City Hall

Tenant Advocates Oppose City Crackdown on Bad Landlords

By Erica C. Barnett May 10, 2010

An interesting showdown could be brewing between proponents of a stringent local rental-housing inspection proposal and supporters of a state law that passed earlier this year.

During the past legislative session, tenant-advocacy groups like Columbia Legal Services and lefty city officials like City Council member Nick Licata hooked up with landlord-advocacy groups like the Rental Housing Association of Washington. These unlikely allies came together behind a compromise law that allows cities to inspect rental housing for violations that threaten the lives or safety of tenants. That law would preempt any city law passed after June 10 of this year, giving cities a clear deadline for passing their own, more stringent laws. Housing advocates supported the less-stringent state law, in part, because fear that taking units off the market for minor violations could actually end up hurting tenants by reducing the supply of low-income housing.

Currently, the city does not have a mandatory inspection program. Instead, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) goes into a rental unit only if a tenant complains—a system advocates for tenants say doesn't do enough to protect tenants from retaliation by their landlords.

The city law, if it passes, would hold landlords to the standards of the city's much-stricter housing code, allowing the city to take away a landlord's license for a far broader range of violations. It would also require licensed inspectors to look at all of a landlord's units; the state law would only require inspections of a random sample.

Columbia Legal Services attorney Greg Provezano said today that "we want to see a mandatory inspection as well as voluntary, but at the same time, we don’t want cities to deny licenses for [every] kind of housing violation and shut down housing." As for inspecting random units, rather than entire buildings, Provezano said "our view was that wasn't really necessary ... as long as landlords aren't able to game the system." The state law does not allow landlords to choose which units get inspected.

On the other hand, city planning staffers say the state legislation will leave out a large number of violations that would fall under the more stringent city proposal. For example, according to an FAQ put together by the DPD, the city has recently found units in the city where a couple was rented a crawl space with a dirt floor; where six men were renting a unit with a toilet in the kitchen; and where a university student was rented a furnace room as a bedroom. "All of these situations would NOT cause the unit to fail an inspection under the standards set by the new state law," the FAQ states.

Both Pasco and Tukwila have proactive rental-housing inspection programs.

It's unclear what position Columbia will take on the city's proposed legislation. I have a call out to the group's Seattle attorney, as well as to the president of the RHA. Meanwhile, Licata is being briefed on the legislation later this week.
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