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Misleading/Incomplete Report on Rental Inspection Results

By Dick ConoboyOn Sep 30, 2016
• In Bellingham,

Before the committee of the whole of the Bellingham City Council on 26 September, the planning director presented a “correction” to the figures on the pass/fail rate of rental units inspected over the previous three months in the Sehome neighborhood. In fact, the figures presented differed little from previous reports. (see my prior column on these statistics here) The new figures were 242 passed and 239 failed with a fail rate of 50%. [The minor differences from previous figures of 231 and 237 respectively are due to constant updates as new units are inspected each day.] The director's report (see pie chart) goes on to say that after a SECOND inspection, another 142 units passed. The claim then was that 80% of our rental stock inspected to date passed! Woohoo! This is true but terribly misleading since the initial failure rate was 50%. With the logic of the pie chart pictured above, the passing on a second inspection of the remaining 95 failed units would bring the failure rate for our rental stock to 0% when, in fact, the initial go around was a miserable 50% pass rate demonstrating the true condition of the rental units before any inspections whatsoever. This wretched failure rate should bring a collective gasp of dumbfoundedness to the city of Bellingham.

This leads us to the incomplete.

Even more alarming was that there was no specification that 310 rental units (35%) of the 880 units in Sehome are being inspected by private inspectors. The use of private inspectors is allowed by state law, however, at the moment there appears to be no means by which the city can compel the private inspector to turn over the actual inspection sheet. All the city receives is a “pass” document, attested to by the inspector. There will be no indication about the number of failed inspections made before the pass attestation is given to the city. This not only paves the way for shenanigans on the part of the landlord (inspector-landlord collusion) but it also deprives the city and, more importantly, the tenants of vital, detailed information regarding the problems found within the rental units. [To date there has been no indication of any collusion.] Nevertheless, the 310 units (35%) in Sehome to be inspected by private inspectors leaves an enormous lacuna in the information on deficiencies available to the city. Furthermore, the city is finding that landlords using private inspectors tend to be the large management/real estate firms, many of which have checkered histories in dealing with tenants. This is unacceptable. The planning director indicated that the city is awaiting a legal case now in Seattle that may clarify the private inspector issue and its consequences.

As the inspections wind down in the Sehome neighborhood, the city will fix its attention next on the York neighborhood with its 575 rental units, a mix of single and mutli-family zoned areas. 54% of York's 479 single family homes are rentals. In fact, 31 of those individual homes are owned by Dave and Jonathan Hansen. At total of 27 other single family rentals are owned variously and separately by four landlords. The number of landlords who will use private inspectors in the York neighborhood remains to be seen but the situation should give any thinking person pause.

After the York neighborhood the city will move south to Happy Valley and then finish the south end with South Hill, Fairhaven, Edgemoor and South neighborhoods. An explanatory map of the inspection zones can be found here.

About Dick Conoboy

Writers • 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 01, 2016

So the landlord licensing and inspection system seems to be working, right? I’m having trouble understanding your objection, Dick. 481 units inspected in Sehome, of which 385 pass muster and 96 must be repaired or lose their license. Seems like the problem properties have been identified and are on notice. I say good job, City of B’ham!

As to private inspectors,  I agree it makes sense for the inspectors to file their checklists with the City. However, I object to your implied suggestion that private inspectors are corrupt- does that mean you believe that the only valid inspections are done by government employees? Really? Consider all the industries where private licensed inspectors are the norm - ship surveyors, company auditors, organic farm certifiers, to name a few. Do you have a problem with these as well? I mean, are you next going to argue that all private property should be owned by the State, Comrade Conoboy?

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 01, 2016

David,

Yes, I may have been remiss in not thanking the inspection team for their good work but that is unrelated to reporting on results that leaves out some important information on the relative success of the program.  Just because the program is up and running does not mean we let down our guard and forget about the renters.

As for the private inspectors, I think it is important for the citizens to know the private inspector’s role in the inspection program.  I have accused nobody.  I have pointed out that there is room for hanky-panky and that we should be alert to that and work to close the loophole.  Remember it was the private sector in the form of landlords, real estate reps and related associations who told us all was well and fought for decades against the inspection ordinance.  Am I supposed to just trust them now to do the right thing?

As to your question about “private licensed” inspectors being the norm, yes, I have a problem with that.  The government should not be privatizing inherently governmental functions, that is, those having to do with health, safety, finance (governmental), military or foreign relations. 

And your statement “I mean, are you next going to argue that all private property should be owned by the State, Comrade Conoboy?” is just too silly to answer.

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 01, 2016

David,

Also,time will tell if these rates continue…50% initial failure and 35% inspected by private hires.  Having a dark blanket thrown over more than a third of your objects of inspection is quite troubling.  Think about a restaurant hiring its own inspectors who only give a pass document to the health department. The health department never learns anything about the state of the restaurants.  You only learn of a problem if someone gets ill or dies.  Rather hard to gather data for best practices, too.

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Scott Wicklund

Oct 03, 2016

Dick,
This is a perfect time to extend the regime to cover ALL dwellings in the City.  I suspect the failure rate to be about the same.  Think of all the lives that would be saved and the moral hazard of substandard housing sold by RE and financed by the banksters.  What say you Comrade Conoboy?

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David Camp

Oct 04, 2016

Dick - you say “The government should not be privatizing inherently governmental functions, that is, those having to do with health, safety, finance (governmental), military or foreign relations.  “

As a member of a regulated profession, I take issue (not to mention umbrage, harumph!) at your absurd and communistic opinion that all health and financial workers should be government employees - are you really American and not some strange furriner who thinks doctors should be like postal workers as they are in Cuba and other workers’ “paradises”?

I mean, even in Canada, socialist wastrels that they are, confused by beaver fever and whiskey, doctors and lawyers and accountants and appraisers and even veterinarians perform their services on a fee-for-service basis. I’m not sure your radical vision of everyone being a government employee is practical or sensible and I challenge you to provide information on anywhere where your approach has worked. I mean, the Soviet Union is no more - really - look it up.

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Dick Conoboy

Oct 05, 2016

David,

You have distorted my commentary.  If there is to be regulation of the health/safety sector, it ought to be done by government workers such as we have in OSHA, FDA, etc., and not left up to private contractors to carry out this inherently government function.  Health care provision in the way of insurance also should fall under inherently governmental control.  The nursing and the doctoring does not have to be carried out by government employees.  Similarly with those who receive, control and disburse government funds.  This must be done by accountable government employees.  Military operations should be carried out solely by US military members and not contract soldiers of fortune.  Police functions to include the running of our prisons must be handled exclusively by government hired and trained officers who are accountable to the jurisdictions they represent.

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David Camp

Oct 08, 2016

Dick - thanks for clarifying your views - which are more socialistic than Canada or even the UK and probably Sweden! You propose eliminating the private health insurance industry - which has not happened even in France or Ireland, both of which have socialized medicine but maintain a role for private insurers. Even in Quebec, the most socialist of the Canadian provinces, healthcare delivery is overseen by regional health councils comprised of mostly doctors in private practice with some government administrators.  Your proposal is rather like how things used to run in the Soviet Union.

Just as organic ag certifiers and CPA external auditors, for example, are performing governmental functions in a regulated private industry, why should rental inspectors not be self-employed also? Your assumption of corruption is I think rather insulting to any member of a regulated profession proudly in the private sector and not on the government payroll.

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