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Rental Housing Inspection Program Could be Watered Down

By Erica C. Barnett December 1, 2011

The city's proposed mandatory rental-housing inspection program (remember that?) is close to becoming a reality, albeit in somewhat straitened form.

Last year, the city council voted unanimously to adopt some kind of rental housing licensing inspection program, in keeping with state law that effectively required cities to do so. A stakeholder group, composed of landlord, tenant, and government representatives, came back to the city's Department of Planning and Development with input, which DPD used to come up with a set of written recommendations.

As expected based on the stakeholder group's input (and the fact that DPD has nowhere near the number of inspectors or kind of resources it would take to inspect all 147,000 rental units in the city), the inspections would be random, not universal. However, DPD's recommendations include a number of new landlord-friendly proposals.

First, the new licenses would be "self-certified," meaning that landlords could simply sign a piece of paper saying their properties met all the requirements for a license (things like hot running water, working heat, a working smoke alarm, and operable entry doors). If a property turned out not to meet the requirements, tenants could report the landlord to DPD.

Self-certification could be another big step that at least requires the landlord to think about what their units are supposed to be like and be willing to sign something," DPD code compliance director Karen White told the council's housing committee Wednesday. "Each step is a step further."

That's similar to the current situation, in which tenants must complain to DPD if their landlord fails to keep his or her property up to code. Tenants' groups have opposed the city's complaint-based system in the past, arguing that it discourages tenants from reporting bad landlords because of the threat of retaliation.

White acknowledged that requiring tenants to complain to DPD about substandard conditions isn't ideal. But, she added, "I am hard-pressed to think of a practical solution that completely removes the need for tenant complaints [unless] all units are inspected or all properties and a sample of units are inspected, and in a city the size of Seattle, given where we are now [economically], that just does not seem like a practical thing."

The second major change is that, unlike earlier recommendations, the inspections would be limited to the outside of the rental property---what committee chair Nick Licata referred to as "drive-by" inspections. Inspectors could look at all parts of a building that are accessible to the public, but could not go inside unless invited by a building owner or tenant. "The idea," according to DPD's report, "is that significant poor exterior maintenance often indicates interior health or safety violations." If the outside of a building was in bad disrepair, DPD could require the owner to pay for an internal inspection by a private inspector.

"We recognize that there are properties with significant health or safety issues which cannot be identified from exterior maintenance," DPD's report continues. "Without knowing the number and location of these properties, unless all properties are required to be inspected, we have to continue to rely on getting complaints."

Tenant advocates told council members the new rules would fail to address the most egregious code violations, such as faulty plumbing, illegally subdivided houses, and lack of heat or hot running water. Andrew Lewis of the Associated Students of UW, citing off-campus housing where students live on porches and in furnace rooms, told the committee that "the idea that substandard housing conditions on the interior of a building can always be determined by a decrepit exterior isn't always completely true. [You need] some kind of mechanism to get inspections inside the house."

Council members did discuss a compromise: Inspecting smaller buildings (fewer than seven units) from the outside, but going inside buildings where walking around the exterior might not reveal interior problems, such as high-rises.

Licata, for years the council's most vocal advocate for rental housing inspections, told PubliCola that while he was "totally thrown for a loop" when DPD backed off from requiring interior housing inspections ("that was a big shocker for me," he said), "right now, my goal is to get something on the books and not drag this out any longer.

"If I have to make compromises, I guess I'm willing to do that, although it's not what I want."
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