As was realized during the 24 April Committee of the Whole meeting, there is a lot to do with making our rental licensing program truly effective and the results transparent. For many years, councils of yesteryear dilly-dallied with passing an inspection and licensing code of its own while ignoring the pleas of renters living in the most dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, before our own city council would finally act, the state passed its own defining legislation that circumscribed all future such legislation but grandfathered existing codes, such as the one in Pasco. The truth be told, we missed the mark, had no code to grandfather, and are now paying the price.
Michael Lilliquist, one of two council members from that time still serving, was aided in great measure by former council member, Jack Weiss, in pushing through the present code in the face of fierce opposition. But for them and dozens of citizens (renters and non-renters) including present Council Member Anderson, we would have no code whatsoever. The city was not acting on its own to address the blatantly obvious problem regarding rental conditions. This inaction is called nonfeasance. My blog, Twilight Zoning in Bellingham, covering this decade-long effort, chronicles much of the history.
With the revelation at city council that nearly 20 percent of the units failed the first inspection puts to bed the outrageously and demonstrably false contentions of the time of “a few bad apples”. The delta between the 20% fail rate during city inspections versus the risible percentage (less than 1%) failure rate under the private inspector regime can only tell us that there is with no doubt fraudulent actions among those who use private inspectors. This was predicted from day one of the state legislation that was heavily influenced by the self-described “rental industry” of the time who gave themselves a legislated back door to fraud (private inspectors). This fraud must be investigated and corrected.
I am pleased that the council is again looking at the rental inspection and registration program. With that in mind, a few comments:
- The rental inspection list itemizes very dangerous situations or they would not be on the list in the first place. Early on, the stats reported on the first year or so of inspections included as a FAILURE, any item on the list. That changed when the failure rate was >50% in some areas, to wit: Misleading/Incomplete Report on Rental Inspection Results. This kind of imprecise reporting distorts the ability to apprehend the reality of the condition of our rentals and must be corrected. Initial failure rates must be reported regardless of any action by the landlord to fix the failure on the spot. Fail is fail. And we need to know that.
- Action must be taken to immediately identify and install proper software to track inspections. There are hundreds of commercially available programs to do this. A ten second web search reveals the possibilities. I understand that marrying any one of these programs with our present system may be difficult but we are years into the inspection regime and continue to flounder.
- Not only is there fraud being committed by landlords right before our eyes, there were issues early on of private inspectors passing units which were later to be reported by a tenant to be in abominable condition. Reliance on tenants to report deficiencies in order to reveal perfidious behavior by “private inspectors” throws us back in time when we relied on the “complaint only” system, now revealed to be useless by our own inspection statistics. This apparent landlord accountability shield must be pierced. Our city attorney must be creative in such actions. [Time to Audit Private Rental Inspections and Time to Audit Private Rental Inspections - Part II
- Public listing of inspection results should be adopted immediately. As said by one council member, we do that for restaurants - to which I might add where we might spend only several hours a week. Not posting rental inspection results on these units where people actually live 24/7, is incoherent with health and safety responsibilities of local government. Posting inspection results is not public shaming but a public health necessity.
- Mold and Meth – the new M&Ms. Seemingly intractable problems whose health effects are not readily observable by tenants who often attribute illness from mold, often unseen, as some sort of generalized allergy. The Washington State Health Department has a page devoted to the topic, Renters, Landlords, and Mold. The advice from this page is not encouraging as renters are on their own and if they complain, they risk being blackballed by their landlords or being put out on the street. METH inspections are a different story since the county, which did the testing for meth, changed its policies 7 years ago. The result is that the city was cast to the winds for all intents and purposes. An effective alternative must be found.
I am encouraged by the reaction of the council to find remedies to the lacunae of our rental inspection code and look forward to seeing effective amending legislation on this issue soon.
Comments by Readers
David McCluskeyApr 25, 2023
Rents in bellingham are too high. What’s everyone’s solution? Keep passing on the burden to the landlords, make more legislation against them and encourage them to drive the rent up even more.
We live in a free country, no one ever forces you to live in a rental that you feel is a problem. Simple solution… move out!
Tom DohmanApr 25, 2023
My 2 daughters attended WWU which meant that I spent some time helping them navigate the rental market for several years between 2005 - 2013. Not unlike many cities that have a significant-sized college or university, the rental units near the WWU campus were pretty tired, beat up and expensive. I suspect that has not changed much for the better, except for the new apartment complexes that for now are not-so-beat-up but are VERY expensive. Many landlords count on the fact that multiple students from middle class families can pool their dollars (largely from their parents) to afford such exorbitant rents. What most if not all of those parents DO NOT count on is that the rental units could be unsafe & even dangerous to their health. There are built-in obtacles to discovering those facts, given that parents have precious little time to dive into the situation during their brief visits in a location far from home. Many student tenants - renting for the 1st time in their life - tend to gloss over the dark underbelly of the condition of rental units.
In my opinion and based on lived experience, it is unconscionable that many property management firms (and some small-time landlords) consistently extract so much money in fees (rental application fees, First & Last months’ rent and damage deposit fees that always seem to disappear) - yet they ignore basic repairs and even safety concerns. A true & objective rental inspection program with actual teeth to force fixes of their findings is a bare minimum given the rapacious aspects of the entire lopsided rental contract agreement between the property owners (who have nearly ALL the leverage) and renters (who have nearly ALL the responsibilities).
