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The War Has Just Begun

By Dick ConoboyOn Sep 16, 2016
• In Bellingham,

[Note: September 28, 2016 - the percentage figure of failures was initially reported at 42%. In fact, the correct failure rate was 50% (227 of 458 inspections.]

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
— Winston Churchill

Bellingham's war on slum housing has just begun and in the first round of rental inspections since June 1 in the Sehome neighborhood the enemy has been rousted. Out of the dark corners, hidden from the public eye emerges the truth about Bellingham's dirty little secret: Slum landlords are alive and thriving.

Although landlords have had about two years to fix up their units since the rental inspection ordinance was passed, a shocking 50% [corrected figure] of the units (according to the city's preliminary figures below) failed their initial inspection. Even the ones that passed had some “conditions” at the initial visit. This demonstrates the arrogance of landlords who, knowing that inspections were coming, did nothing. After years of ignoring basic health and safety standards they, as business owners, are now being held accountable to business standards for the very first time!

Here is the preliminary breakdown for the Sehome neighborhood where inspections officially wrap up at the end of September.

Between 6/1/16 and 9/13/16 a total of 267 properties (or approximately 458 [corrected] units) have been inspected:
• 231 units passed or passed w/ conditions at initial inspection
• 227 units failed at initial inspection
• 78 units were marked as missed appointments at initial inspection (these are scheduled again as “initial inspection” and would show back up in the passed or failed categories)
• 115 units passed or passed w/ conditions at 1st re-inspection
• 7 units failed at 1st re-inspection
• 19 units were marked as missed appointments at 1st re-inspection (these are scheduled again as “1st re-inspection” and would show back up in the passed or failed categories)
• 2 units passed or passed w/ conditions at 2nd re-inspection

Advocates for the new rental inspection program challenged the city and the rental industry to prove us wrong. Local anti-inspection landlords said their industry was better here. They promoted that myth during a long 15-year battle against implementation of inspections and registration. Unfortunately, the claims of those supporting rental inspections for the last decade or more were born out in this first round of code enforcement. Fortunately the Bellingham City Council finally, albeit for some members very reluctantly, bit the bullet two years ago and created an ordinance to inspect rental units and ensure the health and safety of half of the city's residents, tenants.

The war on slum housing has just begun. The faulty wiring, bad plumbing, infestation of rats, leaky roofs, mold and unsafe structures are finally being exposed. Bellingham's liberation from its dirty little secret has just begun.

It will be interesting to see how the “rental industry” leadership responds to this, if at all.

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

Tim Paxton

Sep 16, 2016

Some anecdotal results of the new City inspection program has been: my nephew, on disability, was kicked out of his studio apartment and a friend of mine got kicked out of her house when the City refused to correct their rental house problem. The landlord kicked her out.  Both cited new rules.  They had real hardships & problems finding any replacement housing.  So which is worse?  No housing or marginal housing.

What happens to all the seniors & low/fixed income people who are about to kicked to the curb?  The new plan has real life consequences. Unintended but seniors on the streets?  Who will find them housing?

In Sunnyland, a mega church is planning to tear down 6 existing affordable rental homes to make room for their expansion plans.  Where do those renter families go? Any attempt to enforce inspections on this slum lord will result in this church tearing down the rental housing sooner than later.

Maybe a better solution would be to provide loans to fix up these rental units, keep the rents the same, and get the money back from a slum lord upon sale?

Bellingham slum lords are well known.  Maybe social media exposure & shunning of them would help?  Or re-hab loans, or both?

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 16, 2016

Tim,

Thanks. You have raised some good points although, as you say, anecdotal.  My understanding is that if someone loses their rental because of the inspection program, the city will direct them to social services to provide assistance. Nobody is to be placed on the street. It is unclear in your comment whether your nephew and your friend were “kicked out” as a result of the rental inspection program or some other unrelated action on the part of a landlord which may or may not be legal.  Perhaps you can be more specific. There are other statutes that cover aspects of landlord-tenant relations that do not have to do with inspections.

The question about “no housing or marginal housing” is a specious argument.  Neither is acceptable. So far I have not heard about anyone being thrown to the curb because of a rental inspection. But I will check with the Planning Director on Monday.

