Bellingham Must Require Private Rental Inspection Checklists

Fire on Jersey St. - An Investigation - Part II

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• In Bellingham,

Serious health and safety conditions existed in the rental at 1017 Jersey St. BEFORE the fire. Telephone interviews I conducted with several of the former tenants of the rental that burned on October 5th revealed health and safety violations of a nature that would have failed the home under the city’s rental inspection program. Surprisingly, the rental had passed a health and safety inspection in October, 2016. The inspection was conducted by a private inspector hired by the owner or his management firm.

From my conversations with the young men who had taken possession of the rental one month earlier, the following issues arose:

Electrical - In at least two of the bedrooms wall outlets were taped in place and some were taped over completely so as to prohibit use. One tenant spoke of a wall outlet that was coming apart and had been taped to keep it together.The night before the fire, the tenants experienced the lights flickering within the rental. The kitchen stove did not work properly. The spark generator for lighting gas burners malfunctioned. One burner did not work at all.

Plumbing - The sinks in the bathroom and kitchen regularly backed up. The kitchen sink had a gravity fed drain whose piping rose after it left the trap causing the waste water to flow backward into the pipe and sink after about 30 seconds of use.

Safety - The very steep stairs from the upper level to the lower level were warped so that residents risked sliding off the leading edge of the steps while descending. The very top step had no support in the middle and flexed considerably when stepped on - almost to the breaking point.

Permitting - The living room on the top level was being used as a 4th bedroom along with three others on the same level. The house was built as a two bedroom dwelling. No evidence in the property records indicates permitting for additional bedroom construction beyond the original two.

Security - The back door at the alley level had evidence of forced entry. The broken wood around the locking mechanism was repaired only with glue.

Vermin - A small room on the lower level with an inoperable dryer had duct work to the outside that was not properly sealed allowing a one inch gap covered with cardboard large enough to permit entry of vermin. Detritus from previous tenants, as well as an inoperable dishwasher, were stored in the room.

Mold - The bedroom walls of one of the tenants had mold on the surfaces indicating a problem with humidity, insulation, plumbing, heating or a combination of some or all. Mold in and of itself is not a factor in failing a rental inspection but the causes of the mold may be indicative of a serious overall problem.

That these conditions existed in a rental that had been inspected a mere 11 months earlier by a private inspector is evidence of a serious issue that the Planning Department must confront quickly and directly.

The private inspector hired by the owner of 1017 Jersey St. also inspected and passed the owner’s properties at 412 and 420 Lakeway Dr., (Time to Audit Private Rental Inspections - Part II) in late 2016, both of which were found later to have health and safety issues. The common elements among the three deficient properties are an owner, David Hansen, and a private inspector, John Nelson of Building Services NW.

The report of the fire marshal on the specific cause of this fire has yet to appear. No matter what the cause of the fire, the incident has opened another window into the possibility that private inspections are being carried out either in a slipshod manner or, more disturbingly and crassly, for the benefit of the landlords.

Again, I call on the city to audit these private inspections. Our City Council must revise the Bellingham Municipal Code to require all private inspection worksheets be submitted to code enforcement officials for review and recording.

About Dick Conoboy

Writer • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Oct 24, 2017
Tenants do not have to tolerate unsafe conditions that contravene the City’s rental property bylaws. The first avenue of remedy is to complain to the landlord. If this is

Tenants do not have to tolerate unsafe conditions that contravene the City’s rental property bylaws. The first avenue of remedy is to complain to the landlord. If this is unsuccessful, the City has a bylaw enforcement complaint process. 

For the benefit of tenants who are unaware of the City’s resources in this regard, here is a link to the “Tenants” section of the Rental inspection program pages on the City’s website.

And here is a link to the Code Enforcement Investigation request form.

I agree that private rental inspections should be public, as are the inspections performed by the City. Rental Inspectors are licensed and if it can be shown that an inspector is doing a bad job, they should lose their license.

Enforcement of the City’s rental inspection program works better when the people directly affected - the tenants - take action to identify poor landlords. Our law enforcement is mostly complaint-based - as Officer Friendly said at our neighborhood association meeting: “If you don’t tell us about it, we don’t know about it.”

Dick Conoboy

Oct 24, 2017
David, You are going over ground that was well travelled for the last decade or more during the debate on rental registration and inspections.  You are resurfacing several tired

David,

You are going over ground that was well travelled for the last decade or more during the debate on rental registration and inspections.  You are resurfacing several tired themes brought up by landlords about tenant responsibility and the efficacy of complaint-based systems.  One is of the blame the victim variety and the other is about expertise on the part of tenants to identify problems.  I reject both and so did the city council.

