Thursday, January 24, 2013

City Council Planning Committee to Discuss Rental Health and Safety Options

On January 28th at 10:30 am, the Planning Committee of the Bellingham City Council will take up the topic of rental health and safety.  The committee is scheduled to receive a briefing, in the form of an overview, on the subject by the council's Policy Analyst, Mark Gardner.  You can read the agenda bill item by clicking here.  Attached to the agenda bill is an excellent study, entitled Options for a Rental Housing Licensing and Quality Inspection Program,  prepared by Mark Gardner several years ago at a time that the council was considering action on rental licensing and inspections.  No action was taken as a result of the study, however, the study remains an excellent source of information on rental licensing and inspection programs in general.  A discussion on rental health and safety will follow the briefing.

Council Member Jack Weiss has been offering a draft plan for a rental health and safety measure for several months.  He has been meeting with stakeholders on both sides of the issues and has presented his plan to various neighborhood associations.  It is not clear at this time whether Councilman Weiss will ask the committee to consider this draft proposal.  In any event, since the topic of rental health and safety is the only agenda item for the committee, the members will have more than one hour for discussion.
The latest version (click here to read that draft) Councilman Weiss’ proposal to establish a program to ensure the health and safety of renters has changed since I reported on his initial draft in late October.  You can read my blog entry on that version by clicking here.  Gone is any reference to changing or eliminating the so-called “rule of three” which limits the number of unrelated people in a rental unit in areas zoned single-family.  This prohibition has nothing to do with the safety and health of renters but does have some impact on the zoning and density issue.  Councilman Weiss may bring this issue to the attention of council later this year in the context of zoning and density.

A few weeks ago I attended a York Neighborhood meeting where Councilman Weiss presented the revised draft of his rental health and safety measure. After he spoke, he took questions from the residents of the neighborhood and from  some neighborhood landlords.  Many of the landlords' fears still arise from the lack of detail in proposals to date.  This is quite natural until one has the language of an actual ordinance.  

For example, people have concerns about historic preservation and the effect of inspections on the appearance of the home.  This derives from lack of info regarding the kinds of safety codes that will be enforced.  As soon as possible the council ought to produce a strawman/sample checklist, based on that of Pasco or some other jurisdiction.  (You can read more about the Pasco checklist here) This should allay some fears that an inspection program will occasion wholesale remodeling of rental units or run contrary to historic preservation goals.

There is a continuing theme in the discussion about rental health and safety to the effect that 98-99% of landlords are good landlords or that there are only a few bad landlords.  Much of this comes from the landlords themselves. As you know, I have challenged this assumption on many occasions in this blog simply because there is no empirical evidence that these statements are true.  I have heard mentioned that the basis for this assumption is that the city receives few complaints, as if this were an accurate measure. Studies have shown that complaint-based systems (such as we have in Bellingham now) do not work for a variety of reasons.  Any action taken on the basis of data from a complaint-based system is destined to fail due to the inherent problem of under-reporting.  People do not complain due to ignorance, fear of retaliation or other perceived negatives.

I have been working on this issue for years now and I have yet to hear, from landlords or opponents of licensing and inspection, any reference to a study that supports the contention that all but a few landlords are good and their properties are, therefore, safe or that there is some methodology for weeding out the bad landlords and their properties in a targetted manner.  I confess that many or even most landlords may be well-intentioned but that does not translate into safe rentals.  Not only must landlords be well-intentioned but also they must be knowledgeable. 

The actual data that I have discovered and reported in my blog indicate that wherever inspection programs have been initiated, 10%, 15%, 30% or up to 50% of the units are found to have life-threatening health and safety issues. But percentages cloud the issue.  15% (which is about the level of unsafe rentals found in Pasco during their initial inspection round) sounds like a low percentage but when the number of units that may actually be affected is calculated we are talking about more than 2,500 bad rentals (again based on Bellingham’s rental stock of 17,000+ units).  Since many of these rentals have multiple occupants, the math suggests the number of renters affected could be minimally 4,000 to 5,000. Such projections are the reason for which we must have a very active inspection/verification program.  Randomized programs may not fit the bill and may produce a false sense of security in having "done something".

With nearly $400,000 in annual fees accruing from licensing/registration, we should be able to perform such inspections with ease.  The $400,000 is based upon a yearly, per unit fee of $24, however, this number is not written in stone.  We should first look to the purpose and structure of a desired rental inspection ordinance and then calculate the overall cost to execute that program.  Dividing a cost estimate by the number of rental units will then provide a per unit fee structure.  Pasco inspectors were able to look at 8-10 units per day.  We should easily have sufficient capacity with two inspectors and an administrative assistant to keep records.  This is hardly the “huge” bureaucracy that some landlords fear and we can always readjust depending on the actual number of problem rentals that are discovered.  All this must be cost estimated by the city's financial officer. 

Another seemingly rational comment from opponents is that not only rentals should be inspected but also owner-occupied homes/units.  The argument is a red herring. The reality is that rentals are offered to the public for money, whereas owner-occupied homes are maintained by the owner to his/her own level of comfort with the risks that may be posed to the family.  Health inspectors do not poke about your home kitchen but spend much time inspecting restaurant kitchens that serve the public.  These inspection costs are borne by the restaurant owners.

There were also several comments regarding the fines for non-compliance proposed in the draft.  Councilman Weiss correctly pointed out that the proposed fines conform to the recent legislation on rental licensing and inspection passed in Olympia a short time ago. (You can read about that legislation by clicking here.) In any event, all should know that any proposed ordinance must be reviewed by the city attorney to ensure conformity with existing law.

I plan to attend the committee meeting scheduled for 28 Jan at 10:30am and urge everyone on this email list to do the same.

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