Councilmember Murphy’s Proposed Rental Ordinance Is Deeply Flawed

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Fri, Aug 01, 2014, 8:00 am  //  Dick Conoboy

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.

David Camp  //  Fri, Aug 01, 2014, 12:19 pm

On the contrary, Mr. Conoboy. What you are proposing is an unacceptable intrusion in a free society. Creating a new bureaucracy with the power to enter private residences based on nothing but their whim is unacceptable.

A complaint-based system is exactly what would work here in America. I hear that in the old East Germany they had a program rather like yours in place.

Dick Conoboy  //  Fri, Aug 01, 2014, 3:10 pm


You cant fool me Dave! :-) I worked as an intelligence officer in Berlin in the 1960s and as far as I know, without revealing great and important SECRET information, the Stasi had a file on me but never on rentals for the purpose of inspection.  But I digress…

On second thought, I think you may be correct in promoting the notion that everyone has a constitutional right to live in a shit-hole. Then again, if you wish to rail against bureaucracies, take your complaint to the Pentagon where there is a $1trillion sink hole to be filled every year.  With that money and the personnel on hand, we could build a nice home for all those renters across the US and eliminate one of the truest and most wasteful bureaucracies in the world while giving everyone safe housing.  I know first hand, because I worked at the Pentagon.  I know true waste on a scale that you would probably not comprehend.  But I digress again…

There are certain acceptable, inherently governmental functions that concern policing, fire fighting, tax & finance, and health & safety.  When a person (landlord) offers a product to the public, that product ought to be safe to use.  Rentals are a product.  In Bellingham that product is never verified to be safe for use by the public that pays to use it.  That is non-feasance on the part of the municipal government.

Another two or three employees hardly constitute a bureaucracy.  The employees are financed by a small fee.

Would you stop those bureaucracies from inspecting those restaurants you go to?  Or the hospitals that care for you?  Or the cars that you drive?  Or the appliances that you buy? 

Or can we just let the market take care of it all until one day you step on the brakes coming down from Mt. Baker and those shoddy suckers don’t work.  Think “bureaucracy” as you pitch into the void.

Scott Wicklund  //  Fri, Aug 01, 2014, 9:52 pm

It’s clearly past time to inspect ALL housing in Bellingham for VERMIN!  If we just stop with rentals the task will only be half complete and that’s just whack-a-mole.  We can just use the water billing addresses to go house to house and do a full body inspection there.  Forensic inspection of all digital devices both electronic and manual should be included at this time.  If we fail to complete the task, what could possibly go wrong?

Barbara Perry  //  Fri, Aug 01, 2014, 10:26 pm

It seems comments have determined some of the issues to work around. Let’s not make everything for or against.  Let’s determine problems and attempt to solve them. Such as inspections may be made before a place is rented and the landlord may advertise that the rental has inspection protection.  They may even be able to charge more. After having moved in to the residence, the renter from that point may request an inspection if the rental is in bad shape. To avoid going to court, a mediator can determine damages and who is at fault.  The renter may like to advertise that the rental is inspected and guaranteed.

There are many students in this town and most do not want the burden of moving mid-quarter or coming back to town to sue a landlord as they may may be in China or wherever (many go long distances after graduation.  They do not want the expense of getting fair judge’s treatment. The landlord should not have the advantage of being able to not go to court and be legitimately sued. The renter,  won’t have that advantage.  (I speak from experience.)

However, the landlord may not want the expense of inspection so they can’t advertise that inspections area guaranteed.  A cheaper rental sometimes has the tenant work him/er self for maintenance.

I am interested in the whole neighborhood, not just a single tenant. Landlords do not have to mow lawns, but they could plant trees to block noise, native plants so the neighborhood does not have to listen to obnoxious mowers.  Maybe there could be a law that requires electric mowers or how about a tree for every resident to block noise going out over the whole neighborhood.

