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The Unconscionable State of Our Rentals - Part II

By Dick ConoboyOn Jan 23, 2017
• In Bellingham,

At the 18 January meeting of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission, Bellingham Planning Director Rick Sepler provided some preliminary figures relating to the rental inspections now drawing to a close in the York Neighborhood. Of 575 units, he reported that 512 had been inspected and 448 had passed - a whopping 87%. But these figures are misleading since there are no data for the number of units that failed the first-time inspection. Without these numbers, we cannot arrive at an accurate picture of the state of our rentals prior to the primary inspection. Second and third inspections serve only to ensure compliance and eventually increase the number of units that no longer have severe deficiencies. The arrow of inspections always points to nearly a 100% pass rate. However, the statistics in the Sehome Neighborhood inspections revealed a 50% failure rate the first time around. It is that figure we are lacking for the York inspections.

In an earlier article, I explained the city’s first attempt to inform the City Council by leaving out the first inspection failure rate.

“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.”

I have asked the city’s planning department for the first round York inspection failure rate, however as of the publication of this article, I have received no information.

As for the failed rental in the York Neighborhood pictured above, I have included above [click on house photo at the top of this article] some photos I took in the interior of the home five years ago. The tenant (since moved) was living there with his wife and their newborn. The place was infested with rats and the landlord blamed the tenants for bringing the rats with them when they moved in. At least that problem seems to have been fixed in the last five years but here is the report of the failed inspection on this rental just a few weeks ago: “several switch and receptacle covers missing in basement 2 - open breaker knockouts in panel 3 - exposed/unprotected wiring in basement 4 - light at rear entrance near parking”. Exactly what I photographed in 2011.

As in my earlier article, here are a few more descriptive elements taken at random from the inspection report log of the city [bolding mine]:

“cover plate on receptacle in laundry room 2 - toilet loose,seal at base 3 - seal at floor near shower 4 - two upstairs windows not sealing out elements, appear to be wrong size 5 - tenants do not have keys to property, unable to lock doors 6 - several loose bricks at chimney above walkway on side of house 7 - provide high contrast address numbers 8”

“weather seal exterior doors locks on ground floor Windows 2 - provide ventilation in kitchen 3 - seal vinyl near toilet in bedroom 4 - large fall risk at crawl space access, no guard, no rail, 4’ fall, large opening in floor 5 - cap furnace vent 6 - chimneys deteriorated, mortar joints deteriorated, leaning, located above walkways and venting appliances 7 - lighting at rear porch 8 - guard at front steps 9 - porch guard loose”

“provide locks on ground floor Windows (two Windows) 2 - guard at rear basement entry 3 - provide knob at laundry door 4 - basement access from kitchen area: access stairs too steep, fall risk at >30”, water lines exposed, no handrail/guard on one side, handrail loose/ineffective 5 - inadequate combustion air in furnace room 6 - provide smoke/CO alarm in lower level 7 - cover laundry duct terminal”

“window not lockable, kitchen, bathroom and front bedroom 2 - provide non-porous surface behind kitchen sink 3 - large openings to foundation, openings in structure to inside of dwelling 4 - evidence of rodent activity around property, in openings to crawlspace 5 - garbage accumulated around property and under house”

“light switch in one room hanging from wiring, not mounted 2 - toilet not secured to floor, leaking at base, running constantly (main level) 3 - seal at tub/wall, tub/floor (both levels) 4 - wiring worn through sheathing at water heater, unprotected 5 - open receptacle box near rear of basement 6 - one smoke alarm per bedroom and in hallway in immediate vicinity 7 - one smoke alarm per level 8 - one CO alarm per level 9 - front door knob not secure 10”

“provide high contrast address numbers facing street seal at base of tub where wood trim is exposed to water 2 - seal openings in flooring in upper level bathroom 3 - downstairs bedroom has exposed wiring in light fixture, missing receptacle plates 4 - downstairs bedroom windows do not meet egress requirements 5 - downstairs toilet not secured to floor, not sealed at base 6 - no trap at clothes washer standpipe 7 - open plumbing under bench in laundry area 8 - open knockouts in breaker panel 9 - unterminated/unprotected/exposed wiring near panel 10 - broken light fixtures with exposed wiring near laundry 11 - no CO alarm in basement 12 - gas appliance mechanical area open to basement bedroom 13 - wiring connections/splices made outside of junction boxes

“1 - 3 window locks on ground level 2 - open junction box near laundry 3 - open junction boxes in basement 4 - basement is specifically disallowed to be a sleeping room 5 - one smoke alarm in upstairs middle room 6 - storm window covering one sleeping room egress window 7 - dryer ducts vent cover 8 - guard at front steps broken”

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

Jan 25, 2017

Dick - I’m not sure why you are criticising the City when it is just implementing the rental licensing and inspection program that you successfully lobbied for. Yes there are poorly-maintained rental properties in the York neighborhood. Because of the hot rental market, it is so difficult to find a house to rent that people accept these conditions out of necessity. And landlords have little incentive to make repairs when people will rent their properties as-is.