David Camp

Oct 24, 2017
Dick - I think you should read my comment more carefully. Are you actually saying we don’t have a complaint-based system? Do you really think that tenants don’t

Dick - I think you should read my comment more carefully. Are you actually saying we don’t have a complaint-based system? Do you really think that tenants don’t have a duty to report unsafe conditions? How do you think code enforcers will find out about bad conditions or bad inspectors? We can’t merely rely on you hyperventilating from time to time. 

Dick Conoboy

Oct 24, 2017

I rest my case…

 

Jon Shaughnessy

Oct 24, 2017
My neighbor on Jersey St. said he heard no smoke alarms at any time during the fire. He ran across the street to help out as soon as he saw

My neighbor on Jersey St. said he heard no smoke alarms at any time during the fire. He ran across the street to help out as soon as he saw the smoke, so he would have heard any alarms if they were working. Has anyone in BFD or rental inspections been told?

Dianne Foster

Oct 25, 2017

Maybe if the students’ parents sued the city for lack of adequate oversight,  things might perk up…..

Jon Shaughnessy

Oct 25, 2017
Dianne - Civil suits are one way to get Lakeway’s attention; suing the city runs the risk of the general public’s aversion to paying tax dollars for a

Dianne -

Civil suits are one way to get Lakeway’s attention; suing the city runs the risk of the general public’s aversion to paying tax dollars for a private company’s crimes.

Dick Conoboy has a track record for getting things done in this field and I see Lakeway as the poster boy for mopre effective oversight.

“Oversight” has two meanings:

1. The City has a duty to oversee all rental units’ safety reord and potential as a death trap, so it must exercise enough oversight to prevent the prventable deaths that will come one of these days when a Lakeway property burns again.

2. Lakeway may claim it was a mere oversight that every bedroom lacked a smoke alarm and/or the smoke alarms that were installed were battery operated, not hard wired with a battery backup in case of melted wires and/or all the batteries in all the smoke alarms had died before the fire started in the first and second houses on Jersey Street.

Is there a lawyer reading this? Have I mentioned the name “Lakeway” often enough so that an innocent company could now sue me for libel? Or is this living proof that I have not committedlibel against a company gulty of everything I just implied?

RSVP

even if, like me

 you are a jail house lawyer

sans Ph.D.

Jon Shauhnessy, 360/671-0248, redjon76@yahoo.com

3. Where’s the BTU [Bellingham Tenants Union] when we need them? Will the fires on Jersey St. [actually three now] be the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire* for this union?

* Google it - NYC needle trade early 20th Century. My grandma Miller, first generation from Italy, worked in one of those sweat shops. Didn’t get burned, just unionized.

 

 

Dianne Foster

Oct 25, 2017
The inspections are a joke,  and the city is the one with the official inspection department,  and the only ones we as citizens can lobby.   &

The inspections are a joke,  and the city is the one with the official inspection department,  and the only ones we as citizens can lobby.     I called them last week to see if the 3 DADU’s within eyesight of my house on Mason St. have been inspected,  and if they are officially listed in the inventory for Sehome SF neighborhoods.    The person didn’t know what I was talking about,  and I gave up.    I guess the only way to find out is to  file a complaint,  although the particular ones in question don’t pose a problem for me;    but if they can’t enforce existing rules,  how can we trust them with the new ones they seek?

Dick Conoboy

Oct 27, 2017
Diane, Thanks for all your comments.  I have sent an edited version of my article to the city council as a letter demanding action on pulling the covers off

Diane,

Thanks for all your comments.  I have sent an edited version of my article to the city council as a letter demanding action on pulling the covers off the work of private inspectors.  We need others to write to their council members to demand immediate action. 

As for identifying DADUs, you can see for yourself if a unit is registered as a rental at a particular address by going to the city website here.  If they are not being used as a rental or are owner occupied, they will not appear on this list.

Dick Conoboy

Oct 27, 2017
Jon, Non-working smoke detectors are not in and of themselves a safety hazard.  The hazard rests with the condition of the home, its electrical and heating systems.  The

Jon,

Non-working smoke detectors are not in and of themselves a safety hazard.  The hazard rests with the condition of the home, its electrical and heating systems.  The cure for those hazards is regular and open safety inspections.

Thomas R. Scott

Oct 27, 2017
Has the Planning and Community Development Department been asked about your findings, preliminary and otherwise, regarding possible/probably permitting issues as well as a indications of fraudulent filing

Has the Planning and Community Development Department been asked about your findings, preliminary and otherwise, regarding possible/probably permitting issues as well as a indications of fraudulent filing by the private inspector.  The stairs alone seem to invalidate any assertion of minimum safety standards by the inspector and call into question the voracity of the filing provided by the inspector.

If so, what was their response?

Once a pattern has been found of at least invalid filings for a given inspection firm, what does the City view as its recourse or next steps?

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