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.