Having public access to rental inspection reports & findings would serve to help those seeking safe, clean rental units in good-repair condition - so that they can make informed decisions between available units and - most importntly - paint a clearer picture of the worst offenders.
Dick ConoboyApr 25, 2023
I find it hard to characterize the Bellingham rental registration and inspection program as “against” the landlords. Have you no concern about the tens of thousands of renters here in Bellingham? Would you eat a meal in a restaurant that does not meet cleanliness and food preparation standards? Would you stay in a hotel that was not regularly inspected for cleanliness and vermin? Would you let your children or any family member live in a rental unit that is dangerous and unhealthy? Rentals are in short supply. Our tenant population cannot just “move out” as you glibly suggest. Inspections and registration are not burdens on landlords. They are the cost of doing business, like every other establishment, including barbers and salons, that have to have licenses. Your comment is one that I heard hundreds of times from those who initially fought against this rental ordinance. The results of the initial round of inspection give lie to your statement. Rents went up well before the inspections took place and they continue to rise today. Landlords need no excuse for increasing rates.
D. CrookApr 26, 2023
To the first commenter—your grammar is fine—but consider changing your subject to see that what you’re really saying reduces to “might makes right”. E.g.: “We live in a free country, no one ever forces you to [to be a landlord]. Simple solution… move [to a different state]!”
I appreciate this article. One contribution I’d make is an expansion of Dick’s 3rd point on the city’s reliance on a “complaint system”—this is spot on. The power-dynamic is at such an imbalance between landlord and tenant, that this system can’t work. I know a number of renters who can’t complain—for fear of losing their rental, for fear of being black-listed as a problem tenant, etc. They live with issues they shouldn’t have to (mold, non-flushing toilets, etc.), or invest their own money in fixing these problems as a “least-worst option” sometimes.
I’d also bring-up that there ought to be a class for non-professional landlords—folx who want to rent their 2nd home—to get oriented to the system—that is informed not only by city rules & regs, but also by NW Justice Project or others who can impart tenants’ rights information.
I also think tenants ought to have the right to see their landlord’s inspection history / professional reputation before signing a lease.
Dick ConoboyApr 26, 2023
Two recent articles in the Cascadia Daily that are relevant to this article.
JC MansfieldApr 26, 2023
100% AGREE long overdue and unacceptable. Renters and property owners alike both deserve transparency re the conditions of their living space. What property owner would object to this, unless they want their investment to depreciate in value!? Honestly, I do not see a valid argument against Public Health & Safety protocols and standards unless the property owner takes pride in deteriorating and devaluing the health of our community, or worse, involved in some sort of illicit activity and profiting from it; to me, any property owner objecting to a rudimentary health inspection is a red flag.
JC MansfieldApr 27, 2023
In reading the 2015 article for the first time as a link insert from current article (2023) re rental inspections.
Spot on that there is no insurance for recouping cost to health of tenants and cost of decontamination or demolition of property owner’s property. The liability of this activity has no direction. The fault is the criminality of illicit activity going undetected or revealed only after damages have occurred. Known offenders may face penalties, but the liability of renting property without proper vetting of tenants or proper evaluation of the property itself puts both tenants and property owners in a precarious situation. Renters fear retaliation and property owners fear loss of investment, both scenarios perpetuating a cycle of insidious silence.
Liability for the impact of illicit activity that poses public health risks must be addressed. Thank you for your analysis in 2015 and almost a decade later. It is blatantly obvious that without health inspections, the risk is high. The issue of who foots the bill for damages seems to be where policy is stagnant. Liability issues often proceed what necessitates legitimate insurance policy, and proper records of damages maintained for public access. We would do no less buying a used vehicle or as you stated in 2023 article, dining in a restaurant! Seems like common sense to me!!
JC MansfieldApr 29, 2023
Historically, the risk factor in the tenant/ property agreement has always been the tenant. Renters assume that the property owner is beholden to a standard of public health and safety, while renters assume the title of risk in the form of a damage deposit or renters insurance. When the honor system of this agreement is broken by the property owner, the property owner is often publicized as a “slum lord” to address any shortcomings for not properly managing a housing site. The burden of proof for maintenance issues is on the tenant /renter to report if the property owner does not require annual or bi-annual inspections that would reveal any depreciation to their asset. So the question is, why would any property owner NOT want a city enforced protocol that would ensure their housing assets are in optimum condition, not only for the health and safety of community renting from them, but also to ensure the continued maintenance and value of their property?
It seems we have an issue of “slum lords” who know they can charge market rent with little or no upkeep and oversight of their properties because at present, renters assume all risk with no protections or restitution for damages in occupying unsafe properties.
D. CrookMay 06, 2023
I got to thinking—this is from another dimension of my life related to trying to understand employee turnover—but I wonder what the value could be to our community if the city did exit interviews as part of a more holistic “rental inspection”. I think that some renters would feel less vulnerable when they’ve already found another place they can afford and are leaving / have recently left —it might be a way to create a heat-map showing best, middle, worst landlords who may warrent different levels or types of response from the City.
Dick ConoboyMay 06, 2023
Interesting concept. I like it. The council is still looking at the rental issue so there may be a time to introduce your thought. I imagine, however, that such departure interviews would be rejected as too time intensive, not enough staff. One might, nevertheless, envision a student project as part of some course or courses at Western or WCC, A student study on rental conditions was conducted about a decade ago. You can see the results HERE.