420 Lakeway Drive

Time to Audit Private Rental Inspections

With the passing of the Bellingham rental registration and inspection ordinance, thousands of rental units have been inspected during the first year the law has been in effect. We saw surprising numbers from the reviews conducted by city inspectors, with up to 50% of the units failing the first round of inspections in several neighborhoods.

However, approximately 30% of inspections since the program began in July 2016 were done by private inspectors. The private inspection option for landlords was mandated by state law, Revised Code of Washington 59.18.125. Unfortunately, the city’s code enforcement office never sees the inspection check sheets completed by private inspectors because at present the city only requires private inspectors to present a certification once a unit has eventually passed inspection. This city has no information whatsoever about the initial failure rate of units visited by private inspectors. Not only does this mean a significant amount of data on rental conditions is lost to the city, but also the lack of transparency opens the door to collusion between the landlord and the private inspector.

The Bellingham City Council can revisit the inspection ordinance and amend it to require that private inspectors produce their initial findings since the RCW states:

If a rental property owner chooses to hire a qualified inspector other than a municipal housing code enforcement officer, and a selected unit of the rental property fails the initial inspection, both the results of the initial inspection and any certificate of inspection must be provided to the local municipality (RCW 59.18.125(6)(e)).

Receipt of these inspection results would allow the city to measure the failure rate established by city inspectors against the failure rate of private inspectors. A significant difference in the failure rates could call into question the reliability of inspections done by private inspectors vs city code inspectors. A recent case is instructive.

A former resident of a rental at 420 Lakeway Drive writes, “6 weeks ago today on April 27th, a plumber that our rental company, Lakeway Realty, sent out stepped between the toilet and bathtub of our only working bathroom and put his foot through our floor. We have been in contact with the company almost every day since the hole was created yet they have barely made an effort to fix this serious health risk. In our smaller bathroom, the shower has a huge area of black mold on the ceiling, and the shower itself is not working. We also have concerns with one of the rooms in our house that doesn’t have a working window which we are pretty sure is not up to fire code. The windows in our kitchen are also a safety hazard because they are letting air in, don’t lock, and are very easy to pop out of the frame.”

Hole in Bathroom Floor

The great concern about this case is that the city planning department confirmed that this rental unit was inspected by a private inspector in November, 2016, several months prior to the plumber having put his foot through the rotten floor. (see photo at left) That private inspector certified that the unit conformed to the city’s requirements on safety. Rotten flooring, plus mold, plus defective fire exit, plus unsecured windows, plus no working shower, equals failure in anyone’s book; so how did this unit pass inspection? A later city inspection report dated June 1, 2017, confirms the extent of the problem described by the tenants and fails the unit. [Note: The hole in the floor gave way directly to the crawl space under the house. Subsequent work to repair the bathroom uncovered more than a dozen rat corpses within the walls.] The city says it has contacted the private inspector who passed the unit, however, there is no information available on the results of that contact. The RCW considers falsification of inspection reports a misdemeanor and states such a violation “must be punished by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars.” The private inspector could also lose his authorization to perform rental inspections on behalf of the city.

All this is of little comfort to the five female roommates who rented the house (one half of a duplex) and who had to move to another rental unit provided by Lakeway Realty, the property management firm, but not before a struggle that consisted of missed appointments on the part of the management while the unit had no working bathroom. Compounding the situation, all this occurred at the end of the academic quarter when the student roommates were supposed to be spending their time preparing for final examinations.

The rental inspection program was supposed to ensure that units are livable and do not pose a threat to the occupants, thus obviating scenarios such as this one. For this reason, the City Council, in conjunction with the planning department must amend city code, as allowed by the RCW, to require submission of inspection worksheets on those units that initially fail under private inspections . Additionally, the city ought to require random audits of private inspectors (at no cost to the landlord). This will ensure that both city and private inspectors are working “from the same sheet.”

Helpful links:

1. To report problems associated with rental inspections to the city: Call 360.778.8361 or send an email to rentals@cob.org. For additional information visit the city’s rental inspection web page.

2. To contact the Bellingham Tenants Union: at their Facebook Page or on Twitter

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

Geoff Middaugh

Jun 22, 2017
Why does it have to be so hard?   Renters face basic health and safety issues, and it seems like the full force and effect of city government would and

Why does it have to be so hard?   Renters face basic health and safety issues, and it seems like the full force and effect of city government would and should support them.   Bad actors need to be treated as bad actors, and lose their license.   Great research, and a public service to get this in front of the public, and of course, the regulators (and the city council!)  

Dick Conoboy

Jun 23, 2017

Geoff,

Greed.

Regards,

Dick

Tim Paxton

Jun 25, 2017
How many more low income people will have been kicked out to the Bellingham streets when all the sub standard quality Bellingham rental units have been upgraded?   I

How many more low income people will have been kicked out to the Bellingham streets when all the sub standard quality Bellingham rental units have been upgraded?   I know two people, , kicked out because of rental regulations.

Not that the slum lords shouldn’t have to maintain their hovels, but there is a non-theoretical  and actual consequences to the new rental inspection regulation festival. 

 

Dick Conoboy

Jun 26, 2017
Tim, I am in regular contact with the Director of Planning and have not heard of any renters who have been kicked out of their units.  Can you be

Tim,

I am in regular contact with the Director of Planning and have not heard of any renters who have been kicked out of their units.  Can you be more specific about how these people lost their rental units?  I know that a handful of landlords have decided to sell their rentals rather than fix them up.  This tells us more about the landlords and greed than anything else.  The city is not likely to get into the greed control business.

I do know that the city has in place procedures to assist anyone who loses a rental unit because an inspection declared that unit uninhabitable.   Thousands of units have been inspected during this first cycle and it seems to me that people are not being tossed out as a result.

Again, if you have some specific info, I would like to hear it.

Dick

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