Just say no to unneeded regulations

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Mon, Jun 20, 2011, 9:45 am  //  Sheri Ward

Every now and then a truly bad idea gets far enough along in Bellingham’s city governance that it gets the attention of the full Council. Rental unit licensing may soon be a case in point, depending on what happens at the June 20 afternoon City Council meeting. The Council will be taking up this issue at approximately 2 p.m.

The city’s rental housing stock is not in perfect shape, but additional government intervention is unlikely to improve things to any great extent. The proponents of this bad idea imagine that the judgment of one city inspector will be more discerning than the collective judgment of landlords, tenants, insurance inspectors, and property managers. Further, that the one person will be able to make a measurable difference in our city’s health and safety, and do so in a fair and even-handed manner. The proponents would like the rest of us to go along with them without requiring much in the way of convincing evidence.

What we have here is a collusion of people within government who want more power and money along with a few citizens who believe more government control would be beneficial.

One perspective of Bellingham’s form of city government is that the Council’s role is to represent the citizens, especially against intrusions of government bureaucrats who have grown too fond of their own power. A traditional part of the role has been holding public hearings for proposals that are contentious. At this point, there is no public hearing planned for the rental unit licensing proposal, and staff is advising the Council to not hold one. Why not? There really is no defensible reason. Council members, if you take any action at all to put this proposal forward, be sure it includes a public hearing. If you do not, you will be negligent in your duty.

In the interest of full disclosure, my husband and I have owned rental properties for many years. We are in the process of divesting ourselves of them, so at this point we have very little personal stake in the outcome of this issue. However, we have plenty of personal experience in running good-quality affordable housing.

Based on that personal experience, the proposed licensing would do little to improve the rental housing stock. Instead, it would impose another fee on citizens and ensconce yet another bureaucrat in a task that has no need to be done.

This proposal is evidence of only one thing: the planning staff has too much time on its hands. With new building projects in a slump, that’s not surprising. Instead of adopting this unnecessary licensing, how about handing out some furlough slips?

Dick Conoboy  //  Mon, Jun 20, 2011, 1:16 pm

Sheri,

The collective judgment of many people who don?t have specific knowledge does not add up to superior judgment in the aggregate. Besides, are all these folks going to get together to make judgments on each rental in Bellingham?  The effect of the one code inspector in Pasco, WA has made a very big difference in the quality of rental housing since 1997.  If their program were so pitiful and unsuccessful, then why does it continue?  I have actually spoken with the code enforcement officer of Pasco many times.  He has informed me that even with a re-inspection every two years, they are continually amazed at the deterioration they find in units since the last inspection.  That tells me that there is a continuing problem.

As for convincing evidence, I have provided more than enough in my blog Twilight Zoning in Bellingham and I invite you to read it.  This comes from my previous article in NW Citizen on the topic of evidence. ?Pasco that 85% of the initially inspected rentals had electric/plumbing problems or lack of smoke alarms.  About 10%-15% of the inspected units in Pasco had “life/safety” issues such as no egress, no ventilation, no bathrooms, or illegal dwelling areas (subdivided rooms).  A university town, Lexington, Kentucky, recently performed sample inspections in rental properties and found that 50% had significant problems. A report on rental housing inspections from nearby Gresham, Oregon, (pop. 101,000) indicates over 4,200 violations cited in 2009 during inspections in 1,600 cases.  As with Pasco, serious plumbing and electrical problems along with the lack of smoke detectors topped the list of violations.  See more at:  + Link

More evidence was discovered by a student sponsored survey of rentals from September 2010 through March 2011.  This comes from the executive summary:  “Results from the rental survey suggest that many buildings would have failed inspection at the time of the survey. Many of these code violations represent an immediate threat to health or safety. Given the low number of official complaints that are made to the city, this survey indicates a substantial void between existing problems and reported problems. A ?complaint based system?, as exists now, is not a solution that will bring the deficiencies into the open. Rental housing stock needs oversight and enforcement to correct substandard housing and to motivate unresponsive landlords and rental management companies to make repairs.”  You can read the entire survey by going to the site of Neighbors for Safe Rentals at:
+ Link .  Recent fires on Grant and Ellis Streets, not to mention the most recent one at the Daylight building, are excellent evidence of severe problems in our rentals.

My question to you, Sheri, is why to you think the condition of rentals in this city do not mirror those found in dozens and dozens of other cities throughout the nation?  Why are we an exempt town?

I hardly think there is much collusion going on with one side, the city, having fought efforts to license rentals over the past seven years.  Earlier councils were openly hostile to the idea.  City managers were not eager, nor are they now, to run such a program.  If they are so bent upon gathering all that income from such an ordinance, I do not see the Mayor dancing in the street about it.  He continues to speak against such an ordinance.  I have personally and publicly called him out when he uses mis-information and irrelevant data to propagate fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) among the council members and the public.  FUD tactics are the refuge of those who have no substance to bring to the table.  Moreover, I continue to hear the gloom and doom prognostications (FUD) from the rental industry but they bring few, if any, facts to bear.  If you or any others have facts with regard to disastrous or useless rental licensing and inspection programs in other cities, I would like you to share that information.  I have been asking this question for years and have never had a response.  In the meantime, I think it would be an excellent idea to furlough a few city workers but I would start at the top.


