Seattle’s Second City: Why Can’t We Have Healthy Homes Too?

By Jon Grant April 20, 2012

Editor's note: Jonathan Grant is the executive director of the Tenants' Union of Washington State. This piece is in response to a recent PubliCola op/ed by Sally Bagshaw, who argued that landlords should be allowed to "self-certify" that they're in compliance with housing laws, and that the city should focus inspections on known violators of the housing code.ˆ)

Landlords, tenants, community stakeholders, and the city of Seattle agree that substandard housing is a critical problem impacting the health and safety of more than 27,000 Seattle residents—greater than the entire population of the City of Seatac. These properties form a second city built out of neglect that has tremendous health and safety consequences for its residents. What do we do about this city within our city?

Seattle must identify its unsafe rental housing, so it can be repaired. Anything short of that objective has dire economic and health consequences for our most vulnerable populations—senior citizens, families with young children, students, and immigrants and refugees. One national study found that the total annual cost for environmentally attributable childhood diseases relating to substandard housing to be $54.9 billion. Another national study found that 7,000,000 injuries and 28,400 deaths were caused by properties with structural defects. Senior citizens are especially at risk, since many spend more than 90 percent of their time at home.

A broad coalition supports a simple solution to this problem: Proactively inspect all rental homes over ten years to ensure they meet basic health and safety standards. Over time, every property would be on a five-year inspection cycle, a minimal burden that has a maximum impact on the health and safety of all Seattle residents. Passing program costs on to tenants would have only a nominal impact—the equivalent of a rent increase of $5 a month.

Groups that have endorsed this solution include the Seattle Immigrant and Refugee Advisory Board, the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, the American Lung Association (WA), the University of Washington, the Seattle King County Advisory Council on Aging and Disability Services, the National Center for Healthy Housing, the Associated Students of the University of Washington, the University Park Community Club, and the Seattle Women’s Commission.

However, despite this consensus, and despite years of discussion and research by the city and stakeholder groups, which have included landlords, the process of implementing this solution has been obstructed and delayed by a proposal from the rental housing industry. Under the industry proposal, landlords would inspect themselves, and the existing complaint-based system would be enhanced. Rental housing owners make this recommendation even though most tenants do not use the complaint-based system. In fact, less than 5% of properties with possible housing code violations ever get reported. This flawed approach has a 20-year track record of falling short.

Florencia Ybarra’s story is all too common. When her landlord refused to exterminate the cockroaches crawling in her children’s bed or address the structural problem causing black mold, she filed a complaint. She recently told council members what happened next with: "My landlord refused to take my money and filed an eviction, only because I called code enforcement." Even though she won in court, she now has an eviction action on her record for life, making it nearly impossible for her family to find decent housing.

Relying on deterrence is the wrong model when the city must be preventing violations from happening in the first place. It's one thing if someone gets away with cutting corners on their taxes, but it's a whole other issue if a house burns down---never mind kids poisoned by lead, or elderly veterans with asthma having to go to the hospital. The emphasis on a prevention model for health and safety concerns has long been accepted in other industries: Every restaurant receives a health inspection, every driver passes a safety test to receive a license. The same health and safety standards must be applied to housing, where we have a preventative system to “trust, but verify” that all rentals are safe.

The cornerstone of making any sound public policy decisions must be data-driven, a fact that council member Sally Bagshaw correctly underlined in her comments. Yet registering all properties and focusing on prior violators alone will not solve the problem. Without a proactive inspection program, merely registering properties will only tell us the name of the property owner, the number of units, and the building address. Without an inspection to see what’s inside, there will be zero data on the quality of a given property.

Twenty-five years ago, the city conducted a study on housing quality and discovered that 80 percent of the properties that had code violations had never been previously reported. As a result of this data, the city concluded that proactive inspections were needed to protect the health and safety of its residents. Nevertheless, the rental industry blocked the implementation of that solution. They are trying to do the same thing again.

The creation of a 10-year schedule to proactively inspect all rental homes is the surest way to generate a full and complete picture of Seattle’s housing stock to identify substandard units. After many years of deliberation, the problem of substandard housing has grown into the size of a second city. We must pursue a preventative policy that truly safeguards the health and safety of our community.

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