As for loans to slum landlords to fix up their property, I would opine that not many citizens would support that.  Given the stunning percentage of failed units in this first round of inspections, you could be talking about a lot of money.  Given the outrageous rents charged for these slum properties, your sell might be very hard. Maybe the Realtors and landlords can set up a revolving fund for landlords and property managers with shit properties.  This is, after all, private business.  Should not the free market take care of its own?

You are flogging the wrong horse, Tim. Perhaps some of your questions should be directed to the Whatcom County Association of Realtors (WCAR) or the NW Rental Owners Association (NROA) who let their members get away with proffering such unhealthy and dangerous rentals to the public for so many decades and for such exorbitant rents.  What are their plans to help the victims of lousy rental management and maintenance?  They did not do squat for years except to collect rents.

You can reach WCAR Presidents past and future here:

Mary Kay Robinson, President
Windermere Whatcom Co.
515 West Bakerview Road
Bellingham, WA 98226
(360) 734-7500

Jim Graham, President-Elect
Century 21 - Bay Properties
8045 Birch Bay Drive
Blaine, WA 98230
(360) 201-5958  

Cerise Noah, Past President
Windermere Whatcom Co.
515 West Bakerview Road
Bellingham, WA 98226
(360) 734-7500

Or you can go to the landlord’s own association NROA:

Angela Barnes, President
360-927-0183

As for “shunning and exposing” slum landlords, be my guest.  You may find it more difficult than you think and you may find yourself on the ass end of a libel suit.  Best to stick with the facts, tell the truth and the rest will take care of itself as the results of these inspections are posted publicly.

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Anne Mackie

Sep 17, 2016

“Our primary objective will be to bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums and ultimately to make slums a moral and financial liability upon the whole community.” Martin Luther King, Jr., said it best 50 years ago when he kicked off his Campaign to End Slums in Chicago, 1966.

Now, welcome to Bellingham 50 years later when our own rental industry is exposed. With a 42% failure rate in round one of rental inspections in the Sehome neighborhood the city administration should be astounded. And citizens should ask for the city’s inspection data. What are the reasons for inspection failures? Have any properties been “red-tagged”; that is, are any tenants being displaced, their rent and deposits automatically refunded, and how is the city – as promised – helping them with relocation services?

Second, property owners of failed inspections should be identified. Are there patterns within this business community by certain rental owners or management companies to rent out substandard housing? Third, the City needs to act quickly to speed up its inspection program by hiring more staff. With this high failure rate in round one, is it “due diligence” for our city to leisurely take three years to complete inspections now that the bright light has exposed a 42% inspection failure rate?

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Doug Karlberg

Sep 17, 2016

The landlord industry lobbied successfully to set the bar very low for standards that had to be met by landlords who rent housing to other human beings.

While the most paramount function of government is to protect the health and safety of its citizens, many of our City Council members dithered while meeting with the landlord industry privately while landlords were whispering in their ear “We are good Shepards, you do not needs to distrust us by inspecting us”.

An initial 42% failure rate, on such a low bar, is more than a failure of much of landlord industry, it also points a systematic failure of local government to protect human beings who rent.

None of this would not have happened, without the persistence of Sir Conoboy.

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 17, 2016

Ah, Doug, you have outed my knighthood.  I am a Knight Companion of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.  Not surprisingly the Latin motto on my crest reads “Nemo me impune lacessit” or in modern English “No one “cuts” (attacks/assails) me with impunity.”  Ha!

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 19, 2016

Tim,

I checked with the Planning Director who tells me that in the first 700 inspections there have been no evictions.  The city puts a small amount of funding in the program to provide emergency shelter (hotel vouchers)  to those residents who would be immediately displaced.  They also would connect displaced tenants with resources (such as LAW Advocates).  The city has yet to use it.  They have heard anecdotally that units were put up for sale rather than register and be inspected as they would not pass. I think this opens the door for sale of these fixer-uppers to families willing to put sweat equity into the home.  This happened in Pasco after their initial round of inspections in 1997 and the rental market there has not caved in as inspections continue once every two years.

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David McCluskey

Sep 20, 2016

Dick

Congrats on winning? You folks were so concerned about winning a “war” that you don’t even know what side you are shooting against.  The forced registration program is going to do nothing more then force people right out of their residence.

