Urban Politics #241: Rental Housing Inspection


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata with assistance from my Legislative Assistant, Lisa Herbold.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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BUDGET ITEM

For the 2008 City budget, I am proposing $75,000 in funding for the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to develop a rental housing licensing and inspection program that would identify and bring substandard rental housing into housing code compliance.  The resulting recommendation would propose a structure and staffing for such a program.  Structure and staffing could be for a pilot program rather than one that is city-wide.  Proposed licensing fees or other funding mechanisms could also be recommended.

The impacts of such a program would be considered before its implementation including the costs of administration and potential market responses.  I would also like the study to look at other mechanisms other than a licensing program that might work to bring substandard rental housing into compliance.

I have made this proposal because, in addition to the need for safe rental housing for Seattle renters, I have received a number of calls from homeowners who live near substandard rental housing and are concerned about the hazards that they present to the neighborhood. There have been instances of fires in such dwellings, particularly in the University District. The University of Washington and their student government both join local neighborhood groups in supporting my proposal.

BACKGROUND

Like today, in the 80’s Seattle only had a complaint-based rental housing inspection program.  Only renters or owners of rental housing could ask for a housing code inspection.  Organizations like the Tenants Union, working with renters throughout the City, found renters living in the most substandard housing were the least likely to use the complaint-based system.

After a number of high profile cases revealed tenants living in deplorable conditions, the Seattle City Council established a proactive Rental Housing Inspection Program (RHIP).  Seattle charged a fee through a Rental Housing Registration Program  (RHRP) to fund the Inspection Program.

RHIP was an inspection program that proactively inspected (instead of relying on the complaint-based inspection) the City’s rental housing that was identified to be in the worst condition.  The RHRP was the method of paying for the program.  Later, in the mid-90’s, because of legal issues, the City of Seattle suspended the Rental Housing Inspection Program (RHIP) and the associated Rental Housing Registration Program (RHRP).   Last month there was an important court ruling that may allow the City to review its options to establish such a program again.

THE LEGAL ISSUES – CITY OF SEATTLE V. MCCREADY AND CITY OF SEATTLE V. MARGOLA

In 1993, the City of Seattle v. Margola, the City was sued by landlords who argued that registration program was collecting an illegal tax rather than a legal fee.  The city won that round; the court said it was a fee and the City could legally require it.

In 1994, the City of Seattle v. McCready, the City was sued by landlords who argued that housing code inspectors could not enter the units for the purpose of inspecting rental housing that they thought might have substandard conditions because the City had no administrative warrant authority.  The court ruled that under our state constitution, “[n]o person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”  Const. art. I, § 7.  Article I, section 7 protects “‘those privacy interests which citizens of this state have held, and should be entitled to hold, safe from governmental trespass'” without a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate and supported by probable cause.  At a minimum, a city ordinance that authorizes inspection “warrants” without probable cause does not provide the “authority of law” as meant by our constitution.

As an outcome of these two opinions, many landlords refused entry to housing code inspectors; some tenants were told that they could do the same. The City then couldn’t use the fees legally collected under the registration program to do the inspections.  As a consequence, the City became vulnerable to the potential of more legal action.  Landlords began to argue that the fees collected more revenue than the City’s cost to run the inspection program.  Since losing that round in court was likely, the City suspended RHIP and its funding mechanism RHRP and entered into a legal settlement not to re-establish any similar program until after 2006.

WHAT DID WE DO IN 2006?

To try and re-establish an inspection program last year, the first year that the City could under the legal settlement, I did two things.

1)   I worked to amend the City’s State Legislative agenda to see that the City lobbyists work with State Legislators to pass a bill that would grant administrative warrant authority to building inspectors only if they established probable cause for the issuance of the warrant.  A bill, SB 6105, was introduced sponsored by Senators Weinstein, Kline, Spanel.  Unfortunately, it did not pass.

2)    I worked to secure funds in the 2007/2008 budget so that the Department of Planning and Development’s (DPD) could study alternatives for the implementation of a periodic, proactive rental housing inspection program.  The study would examine best-practices and programs from other jurisdictions using periodic, proactive inspection programs.  Program areas studied would include, but not be limited to: a) licensing of rental housing; b) options for program funding; c) inspector training; d) quality control measures; and e) program effectiveness.

Neither effort secured adequate support because the apartment owner lobby convinced lawmakers that we should not begin to take any of the steps permitted after 2006 in the RHIP legal settlement until a pending case on a pro-active rental housing inspection program was settled.

WHAT NOW?

Last month in City of Pasco v. Shaw, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory city housing inspection program based on periodic inspections and certifications by landlord-selected private sector inspectors, does not violate state or federal constitutional protections from unreasonable searches or invasions of privacy. (Click here for Washington State Court Opinions.)

As we are all too aware, ongoing condominium conversions are putting further pressure on the supply of safe and habitable rental housing stock in Seattle.  Now that the legal issues have been settled, I am making the above budget proposal much like the one I made last year that would appropriate funds for the purpose of studying alternatives for development of a periodic, proactive rental housing inspection program.

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