  Although this couple was fierce in their pursuit of repairs, not all tenants are so aggressive, especially in the face of a possible bad reference from a vindictive landlord or the confiscation, without justification, of a security deposit.  Landlords know that few tenants will pursue the recovery of such deposits through the court system.  

This city must move this year on approving an ordinance to mandate inspection of our rental units.  The Zonemaven recently met with representatives of the Associated Students of WWU.  They are planning on pushing for safe rentals as a priority issue for students this year.  The city would do well to listen to the voices representing the 10,000 student renters and others who hit our rental market each year.

[You can read more about the student efforts on rental inspections in my prior blog entry by clicking here.]


john erickson said...

Dave Hanson "lakeway" has made a career of taking deposit money and charging unjustified clean up costs to renters for over 35 years. Anyone thinking of renting from them should Take many pictures at the walk thru and at the end of lease with witnesses to protect themselves. The upkeep on these rentals is apparently non existent. Be very aware when dealing with lakeway.

Zonemaven said...


Well said.

Anonymous said...

Does ANY reader even suspect that city personnel or even council or mayor have any interest at all in actually dealing with any part of Bellingham's rental licencing scandal which allows an inequitable standard wherein ONLY the rental profit business is allowed to operate in town without a business licence. ( Which currently means that rental owners BUT NOBODY ELSE ) are free from controls. DOES THAT MAKE SENSE ?? IN TWELVE YEARS OF EFFORT THROUGH UNTOLD COUNCIL MEMBERS and CITY LEGAL DEPARTMENTS there has been monumental neglect to upkeep of either standards of rental property or enforcement of zoning rules. The scenario seems to be WAIT UNTIL THE SKIES FALL in the form of district blight and tenant hazard. Some fire ravaged tenant/s' funeral may not even stir the sleeping authorities into action unless a multi million lawsuit finally does the trick at which point a piddling licence fee will seem like a missed opportunity to the coumncil then sitting and trying to side step.