This terrible fire at 1017 Jersey Street this past week was the fourth Hansen/Lakeway Realty rental home to be engulfed in flames in the last 5-6 years, thus accounting for about half of all recent single family rental fires in Bellingham. Incidentally, the adjacent rental house at 1019 Jersey St., that also burned due to its proximity to the other, was owned by Hansen/Lakeway Realty. Both homes were built in 1900.
Eight WWU students have been displaced (a nice way to say put on the street) by this latest fire. Over the past 5-6 years almost 30 young adults have been burned out of their rental homes in Bellingham. By sheer luck, nobody has been killed…yet. What action will the city take to investigate and prevent future home fires in Bellingham’s rental housing?
Let’s take a walk down the Hansen/Lakeway Realty Memory Fire Lane.
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 repeatedly according to one of the tenants I spoke to.
718E. Maple St. on 30 Nov 2011. Fire starts behind couch. Possible cause is heater in proximity to combustible upholstery. Tenants unaware.
1210 Ellis St. on 14 Dec 2015. Fire starts in attic/crawl space. According to the fire department report installation deficiency and equipment overload contributed to ignition.
The origin of this latest fire remains unknown. As fire investigators were leaving the premises I heard one tell a victim (AKA renter) that the fire started on the lower rear level of 1017 Jersey in an area that might have been used as a kitchen. Since no arson or other criminal activity was suspected, the fire department will likely investigate no further. With subsequent investigations left up to any insurance company covering the premises, the cause of the fire becomes a private matter between the insured and the insurer, leaving the city government and the citizens in the dark.
Further complicating an exhaustive inquiry is the fact that the house at 1017 Jersey was inspected by a privately contracted inspector in October 2016 under the city’s new rental registration program. Under Washington state law, a landlord may hire a private inspector in lieu of a city inspection by a code enforcement officer. In Bellingham, although authorized by the Revised Code of Washington, the city does not require the private inspector to submit his inspection checklist with the details of deficiencies found. Only a certification by the private inspector that the unit ultimately passed inspection is required. (Here is the certification for 1017 Jersey.) This is a problem as two other Hansen/Lakeway Realty rental homes (412 and 420 Lakeway Dr.) have been implicated in problems regarding the results of certification by private inspectors when later tenant complaints reveal code violations. City-wide almost 30% of rental inspections are carried out by private inspectors and thus secretive in nature. The opening for shenanigans is obvious.
Hansen bought 1017 Jersey St. in 1976. It has had a checkered history since that time. As soon as 1977, code enforcement letters on the abject condition of the house were going out but the code enforcement office was sending them to the former owner in Canada and not to Hansen, the new owner. The citation was for dilapidation, lack of maintenance and hazardous/unsanitary conditions. There was no indication in the files of a resolution.
In 1993 a complaint was filed by mother of one of the renters. The mother was advised by the city to contact the gas company and landlord to get things fixed. How helpful is this?
In 1995 another complaint was submitted by tenants of “grey” water leaking under sink and into the underside of the house. A dozen more serious problems were cited. A city enforcement document indicated all deficiencies must be fixed before owner can rent again. It appears there was compliance on this as later mechanical and electrical permits were issued to upgrade systems likely in response to the complaint.
In 1998 a permit was issued for electrical work due to storm damage.
It remains to be seen if any alterations (permitted or not) to the house since 1998 may have contributed to the blaze. More on this and other aspects of the fire will be reported later.
But in the meantime the city must get back to work on rental inspections and fire investigations and:
1. Provide policy reform to require full disclosure by Fire Marshall and not just a “not arson” conclusion.
2. Demand public disclosure of checklist for all private inspection reports.
3. Ensure follow-up by code enforcers to all tenant complaints in a timely manner.
There is a clear pattern here with one property owner. What do the Mayor, City Council and police chief and fire chief plan to do in response? More tenant education? That is not enough.