Michelle Luke  //  Mon, Jun 20, 2011, 6:47 pm

This may be the point of too many middlemen. We too had a rental in Bellingham for 17 years. For the most part we had great renters and a good experience but the few that were not could have devastated our investment. One tenet was selling drugs from our duplex, we learned he had sold the appliances and fixtures from that unit, the police informed us we could have had our property “taken” yet the landlord tenet act is clear about respecting tenet’s privacy. There were too many issues and not enough “rent” to keep attorneys on retainer so we also got out of the rental business. Good will,and good maintenance at a fair
fair price no longer is the premise for small investors to participate in the rental market. The 80, 20 rule applies. Most of the renters left the place as agreed, went on to buy their own place or moved out of the area. The few who “gamed the system” and the regulations that supported them, got us out of the game.


Sheri Ward  //  Wed, Jun 22, 2011, 7:25 am

Richard,

You and I are unlikely to find common ground on this issue. 

I substantially agreed with Councilor Fleetwood?s comments at the Monday afternoon meeting, June 20, that tenants already have remedy at law through Washington State RCW?s.  You and other proponents might want to pay particular attention to RCW 59.18.115, which outlines the process for addressing substandard and dangerous conditions in rental housing.  It outlines a fairly clear and fair process, one that has been legally tested state-wide.  It seems both foolish and unnecessary to implement further city ordinances.

You seem to place a lot of credibility on the officials who would administer this new regulation, and give short shrift to the common sense and life experiences of prospective tenants, landlords, property managers and insurance inspectors (who do, by the way, do have specific knowledge and training). Based on 25 years experience, I can tell you that the latter group is very often more perceptive than building codes inspectors or HUD inspectors.  The prospective tenants are, after all, the people who will be paying the bill and they tend to exercise careful judgment. In the case of students, who you may argue have limited experience, they very often bring along their parents or others to help them appraise things.

I agree with Mayor Pike?s observation on Monday afternoon, that this proposal is looking at the situation from 80,000 feet.  What seems like a great remedy to you will, I think, prove to be unhelpful, expensive, and fraught with problems.


Tip Johnson  //  Wed, Jun 22, 2011, 12:00 pm

Besides being unnecessarily intrusive, Conoboy’s housing grail likely cannot be fairly applied, would probably eliminate a significant portion of the most affordable units, and would cost the city too much to administer.

+ Link
From a policy standpoint, however, the imposition of a single standard on all properties, where their economic and other characteristics are significantly different, will inevitably tend to pose greater burdens on some and lighter ones on others.

+ Link
Our analysis finds that rental unit licensing has very uncertain benefits and can create negative effects on housing markets and the availability of affordable housing.

Experience in other cities indicates that rental unit licensing programs have difficulty covering program costs with revenues. The ability to forecast costs accurately and adjust revenue has been problematic in these cities.

+ Link
To the extent that the supply (of affordable housing) is shrinking and its rents increasing, but the incomes of households that typically occupied them are flat but their numbers are growing, this is compelling evidence of a market failure.

Maintaining adequate housing stocks is problematic under the best circumstances.  It is possible that such a scheme as Conoboy proposes could make things worse, not better. If even one person has to downgrade to living in a car or the bushes, I am against it. We have plenty in this strait already.


Gene Knutson  //  Wed, Jun 22, 2011, 12:35 pm

Hi Folks:

If you have not heard yet the council by a 4-2 vote last Monday night voted not to proceed with this idea.


Dick Conoboy  //  Thu, Jun 23, 2011, 8:30 am

Tip,

Thanks for the references.  With about 160 pages, it may take me a few days to wade through them for comment back to you.  Three lines taken from these 160 pages do not a complete argument make.


Rob Stratton  //  Sat, Jun 25, 2011, 6:31 am

Thanks Gene.


Scott Wicklund  //  Sat, Jun 25, 2011, 8:22 pm

Thanks Gene!  I just hope commissars Lilliquist and Weiss will now give this a rest after wasting public resources and the public’s patience pursuing this fool’s errand for Dick Conoboy.  In these times of economic stress we need to focus on the real problems we have instead of making new ones.  Thanks to all council members who saw through this ploy.


Dick Conoboy  //  Mon, Jun 27, 2011, 7:09 pm

Scott,

It seems to me that if you are against rental licensing you may want to comment on the substance of the issue rather than calling our councilmen ?commissars? or referring to my efforts to ensure safe housing for our renters as a ?fool?s errand?.  Poor rental conditions are real problems, even more so during this time of financial crisis.


Michael McAuley  //  Wed, Jun 29, 2011, 8:27 pm

I supported this effort because of an issue I had with a Bellingham based property management firm, you’ve all seen their blue and white signs around town. 

I was charged $600 for a kitchen door that didn’t exist and hadn’t for decades - really, it’s not as if a door was damaged, there never was a door.  Staff stonewalled me and since they had my deposit already there was no way for me to force them to return my money. 

I found out in less than an hour that my only recourse was to sue, so I did.  They first tried to bribe me with a partial payment a year later when they ran out to buy a door after I stopped in at my old place and pointed out to them that they hadn’t installed any door, they then caved 2 days before court for the entire $600.  Still no door installed, by the way.

I would gladly pay $25 dollars a year to have access to an advocate, like the hearings examiner, so that disputes don’t have to go to court.  The folks at the dispute resolution center don’t have police powers like the city so that route didn’t work for me.

Furthermore, rentals are rentals - whether it’s house or a pneumatic hammer either one is handled by a business.


Just say no to unneeded regulations

Mon, Jun 20, 2011, 9:45 am  //  Sheri Ward

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