Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Second Look at a Bad Rental

Last May I was contacted by the mother of a student renter in the Lettered Streets neighborhood about a problem of a burning odor emanating from the dryer.  The problem turned out to be a severe buildup of lint in the dryer's vent system.  You can read again about that issue by clicking here.  

Recently, I had contact with the mother and her daughter who indicated that there were additional problems with the unit, some of which were in the category of health and safety, and that she had some photos.  Shortly after, the daughter contacted me by email to which the photos were attached.  I have included these photos below along with the account this student had sent me.  Here are her own words:

"I lived in a duplex last year in the [Lettered Streets neighborhood]. Myself and my two roommates rented through [a well known property management firm]. (NB:  The owners of the property, built in 1904, live in Seattle.)  It was a long year with lots of problems.

Seeing that it was a old house my mom said that I needed to get the furnace checked out. I sent an email to Ashley (the property manager) saying that I wanted to get this checked out. Barron finally came to check out the furnace (Oct/Nov 2011). I have a picture of our old furnace filter next to a new one. (above left)  The furnace filters where not changed since 2008. I spoke with the Barron employee and he said those need to be changed around every 6 months and the furnace needs to be serviced every year.

We had countless electrical problems while living there. We had to be very careful about what appliances we had on at all times. The first time the fuse broke I can remember calling the [management]and getting no response not knowing what to do. A maintenance worker left his cell number for us to call him so I ended up calling him to ask what to do. He told me to flip the switch at the fuse box. I included a picture of the fuse box. (on left) We also had a big light outside of the apartment that was suppose to light up the parking area (which got very dark). I called to have that checked on because it did not work and we would have liked it on for safety reasons. A electrical company came out to look at it and told me it was illegal wiring and they could not fix it. 

We had problems with mold, carpenter ants, wasps, and billing. The people who work for [this management company] have no sort of organization in that office. We were sent a bill for Barron coming and servicing our place, and late fees for not paying that bill. It was extremely frustrating trying to rent through them.

As if this was not enough one of my roommates was drying her clothes and took them out and they smelt like smoke. (Again see my blog entry of 25 May here) I contacted [the management] about the problem and wanted the vent cleaned out. It was about a 10ft vent from the dryer to the outside of the apartment. When the man came and cleaned out the dryer vent I was shocked to see how much lint buildup there was stuffed into that little vent. .. I spoke with the man who worked for a air duct company and he told me it looks like it had been a VERY long time since this was cleaned out. I am aware that this type of build up often results in a house fire....

After the dryer was cleaned out there was not a cover put back on the outside of the vent. (see photo at right) A couple of weeks later I was drying my clothes and it started to smell...The worst smell I could have imagined was coming from the washer and dryer closet. I cleaned out the washer/dryer but still smelt it. I called my mom to come over and investigate. I believe a animal came in from the outside of the house at this dryer vent output and died because it was not covered up. As if all of this was not terrible enough I had a dead animal in the walls of my house! We called [the management] and told them this they said they could get someone out there "maybe". I believe called on a Thursday. No one came until Monday only to be told to wait until the animal dries out because it will not smell anymore."

So the solution to the problem according to management was to wait until the dead animal dried out so it would no longer smell.  Presumably they had never heard of flies, maggots or other carrion eaters, also known as vermin.  Not mentioned in the accounting above was another electrical issue with an open electrical junction box on a wall with the wires just hanging out.  (see the photo at right Exposed wiring can be a danger not only for electric shocks but also as a fire hazard.

So let us recapitulate the problems with this rental unit:

-Dangerous buildup of lint in the dryer ventilation system
-Filthy filters in heating system
-Furnace apparently not serviced in 3 years
-Faulty electrical system that cannot bear normal appliance loads
-Exposed wires at an open electrical junction box
-Dead animal in dryer duct work
-Illegally wired outside safety light
-Service calls billed to renters
-Poor response times on maintenance issues 
Luckily the young student renter in this case had an alert mother who is herself in the real estate business and sees firsthand the threats to health and safety.  Others are not so fortunate and become victims of these shady rental management firms who prey on ignorance and fear in a tight rental market.   The Seattle couple who owns this property may be ignorant with respect to the issues with their rental unit, having turned over the reins of management to a local property firm.  Since there is this buffer  between the renter and the owner, few renters have the time, the energy and the know-how to devote to discovering the identity of the owners to alert them to the situation with their rental.  After all, one presumes that there are probably not too many rental owners who purposefully chose a lousy, incompetent and inept property management firm.
These issues can be solved by an effective health and safety inspection and registration of all rentals in Bellingham.   These large property management outfits will then be found and be forced to do the job for which owners pay them.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Students Getting Wise on Rental Ripoffs and Dangers

Last week the WWU student newspaper, the Western Front, published two pieces on rental health and safety issues.  The editorial board spoke out in an opinion piece entitled "Student Renters Need Protection".   You can read that editorial by clicking here.  That same day, the newspaper published a long article on the rental situation by student journalist Nathan Dalla Santa entitled, "Rental Licensing Law Stuck".   That article is available by clicking here.

Students are catching on.  The realization is that they have been had by landlords day after day and year after year for decades.  From high rents and units in dangerous and atrocious condition to security deposits unjustly withheld, students are understanding that with 10,000 renters from their university they might just have a very large say in the matter.  The Associated Students (AS) and the Western Front have already spoken on the topic of health and safety in rentals several times (click here and here).  The latest is a letter from the AS to the mayor and city council asking for action on inspection of rentals.  You can read my blog entry on that action hereAn AS  representative has already met with the mayor.  Additionally, the AS has created a work-study position to advance action by the city on this pressing issue.  The person chosen will be proposed to the mayor as the WWU representative on the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission.

The Viking Community Builders and the Western Democrats worked hard on a survey of rental conditions in Bellingham that was published last year. You can read about the results of the survey and study the actual data and comments here.  As noted in the 23 October Western Front article, this year WWU student Heather Rees is working on the publication of the results of a survey of student renters that she did in conjunction with the Campus Community Coalition.  I will bring you news of that survey once it is published.