Serious health and safety conditions existed in the rental at 1017 Jersey St. BEFORE the fire. Telephone interviews I conducted with several of the former tenants of the rental that burned on October 5th revealed health and safety violations of a nature that would have failed the home under the city’s rental inspection program. Surprisingly, the rental had passed a health and safety inspection in October, 2016. The inspection was conducted by a private inspector hired by the owner or his management firm.
From my conversations with the young men who had taken possession of the rental one month earlier, the following issues arose:
Electrical - In at least two of the bedrooms wall outlets were taped in place and some were taped over completely so as to prohibit use. One tenant spoke of a wall outlet that was coming apart and had been taped to keep it together.The night before the fire, the tenants experienced the lights flickering within the rental. The kitchen stove did not work properly. The spark generator for lighting gas burners malfunctioned. One burner did not work at all.
Plumbing - The sinks in the bathroom and kitchen regularly backed up. The kitchen sink had a gravity fed drain whose piping rose after it left the trap causing the waste water to flow backward into the pipe and sink after about 30 seconds of use.
Safety - The very steep stairs from the upper level to the lower level were warped so that residents risked sliding off the leading edge of the steps while descending. The very top step had no support in the middle and flexed considerably when stepped on - almost to the breaking point.
Permitting - The living room on the top level was being used as a 4th bedroom along with three others on the same level. The house was built as a two bedroom dwelling. No evidence in the property records indicates permitting for additional bedroom construction beyond the original two.
Security - The back door at the alley level had evidence of forced entry. The broken wood around the locking mechanism was repaired only with glue.
Vermin - A small room on the lower level with an inoperable dryer had duct work to the outside that was not properly sealed allowing a one inch gap covered with cardboard large enough to permit entry of vermin. Detritus from previous tenants, as well as an inoperable dishwasher, were stored in the room.
Mold - The bedroom walls of one of the tenants had mold on the surfaces indicating a problem with humidity, insulation, plumbing, heating or a combination of some or all. Mold in and of itself is not a factor in failing a rental inspection but the causes of the mold may be indicative of a serious overall problem.
That these conditions existed in a rental that had been inspected a mere 11 months earlier by a private inspector is evidence of a serious issue that the Planning Department must confront quickly and directly.
The private inspector hired by the owner of 1017 Jersey St. also inspected and passed the owner’s properties at 412 and 420 Lakeway Dr., (Time to Audit Private Rental Inspections - Part II) in late 2016, both of which were found later to have health and safety issues. The common elements among the three deficient properties are an owner, David Hansen, and a private inspector, John Nelson of Building Services NW.
The report of the fire marshal on the specific cause of this fire has yet to appear. No matter what the cause of the fire, the incident has opened another window into the possibility that private inspections are being carried out either in a slipshod manner or, more disturbingly and crassly, for the benefit of the landlords.
Again, I call on the city to audit these private inspections. Our City Council must revise the Bellingham Municipal Code to require all private inspection worksheets be submitted to code enforcement officials for review and recording.