Friday, April 8, 2011

Viking Community Builders - Rental Condition Survey Results

Viking Community Builders (VCB) of Western Washington University, a student organization engaged in community service activities, has completed a survey of rental conditions that began 6 months ago.

In conjunction with Neighbors for Safe Rentals, the VCB conducted the survey using an web-based service. The survey’s purpose was to determine the extent to which rental conditions, according to renters within the city, might indicate the necessity for a rental licensing and inspection ordinance. Over 500 renters had taken the survey as of April 2011. More than three hundred left written comments.

You can view a copy of the executive summary of the survey's data by clicking here. Most striking is the table of ten separate health and safety categories rated by the survey respondents: electrical, fire safety, security, plumbing, mold, heating, structure, refuse, vermin and surfaces. The percentage of responses indicating serious health and safety issues was disturbingly high in some categories.

Health and Safety Issues Reported

Summary Table

Type of Health or Safety Problem

% of Issues Reported to Owner But Not Resolved

% of Issues Not Reported to Owner

Combined % of Renters

Noting a Problem





Fire Safety




































A copy of the survey's questions and the detailed results can be found by clicking here.

Comments on renters' experiences were also revealing. Click here to read the 175 comments left by respondents. Over 200 respondents commented also on the reason for which they did not report problems to their landlord or property manager. Click here to review these comments. 175 renters also provided written feedback on the cost of renting in Bellingham. These comments can be found by clicking here.

Conclusion as stated in the Executive Summary of the survey data:

"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."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Viking Community Builders Survey on Rental Conditions

You can take the Viking Community Builders survey on rental conditions by clicking here.

Since last November, the Viking Community Builders of WWU, have been running a survey of conditions in rentals within the city of Bellingham. One need not be a student to take the survey. You only have to be or have been a renter in the city.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Maintaining Our Rental Housing Stock

[This is an unedited version of an opinion piece written by Dick Conoboy which ran in the Cascadia Weekly on 21 April 2010, page 6.]

Over 50% of the housing stock in Bellingham is found in the rental market. That means that over 17,000 housing units are rentals whose condition is virtually unknown. The reason for this knowledge gap is that there is no rental licensing and inspection program in Bellingham. Nobody would think about allowing the hundreds of restaurants or dozens of hotels in the city to operate without inspections by health and fire officials. Nor would we depend solely on restaurant patrons and hotel guests to report unsanitary or unsafe conditions as part of a “complaint only” system to keep our citizens safe. Similarly, we would not depend on a self-certification program to ensure quality food preparation or clean accommodations. Generally speaking, owners, patrons and guests simply have limited expertise in these matters. Consequently, the body politic recognizes that public accommodations have to be placed under a modicum of control. Why, then, have we permitted thousands of rental units to be offered on the public market without any control whatsoever?

In recent months in Olympia, the legislature passed a law on rental licensing in Washington State (Bill 6459). This new statute, which will take effect this summer, was supported by several landlord and rental management groups. In essence, the law recognizes the right of municipalities to inspect rental units and provides certain limits with respect to inspection frequency, i.e., once every three years. The code also provides for administrative search warrants, if necessary, to ensure compliance. Current landlord-tenant laws in Washington spell out rights and responsibilities but, until now, none of the present code spoke to mandatory licensing and inspections for health and safety reasons. A tenant may complain about conditions but for what reason should we suppose that he or she can even begin to know about all aspects of safety in a rental. Even well intentioned landlords cannot be expected to have expertise in electrical systems, plumbing, structural integrity or vermin and mold.

Can we reasonably conclude that there is a problem with rental units in Bellingham? (We are not speaking of single rooms rented in owner-occupied houses.) If we look at the experience of other cities, including Pasco, Washington, the answer is yes. Aside from the 85% of units overall that had some problem conditions, Pasco inspections found serious life-safety issues in 15% of its rental housing during the first inspection round. Ten percent had significant mold problems. The city of Lexington, Kentucky discovered similar life-safety issues in 50% of an initial test sample. Gresham, Oregon conducted 1,600 inspections of rental units last year and issued over 4,000 citations during the period. The top serious violations were in the areas of plumbing, wiring and smoke detectors.
Until recently, Bellingham has been dealing with the rental licensing issue as a cat does with a captured mouse. It pokes the issue from time to time to see if it is alive or dead and then loses interest only to return again for another poke. Promises to work on rental licensing were made by the City Council in 2004 but nothing was done. Rental licensing was also brought to the fore in August of 2008 but not much happened. With the public appearance of the first serious study on rental licensing by the City Council’s Legislative Policy Analyst in May, 2009 (the draft report had been languishing since October 2008); the council has made some tentative steps toward considering licensing and inspections. The issue was discussed before council in December, 2009 at which time the staff was told to get more information, spilling further discussion into the lap of the newly constituted 2010 City Council.

