Tenants' Union: Rental Inspection Proposal Caters to Landlords

By Erica C. Barnett December 8, 2011

The Tenants' Union, a Seattle-based tenant advocacy group, has written a letter to city council members opposing two major changes that, together, could drastically water down a proposed rental-housing inspection law.

First, the new system would allow landlords to "self-certify" that they're in compliance with city code by signing a piece of paper. That would effectively keep the current system, in which tenants must complain to DPD, under the threat of potential retaliation from their landlord, if their unit isn't up to code.

Second, unlike earlier proposals, the latest version of the bill would not require internal inspections of rental properties. Instead, inspectors contracted by the Department of Planning and Development would do a "drive-by" inspection to see if the outside of a rental property appeared to be poorly maintained. If the outside of the building was in bad disrepair, DPD could require the property owner to pay for an internal inspection of the building.

Tenant advocates argue that external inspections fail to address the most egregious code violations, such as faulty plumbing, illegally subdivided houses, and lack of heat or hot running water.

In its letter, the Tenants Union said they were "perplexed" by the proposed changes, which were never mentioned during a six-month-long stakeholder process involving landlords, public health advocates, and tenants' representatives.
While the proposal overall is representative of the Stakeholder process, there was no substantive discussion of drive-by inspections. A drive-by inspection is an effective tool to eliminate urban blight, but not to eradicate substandard housing which was the original goal the Stakeholder Group was charged to solve. A strictly external inspection misses the most crucial repair problems that the Tenants Union, health department, legal aid groups, and Universities hear about from thousands of tenants each year. Issues like poor electrical wiring, no heat or hot water, infestations, faulty smoke detectors, faulty plumbing or a leaky roof that can lead to black mold.

Meanwhile, the tenants' group writes, the "self-certification" option was "a non-starter in the Stakeholder process, and remains so for tenant advocates. A central purpose for creating a pro-active inspection program is to take the enforcement of building codes off the backs of tenants who too often fear retaliation for filing a complaint. Requiring the landlord to have the tenant verify a self-certified checklist is simply a variation of the existing complaint based system."

TU and other stakeholders have suggested reconvening the original stakeholder group to come up with a new proposal that truly represents a middle ground between the original proposal---mandatory third-party inspections of all rental properties in the city---and the current situation, which puts the burden on tenants to report bad landlords to the city.

Last week, council member Nick Licata, a tenant advocate and the sponsor of the original legislation, sounded resigned to the changes. "Right now, my goal is to get something on the books and not drag this out any longer," he told PubliCola. “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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