Summary: Council Member Roxanne Murphy has championed a “registration-only” rental ordinance program for Bellingham based on what she considers is a successful program in Tacoma, from where she recently moved. After conducting a series of interviews with Tacoma officials and neighborhood leaders, I have determined that the program in Tacoma was designed to clean up drug houses and fight gang problems but has barely scraped the surface of correcting unsafe rental housing conditions. To use Tacoma's ordinance as a model for Bellingham moves us in the wrong direction. While the ordinance in Tacoma cleaned up neighborhoods—ridding them of junk and improving exteriors—it did very little to correct the substandard conditions of rental housing with regard to wiring, plumbing, mold, structural problems, and vermin. One official even said rental owners had learned how to “game” the system: clean up the outside to avoid an internal inspection.
In May of this year, At-Large City Council Representative Roxanne Murphy proposed a rental ordinance she indicated was modeled from a similar ordinance in effect in Tacoma, WA (pop. 200,000), from which she had recently moved. This version of a rental ordinance for Bellingham has been chosen for further consideration and an eventual hearing later this year, possibly in September. Ms Murphy indicated that the Tacoma ordinance was very successful, although it relied on complaints only and mandated no inspections on a regular basis. In an effort to verify these claims, I spoke to several Tacoma officials including the head of the Community Services Department, the manager of the office of Taxation and Licensing and the head of the Code Enforcement office. I also contacted the heads of Tacoma’s eight neighborhood councils, however, only three responded by email. One I was able to contact by telephone. Only one neighborhood council head was able to speak to the issue of rental licensing in Tacoma. The others referred me to city officials, claiming they did not know much about the legislation or its effectiveness. The reality of Tacoma’s program does not inspire confidence.
I learned that Tacoma has had a requirement since 2006 for all landlords to register as businesses. Their code mandated no periodic inspections. In essence, their complaint-only system was a failure. In 2012, the Tacoma City Council added a requirement for regular inspections only if a complaint was received on a rental unit, and as a result, the “points” given during the exterior inspection exceeded a certain number based on their inspection criteria. The rewrite of the ordinance was part of Tacoma’s city-wide effort to take care of some festering problems by revising ordinances in order to clean up neighborhoods and combat serious crime in the form of rental units being used as gang and drug houses. Of special focus was the Hilltop area of Tacoma which overlapped two of the city’s official neighborhoods. This effort to attack the health and safety issues inside rentals throughout the city was only incidental to the overall effort to “clean up” neighborhoods in a much broader sense. Evidently, the Hilltop neighborhood was transformed with respect to junky, unkempt looking rentals and the gangs and druggies fled to other places. Much trash was removed and lawns mowed.
The reality behind Tacoma’s rental licensing ordinance is that nearly one-half of all the city’s landlords, who number about 10,000, have failed to register as businesses since 2006. There are no active efforts to pursue landlords who have not obtained a license. Scofflaws are discovered only incidental to other actions, such as a complaint about the appearance of a rental unit. Complaints, at the rate of 50 or 60 per week, that flow into the city code enforcement office are mostly about nuisances, trash, hulk vehicles and lack of permits. Only about 3 each week concern rental building violations, their conditions. These complaints trigger minimally an inspection of the outside of the rental unit. At that time, an assumption is made that the inside of the unit is also in poor condition if the number of points accumulated during the outside inspection exceeds a certain level. If that level is exceeded, the landlord will have to pay for an additional and “provisional” license which requires re-inspections for a certain period. Of course if a tenant complains about the interior conditions, an inspection is made of the inside of the unit immediately, however, that is rare since most tenants do not even know what to look for in the way of dangerous conditions. Since the inception of the inspection requirement in 2012, there have been only 70 such “provisional” licenses mandated. With 40,000 rental units in Tacoma, that means a mere 0.18% (eighteen one hundredths of one percent) have been subject to any periodic inspection regime for safety and health issues inside rental units. Otherwise, success is measured by repaired gutters, towed cars, junk removal and outside paint jobs. As mentioned in the summary above, over the past several years the landlords have, not surprisingly, started to game the system. By mowing the lawn and picking up trash, landlords avoid complaints by neighbors that would lead to a more thorough inspection of the interior of the unit.
On 9 June, Councilmember Murphy stated from the Bellingham council dais that “maybe 5%” of Bellingham’s rentals could be a threat to tenants’ health and safety. She provided absolutely no basis for that estimate nor did she respond to my invitations to review data. The Tacoma code, which Ms Murphy is promoting, actually states that the city of Tacoma estimates 3-5% of the rental units in the city are “below the minimum building standards” under RCW 59.18.060. Could this be the source of Ms Murphy’s contention that Bellingham has a similar percentage of rentals that present a health or safety threat? When I inquired about the 3-5% figure in my conversations with Tacoma city officials, I learned the percentage was merely a guess based upon the previous history of complaints developed under the former (failed) complaint-only system which has, in essence, been perpetuated as of 2012. Consequently, Tacoma used that as part of the rationale for its rental inspection ordinance. I was not surprised to find out that the local Rental Housing Association assisted in writing the revised ordinance after the real estate and rental industries vehemently rejected earlier versions.
Furthermore, this 3-5 % number given by Ms Murphy flies in the face of the results of inspection ordinances in other cities in the U.S., such as Pasco, WA; Gresham, OR; or Sacramento, CA, where from 10% to 30% of units were found to have health and safety issues. These results were mirrored in Bellingham by two student surveys indicating the city’s rentals may have serious deficiencies in 20-30% of the units. While these percentages may seem small, when calculated, the number of actual units affected in Bellingham’s rental market ranges from 2,800 to 4,200 units that would house from 5,000 to 9,000 tenants based on average occupancy figures. Using Tacoma’s experience and complaint rate, it would take any complaint-only system in Bellingham hundreds of years to surface all the poor rental units…maybe.
Tacoma may have met with some success but Bellingham has no comparable crime-ridden neighborhoods. The Tacoma ordinance was merely one part of a wide effort to clean up the city, but the rental ordinance they put in place has been manifestly inadequate to address the health and safety of tenants as there are no overall periodic inspections of the interior of the rental units. Furthermore, to cite Tacoma’s efforts as an example of a licensing and inspection program that has gone well is misleading at best and a serious disservice to tenants at worst.
The Bellingham City Council should take this information into consideration and reject the draft ordinance of Ms Murphy. The experience of Tacoma is a prime example of the abject failure of complaint-based systems in getting to the heart of the problem of resolving health and safety dangers inside rental units. Yet, this same system is being promoted as the solution to eliminating dangerous health and safety conditions here. The council should redraft a proposal to include periodic inspections of all rentals. Anything less will perpetuate the danger renters face in this city on a daily basis.