There is no longer time to waste on establishing a means by which the city can ensure the health and safety of over half of its citizens, not to mention the overall quality of the housing stock and its impact on our city. We ought not forget that any sensible program will be phased in over the period of several years. There should be no severe shocks to the housing market. Pasco saw some of its worst rental properties sold as affordable “fixer-uppers” to families willing to invest with sweat equity. The remainder of the rentals there are now safe for habitation thanks to a robust inspection regime. Significantly, the responsible enforcement official stated that there was no concomitant leap in the price of rentals. Landlords in Pasco now get to point out to prospective renters and insurers that their premises have a clean bill of health. Bellingham can expect as much.

Dick Conoboy is a retired federal worker whose blog Twilight Zoning in Bellingham can be found at

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bellingham Needs Rental Licensing and Inspections

The following article by Dick Conoboy appeared on 16 April 2010 in the NWCitizen (click here to read it in the original with all comments)

In 1985 a house on Laurel St. blew up and burned to the ground due to a gas leak. The female students renting the house noticed the gas odor for some time but, luckily, had moved out two months earlier. In 1995 six people lost their lives in Bellingham in a rental home on Meridian St. that was equipped with smoke detectors which contained no batteries. In July, 2009 a fire caused by poor wiring destroyed a rental home on Tremont Ave. in the Guide Meridian/Cordata area.

Over 50% of Bellingham’s 34,000 housing units are now rentals, yet we still have no idea about their condition until there is a fire, an explosion, or some other tragic event. It is time for a rental licensing and inspection law in Bellingham.

The self-described “rental industry” declares that inspections are unnecessary because the tenants already have the right to call for one at any time. This “right” places the tenant in the position of being an expert on furnaces, mold, structural integrity of homes, plumbing and wiring, or of being sufficiently informed to divine there is even a problem. The “rental industry” is not a self-correcting market. Furthermore, in a recent paper, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state, “Code enforcement systems that operate solely in response to tenant complaints, … are highly ineffective and have limited impact.” Does anyone believe that more than a handful of the renters who seek housing here each year even think about vermin, wiring, smoke detectors or structural integrity?

Here is the reality of rental housing conditions. Recognizing the distinctly different demographics is Pasco, the first city in Washington to require inspections. A Pasco official estimated 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.

In spite of landlord claims that licensing will bring about rent increases, the reality is that a fee of $30-$36 (suggested in a recent study on licensing prepared for the City Council) might add $3 per month to a rental charge for most renters. The price of a large coffee per month is hardly an unacceptable amount given the prospect of increased health and safety protections. My question is: “How valuable is your well-being?”

For those who lament possible rent increases due to required, post-inspection repairs, remember that rental rates now are a result of similar increases at the landlords’ convenience over the last several decades. Landlords are not in the business of charity. There is a certain amount of overhead in keeping a rental clean and safe. Nevertheless, landlords do run a business akin to a public accommodation for which there should be mandatory licensing, inspection and repairs.

With landlord support, the Washington State Legislature just passed a law (6459) which provides parameters for rental licensing throughout the state. Why should Bellingham continue to accept the status quo when there is the manifest probability we have substandard rental housing? Why does the “rental industry” remain the only unlicensed business in Bellingham? Landlords, like restaurant and hotel management, must be held accountable. There are those of modest means or with poor English language skills who daily run the risk associated with being placed in an unlicensed and uninspected rental market. How much is life and health worth, regardless of the economic climate? At the time the next “accident” occurs, or the next life is lost in an uninspected rental, what then will be the stance of Bellingham’s citizenry?

Dick Conoboy is a retired federal worker whose blog Twilight Zoning in Bellingham can be found at