by Richard Conoboy, guest writer.
In 1985 a house on Laurel St. blew up and burned to the ground due to a gas leak. The female students renting the house noticed the gas odor for some time but, luckily, had moved out two months earlier. In 1995 six people lost their lives in Bellingham in a rental home on Meridian St. that was equipped with smoke detectors which contained no batteries. In July, 2009 a fire caused by poor wiring destroyed a rental home on Tremont Ave. in the Guide Meridian/Cordata area.
Over 50% of Bellingham’s 34,000 housing units are now rentals, yet we still have no idea about their condition until there is a fire, an explosion, or some other tragic event. It is time for a rental licensing and inspection law in Bellingham.
The self-described “rental industry” declares that inspections are unnecessary because the tenants already have the right to call for one at any time. This “right” places the tenant in the position of being an expert on furnaces, mold, structural integrity of homes, plumbing and wiring, or of being sufficiently informed to divine there is even a problem. The “rental industry” is not a self-correcting market. Furthermore, in a recent paper, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state, “Code enforcement systems that operate solely in response to tenant complaints, … are highly ineffective and have limited impact.” Does anyone believe that more than a handful of the renters who seek housing here each year even think about vermin, wiring, smoke detectors or structural integrity?
Here is the reality of rental housing conditions. Recognizing the distinctly different demographics is Pasco, the first city in Washington to require inspections. A Pasco official estimated that 85% of the initially inspected rentals had electric/plumbing problems or lack of smoke alarms. About 10%-15% of the inspected units in Pasco had "life/safety" issues such as no egress, no ventilation, no bathrooms, or illegal dwelling areas (subdivided rooms). A university town, Lexington, Kentucky, recently performed sample inspections in rental properties and found that 50% had significant problems. A report on rental housing inspections from nearby Gresham, Oregon, (pop. 101,000) indicates over 4,200 violations cited in 2009 during inspections in 1,600 cases. As with Pasco, serious plumbing and electrical problems along with the lack of smoke detectors topped the list of violations.
In spite of landlord claims that licensing will bring about rent increases, the reality is that a fee of $30-$36 (suggested in a recent study on licensing prepared for the City Council) might add $3 per month to a rental charge for most renters. The price of a large coffee per month is hardly an unacceptable amount given the prospect of increased health and safety protections. My question is: “How valuable is your well-being?”
For those who lament possible rent increases due to required, post-inspection repairs, remember that rental rates now are a result of similar increases at the landlords’ convenience over the last several decades. Landlords are not in the business of charity. There is a certain amount of overhead in keeping a rental clean and safe. Nevertheless, landlords do run a business akin to a public accommodation for which there should be mandatory licensing, inspection and repairs.
With landlord support, the Washington State Legislature just passed a law (6459) which provides parameters for rental licensing throughout the state. Why should Bellingham continue to accept the status quo when there is the manifest probability we have substandard rental housing? Why does the “rental industry” remain the only unlicensed business in Bellingham? Landlords, like restaurant and hotel management, must be held accountable. There are those of modest means or with poor English language skills who daily run the risk associated with being placed in an unlicensed and uninspected rental market. How much is life and health worth, regardless of the economic climate? At the time the next “accident” occurs, or the next life is lost in an uninspected rental, what then will be the stance of Bellingham’s citizenry?
Dick Conoboy is a retired federal worker whose blog Twilight Zoning in Bellingham can be found at www.zonemaven.blogspot.com.