Have you even read the inspection criteria?  There are a lot of homes that would not pass.  A nick on the sink?  Yep that’s a violation that has to be fixed.  These violations do not come free either and guess who gets to pay?  The tenants, that is who.

Not every inspection fail exists because the house has a hole in the roof, yet that is what you implied.

Even if there is a hole in the roof, why would the person stay there?  Probably because how much the rent was.  If they were paying 300 a month for the place they are not going to be able to go out and rent. $1500 place for $300.  And you know what?  When that hole does get fixed that $300 rent goes to $700. 

Congrats, you win!!!!  What side were you on?

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Clayton Petree

Sep 21, 2016

Looks to me like most of the failed inspections were very minor things, easily corrected.  A battery here, a stairway rail there.  I don’t subscribe to the idea that a crappy home with something really wrong with it is OK because the person cannot afford the place if it was fixed.  That’s a road I don’t think our community should follow!  But really, it doesn’t look to me like there’s some gigantic problem - rather a select few really bad property owners that this program will hopefully identify and force to update and/or fix their place.  Also, what’s with the hate on the local Realtors?  That energy should be directed toward property managers and landlords, not people that aid the community in obtaining housing for ownership.  Yes, one of the worst property owners happens to also sell houses but the people you listed don’t really have anything to do with renting out houses…

http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article103062632.html

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Scott Wicklund

Sep 21, 2016

Too soon for any victory laps.  All housing in the City should meet the same standards whether rental, Airbnb, or owner occupied.  Occupancy permits for all units should be required before sales are closed.  Why are these “protections” only for certain classes and not for all?  When this program was sold we were assured that expensive retrofits would not be required.  Now that it has been passed, the gloating begins.
What was the # for that snitch line?

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 21, 2016

I would like to answer the last three comments here.

For David,
Nobody has yet been forced out of their residences.  Did you read my comment just above yours?
 
I have read the inspection criteria, many times.  A nick on the sink will not condemn a unit, you know that so stop being so silly.

Yes, the tenants pay and have been for decades.  Bloated rents for substandard housing.  The landlords raised rents all those years just because they could. Nobody yelled at them for their greed.  Maybe the landlords ought to suck it up this time. 

Why are you taking me to task?  Call the numbers that I provided above and ask them those questions. As for the rest of your comment, it beggars response.


For Clayton,
Those pesky little things like banisters and railings are what we use to protect the most vulnerable of our populations, the elderly and children who cannot afford to fall, even three feet.  I think that is a serious issue and I am surprised and concerned it has arisen so often. So we all should be.  We just started out on these inspections.  York is next.  The news will get worse, so if you want gigantic problems, wait.

I don’t hate Realtors. [I was one once back in the good old days of 20% conventional loan rates.] I do call Realtors and landlords on their disingenuousness since they told us for a decade all was just great when it wasn’t.  They did not even try to find out, being more interested in protecting landlords than ensuring the health and safety of the public.  There are real estate professionals all over this town who own properties and are part of property management firms.  And just what does Angela Barnes of NROA represent but the landlords?  Have these people no ethics?

For Scott,
I wish I had a dime for every time I heard we ought to be ensuring that all housing, even owner occupied, be held to the same standards.  I do agree on inspections for Airbnb and rentals because they are being offered to the public and as such ought to be safe [in the case of Airbnb, the practice should be banned outright - talk about taking housing for tenants out of the market - but nobody in real estate or rentals is talking about that, are they?] As for owner occupied homes, lack of maintenance is self-inflicted.  Big difference. 

I did not know that renters were a class.  I do know that rentiers are a class. 

And just where are these expensive retrofits you speak of?

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David McCluskey

Sep 22, 2016

Dick,

Thst is exactly my point.  You are treating the failed inspections like all those rentals are condemed.  The reality is far from that. From reading your “article”  you would think all the rentals in bellingham were crumbling beneath the tenants feet. Did you read the bellingham herald on the subject?  At least they weren’t totally biased in their reportimg.

“Many of those conditions had to do with minor issues, such as smoke or carbon monoxide detectors that needed to be put back on a wall or have a battery installed, said Emma Burnfield, Bellingham’s rental registration specialist.”

Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article103062632.html#storylink=cpy

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 22, 2016

David,

You have grossly misrepresented Emma’s statement.  She was referring to the 231 units that PASSED (or passed with conditions) the initial inspection. 

Here is the context:

“About 536 rental units were involved in the first round of inspections which started in June and are expected to be finished by the end of September in the Sehome neighborhood, located north of Western Washington University. Of those, 231 units passed or passed with conditions at the first appointment.
Many of those conditions had to do with minor issues, such as smoke or carbon monoxide detectors that needed to be put back on a wall or have a battery installed, said Emma Burnfield, Bellingham’s rental registration specialist.”

You ignored what the article went on to say, ” But about 227 units failed their first inspection, Burnfield said, for a variety of reasons, such as:
▪  egress windows, which provide exit in case of a fire or emergency, that couldn’t open
▪  missing carbon monoxide detectors, which are required by state law
▪  missing or unstable handrails on stairs and decks
▪  exposed wiring
▪  leaking plumbing
▪  lock issues, including at least three cases where a key was needed to open the door from the inside
▪  and gas appliances located in sleeping rooms.”

These are serious, life-threatening issues that cannot be ignored.  I accurately reported those stats in my article.

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David McCluskey

Sep 22, 2016

Dick,

So now your talking out of both ends. 

Lets see you quoted CO detectors as a minor issue that in units that PASSED.  Then in the next breath you quote CO detectors as a reason for a failed inspection.  Which is it?

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 23, 2016

David,

What Emma actually said was “smoke or carbon monoxide detectors that needed to be put back on the wall or have batteries installed”.  So the equipment was there to begin with.  This was for the units that passed with conditions.  I would give the landlord a pass, too.  At least he/she had some dim notion that detectors were required.  As for those units that failed, there were NO DETECTORS AT ALL indicating a total lack of any notion whatsoever on the part of the landlord that these warning devices were required.  Not even a good “college try”.

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David McCluskey

Sep 25, 2016

Dick,

Thanks form making my point for me.

So a failed inspection could be simple in nature,  like a missing Co detector.

It doesn’t indicate that all the rentals have holes in the roof or falling apart. 

No matter how big of a mountain you want to make out of this mole hill.

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Dick Conoboy

Sep 26, 2016

David,

You may think that the lack of these alarms borders on the trivial but let me remind you that over the past 5 years about 20 young renters in Bellingham were displaced by fires that very easily could have killed or injured them.  In most cases no fire alarm went off because they were inoperable or non-existent. So I invite you in the future do deal with grieving parents or loved ones by saying that a lack of alarms is not enough to fail a rental unit, that it was just a minor oversight, a trivial matter. 

This is what things were like under the “complain driven” system:

1. 1404 Grant St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts in electrical junction box.  Tenants had noted problems with electrical system and alerted landlord several times.  Landlord failed to act.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

2. 1418 Ellis St. on 11 Jan 2011.  Fire starts when loosely connected electrical fan on apartment heater system falls to the floor and ignites carpeting.  Officials also find house rewired without permits.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

3. 718 E. Maple St. on 30 Nov 2011.  Fire starts behind couch.  Possible cause is heater in proximity to combustible upholstery.  Tenants unaware. No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

4. 1208 24th St. on 1 Jan 2012.  Fire starts near baseboard heater that is fed by nearby and notoriously dangerous aluminum branch wiring.  Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

5. 2338 Humboldt St. on 6 Mar 2013.  Electrical fire starts in attic.  Very old rental with frayed knob and tube wiring. Tenant unaware.  No prior report to city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.


6. 1117 Garden St. on 19 Feb 2014.  Fire, possibly electric in origin, starts inside wall near kitchen.  Tenants unaware except shortly before fire breaks out.  No prior report to the city.

Complaint-driven system FAIL.

You can continue your “how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin?” arguments but you will have to do it on your own.  This is becoming tiresome.

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David McCluskey

Sep 30, 2016

Dick, 

A CO detector has nothing to do with fires.  Also a coach up against a heater is not the fault of the landlord.

Where is the tenant registration?  We should have that to protect the landlord from all these “unaware”  tenants.

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David McCluskey

Oct 08, 2016

Another Fire cause by Renters.


Can we get a Renter Registration program?


http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article106825332.html

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