Thursday, July 10, 2014
Rental Safety and Health Founders at City Council Meeting
On Monday evening the city council decided to move forward with the most lax and ineffective version of a rental licensing ordinance. On 23 June, the council's Planning Committee had provided three versions of a rental health and safety ordinance to the Committee of the Whole for consideration at the 7 Jul council session. You can view a summary chart of those options here.
Unfortunately, the Committee of the Whole chose Option 1, the one proffered by Council Member Murphy. You can review this watered-down version of an ordinance in its entirety at the council's webpage here - Draft Ordinance 6-23-14 Registration Only. The other two versions can be seen also at the same page here. Even these two are not gems but at least they provide for inspections.
I provided comments on this measure during the public comment period at the beginning of the city council meeting. You can view a video of my comments here at video counter number 11:50.
The problems one encounters with the selected version of this ordinance is that there is not one shred of a requirement for inspections. All is complaint based, just as we have had for the past decades, the process that does not work. Below is what Tim Johnson at the Cascadia Weekly had to say about the council's actions on rental health and safety. You can read the entire Gristle column, Call of the Mild, here where Tim has hit the nail on the head.
"Council... appears to have lost their way on a registration program for rental units in the city, appearing to jettison every beneficial part of the original proposal in favor of—basically—a telephone directory of landlords tacked on to the bare bones of a complaint-driven system. As several commenters at their meeting noted, there is already a directory of landlords, and there is already a procedure that allows tenants to complain of their shabby tenements. Thus, after more than two decades of work on this issue, Council appears on the threshold of glossing gossamer, cementing in place a “feel good” system already deemed inadequate.
Property managers and brokers, of course, joyously love it, as it compels them to do nothing. It does nothing to alter the power imbalance between the owners and sellers of private property and the 54 percent of city residents who rent from them. As commenters noted, tenants who complain get evicted and they get their references shredded.
The centerpiece of a responsible rental licensing program are audits and inspections that yield data that informs policy about the city’s rental housing stock. Even modest inspections put landlords on notice that they can no longer rely solely on the silence of their tenants on issues of public health and safety. Over the past three years six fires have displaced nearly 20 renters in Bellingham. None of these properties had been reported to the city under the current complaint-based system since most of the tenants were unaware there was a problem and untrained to recognize one.
Council’s malaise on these issues, we’ll argue, is that—with notable exceptions—no member is pushing particularly hard in one direction, and there is no member at all pushing back hard the other way to yield dimension and stakes, even urgency, to their discussions. The public does arrive to scold and beat them, but generally only when they’re already on the precipice, having committed third and final to a mediocre plan.
The council has voted to have a hearing on this questionable measure sometime in September as it was recognized that the council docket was pretty full in August. I would suggest further that the council wait until at least October, when one large stakeholder group, the WWU student body, is back in town. More importantly, the tenants must come forward and call out the council on this risible and ineffective choice, essentially a confirmation of the status quo.