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