The house you picture above is down the street from me - and for years it was occupied by a low-income family. The perverse effect of the rental inspection program is that it will force the landlord to make repairs (or sell the house) - and the cost of the repairs necessitates a rent increase. I can almost guarantee that this house will be occupied by young single people once it is renovated. Net effect? One more house removed from availablity for a low-income family.

There are two forms of development which would improve the situation -  1) new apartment construction which would remove the pressure on the rental market for single-family homes and 2) permitted densification in owner-occupied single-family homes - detached ADU’s. However, you are against these also - which means by default you are for increasing gentrification by making it unaffordable for low-income families to rent or buy in a severely limited rental market.

 

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Dick Conoboy

Jan 25, 2017

David,

First of all, I have never said I was against detached ADUs.  If you can find a piece where I wrote that, let me know.  My objection to ADUs attached or detached is that we have not studied the situation enough, we do not know what the present number of existing ADUs is or where they are located.   Also, these units have been touted as affordable when that has not been demonstrated (average cost to create a detached ADU in Portland is about $80-90,000 and the average rent is $800.  So affordable is a quite relative term.  There also needs to be put in place an ordinance to keep these housing types from turning in to Air BnB cash cows that take long term rental units off the market for just those people you speak of in your comment.  The city also has to consider where ADUs are now prohibited by covenant since these covenants are likely to push ADUs into the older neighorhoods only. 

If you also go back and read years’ worth of my blog posts on rentals you will find I often spoke of and countered the manifestly bizarre notion that a rat hole rental is better than none, since that twists the question and leaves landlords off the hook.  These rentier class members have been fleecing the tenants for years only because they could and now the landlord industry is weeping crocodile tears because the poor tenants will have to pay for decades of deferred maintenance occasioned by the landlords themselve.  Boohoo.  Where the fuck were these landlords beforehand and why was the rental industry and the real estate associations so “hands off” when they knew about the deplorable state of rentals. 

We are already experiencing apartment construction with two new large dormitory type projects on Lincoln St. and Garden St.   - about 1,000 beds.  New senior housing is going up on the old Wilson car dealer land in the York Neighborhood and affordable housing is going to be built on the site of the miserable Aloha No-Tell Motel. 

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David Camp

Jan 25, 2017

DIck - I think you’re saying the rental inspection program is working, right? SO most of your article confirms the good reasons the rental inspection program is in place.

As to ADU’s -

1) I think your Portland figures are absurdly high - I have a neighbor who is renovating his ADU and his total cost will be less than $10k, including architect design, permits, and professional carpentry.

2) why should a homeowner not be able to let out her ADU over airbnb? As long as the main house is owner-occupied, it gives the extra income of renting it out, but flexibility as to dates so the ADU can be used for family and guests from time to time.

3) I think the key to ADU permitting is that it should be restricted to owner-occupied houses.

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Dick Conoboy

Jan 25, 2017

For the time being, the inspection program is working although it will take 3 years to inspect the current inventory of rentals.  With a 50% failure rate that means that for the next few years thousands of tenants will live in unsafe and unhealthy units until we get around to inspecting.  Until then it is our duty as citizens to monitor the progress.

 Portland figures come from a study done by the State of Oregon entitled Accessory Dwelling Units in Portland, Oregon.  You can read it yourself.  I don’t just make up figures - I will leave that to Kellyanne Conway. 

The city has a right to control rentals to ensure health and safety and to ensure rental housing stock availability.  We can harldly complain about housing availability if we do not curb turning our rental stock into vacation housing with attendant nuisance issues.   

The council has already restricted ADUs to properties on which the owner is residing.  Of course, there are hundreds of illegal ADUs in the city, some of which should have been registered in 1995 but were not. 

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Dick Conoboy

Jan 25, 2017

Northwest Citizen received the following message from one of the tenants who now reside in the home pictured above.