I find it disgustingly appropriate to mention gangs and druggies only hang out in poorly kept rentals.
Vandals of course are everywhere but If the city council members realized that if they cram people together like rats, they may take on the characteristics of rats. Many apartments are attractive in this town—not the newer ones the council is approving.  Please stop making rentals look like the third world country the great ole USA has become—especially down in Tacoma.  I don’t want Bellingham to become Tacoma.
  Tacoma, the city named after the Indian name for Mr. Rainer, must be the city with the most crimes.  (What a city to choose for an example Ms. Murphy.) How ironical that the old Indian site is a most beautiful mountain but now it is one of our most horrible cities.  Of course I have never lived there.  I just read all the crime happening there and hope I never have to live there. 
  If rentals are more appealing and activities are more available for communities, and poverty was not so rampant, we would have a more appealing city to live in.  Of course income inequality is a big topic but it is large part of the reason we need some rental standards.

Dick Conoboy  //  Sat, Aug 02, 2014, 8:08 am


I long ago thought that inspections might be done prior to move-ins, however, there are nearly 10,000 student renters there who tend to move in and move out all at the same time, September and June.  How could we ever assemble enough inspectors to take care of that flux?  On the other hand, the other 30,000 or so renters move in and out all during the year.  But how would the city get notified on a constant basis of the departure/arrival dates of all those renters? That would be a scheduling nightmare.  I have spoken to inspectors in several cities.  They schedule their inspections by area.  Otherwise it is chaos and the inspector drives hither and yon, wasting time and gas. 

And as for asking for an inspection if the rental is in bad shape, have you spoken to renters in this tight market, especially the students?  On move-in day they are poised to sign the lease and get the furniture in the house while the former tenants move out.  Just when will this inspection take place?  Some renters I have spoken to tell me that potential renters stand in line the day of move-in to take the rental if the prior rental candidate finds a problem and asks the landlord to fix it.  The landlord merely turns to the next guy in line and says, “Sign here”. Or the prospective tenants just say to themselves better a bad rental than no rental.

And just how will potential renters know what to look for with respect to bad plumbing, wiring, structural damage, dangerous heating systems? Do your know what aluminum wiring looks like?  How do you measure the sufficiency of the electrical power in a unit?  Do you have a test instrument to determine if the heating system is venting carbon monoxide? Can you determine the structural integrity of a deck or balcony?

If this program is done correctly, landlord license fees will cover the cost of all inspections.  Landlords can still request a private inspector at their own expense, but why do that?  I am looking for an egalitarian system wherein all users pay for the common good.  Unfortunately, the common weal is a thing of the past in our communities today. If you don’t think so, reread the two previous comments by Scott and David. 

Furthermore, this ordinance is not about noise.  We have an ordinance already for that but it is hardly enforced.  The police have to hear the noise.  So you call them.  It is not a priority call.  Then 20 minutes later they show up but the noise has stopped.  The damage has been done.  And it is damage.  See: + Link

” If rentals are more appealing and activities are more available for communities, and poverty was not so rampant, we would have a more appealing city to live in.  Of course income inequality is a big topic but it is large part of the reason we need some rental standards.”

You bet, Barbara.  Let’s start with those inspections NOW!

Tip Johnson  //  Sat, Aug 02, 2014, 11:31 am

News Flash!  Self-described cold war “Intelligence officer” promotes home inspections.

Scott Wicklund  //  Sat, Aug 02, 2014, 12:41 pm

Dick’s limited to rentals inspection regime falls far short of weal needs.  “Boots on the ground” are just one tool of many that should be used in a “homeland purity” program.  Limiting the regime to just renters will never clean the City of VERMIN!  A “foot in the door” must be inserted in all housing to protect more than just renters.  Buyers of jumbo housing deserve the same consideration and protection as the poor renters.  Spread the program to all and revenues will increase and a much more robust program is possible.  NSA, drones and automation may identify sources of VERMIN! which a lowly rental inspector would miss.  A full video feed of each housing unit could be included with cameras activated when the water is turned on.  It’s time to “think big” when the purity of our neighborhoods is on the table.

Dick Conoboy  //  Sat, Aug 02, 2014, 2:14 pm

Thanks, Scott. I rest my case. Like Barney Frank, I have come to realize that talking to dining room tables is fruitless.

Delaine Clizbe  //  Mon, Aug 04, 2014, 7:17 am

You write “Maybe there could be a law that requires electric mowers”.  Why is it that you think the Government has any right to regulate what type of mower I use?  I suspect that even with a rental inspection program you will not be happy with something your neighbors are doing.

P.S.  you do realize that it is the City, through a tree planting/removing permit process, that has most of the control of where and who gets to plant a tree.

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