“The current tenants of the house pictured above have been residents for 5 years and would like to emphasis that they have had an excellent relationship with the landlords, who have always responded promptly when updates and repairs were needed. Prior to the first inspection new door seals and code compliant locks were added, and all of the issues above were fixed promptly upon note in the initial inspection. The house easily passed it’s second inspection. This is a success story for the city’s initiative, which thoughtfully offers the first re-inspection at no cost to the owner.”

I am happy for the tenants that this lease has worked well for them but I am still concerned that they lived there for such a long time with such obvious and dangerous electrical problems.  The couple who owns this rental home also owns two other rentals in the Birchwood neighborhood where they themselves reside.  The Birchwood neighborhood rental stock has not yet been inspected, however, the landlords ought to take lessons learned from their York rental and immediately go to work to ensure their other two rentals are safe now for those tenants as well.   They might also considera professional manager to assist them in taking care of these rental units.  We cannot all be experts at maintenance and other issues having to do with health and safety.

Perhaps the landlords, who I understand are elderly, might also consider selling  this small home and the two additional small homes in Birchwood to their current tenants or  some other modest income buyers who cannot otherwise afford a home in this bloated/bubble housing market.  For additional information about this rental as I found it in 2011 you can read my post entitled  “Rats! It Is Rats Galore with No Rental Inspections”.  

 

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David Camp

Jan 26, 2017

Sounds like a happy story, Dick - elderly landlords with a few rentals to provide income in their dotage (not everyone has a solid gold pension), new rental inspection program identifies problems, landlords bring the properties up to code, long-term tenants happy.

Why on earth should they have to sell their properties that provide their retirement income? And who are you to advise them in this regard?

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Dick Conoboy

Jan 26, 2017

David,

I never said they “have to sell their properties”.  Why do you twist my statements? 

And how do you know that these properties provide them retirement income?  You have no idea how they dispose of the rental payments.  Perhaps they are given to charity or to a son or grandaughter.  The point is that the rentier class, which includes these elderly landlords, has taken over a large percentage of single family homes (54% where you live in the York neighborhood) that are now out of the market for purchase by those who wish to live and work in the city. 

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David Camp

Jan 26, 2017

“Perhaps the landlords, who I understand are elderly, might also consider selling  this small home” - ok, it wasn’t an imperative, merely unsolicited advice. My words a bit hurried - but here’s my point:

People who own two or three rental properties are not the “rentier class” - they are savers who want a bit of income on their savings which they cannot get from any bank. What do you propose people do who don’t have a pension - which most people who worked in private industry, including me, do not have - but have savings? How do they get a reliable return on their money? Well, being a small landlord is a good way - the rental house directly across the street from me is owned by a family, they do all the work on it, they carefully screen their tenants, who tend to stay for a long time. In my opinion, we need more landlords like this, not less.

I grew up in a city where two thirds of the population are renters - and almost half of these live in duplexes and triplexes where the landlord also lives in one unit - this kind of owner-occupied rental is good for the neighborhood because there are no absentee owners.

Incidentally, it’s the bankers and intellectual property owners which are the true “rentier class” - calling solid citizens who save their money and invest in the city’s housing stock “rentiers” is IMHO inaccurate and rather negative, especially when we have a real rentier class in this country which is running amuck.

 

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Dick Conoboy

Jan 26, 2017

It is a question of the activity not the scale.  Nothing is produced.  Rent is extracted by those who merely got there first.   I stand by my previous comments.

 
 
 

 

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David Camp

Jan 26, 2017

Disagree. If you make no distinction between a small bourgeois, investing his savings locally in a productive investment, and the kings of vast State Monopoly Capital (which the bankers surely are, as are the rest of the CEO’s within the corporatist cartels which control the government), then you are evading a necessary judgement, Comrade Conoboy.

I’m a capitalist - it’s the basis of our society, and it works superbly if properly regulated by the people’s government. But when the cartels manage regulatory capture, as they largely have in the federal apparatus, you get an increasingly oppressive state monopsony capitalism.

In a world where young people need to rent at their stage of life, and older people who have worked and saved can invest in rental property to earn income on their savings, it’s a money arrangement based on natural demographics. It’s healthy. And a retired couple who own a couple of rental properties that they manage and maintain and get a bit of income on their savings are not members of the rentier class. Now, a corporation that owns 75 or 80 rentals now we’re talking rentiers. But if you want to assign a group to the “rentier class”, I think that’s reserved for billionaires and better.

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