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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.
Law to Improve Rental Housing Conditions Passes State Legislature
The Short Story
Last week the State Legislature passed Senate Bill 6459, or administrative warrant authority.
Previously, under the residential landlord tenant act a court could issue a search warrant only if a criminal fire code violation existed. Passage of SB 6459 expands the law to allow for administrative search warrant authority for housing code violations. This is a significant expansion since it allows the City to inspect more rental units.
Last year the Council Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee, chaired by Councilmember Sally Clark, heard the recommendations of a 2008 Cedar River Group study (authored by Claire Powers). I led the City Council to fund that study in 2007. The prime recommendation of the study was:
“The City can take another step to improve enforcement by implementing the recommended enhancements to the current program through a vigorous effort to secure State legislation granting the City warrant authority, providing new resources to increase outreach and education activities, and by stepping up enforcement once warrant authority has been secured.”
Many in the City share a long and difficult history on the issue of rental housing inspection programs, dating back first – in the late 80s – to the establishment of the Rental Housing Inspection Program and its companion the Rental Housing Registration Program and later – in the mid 90s – to the dismantling of these programs as a result of court decisions challenging them.
Here is a refresher/primer on the history of the issue:
What Happened In Olympia?
Interest groups who historically have been on opposite sides of the table on this issue, the Rental Housing Association (RHA) and tenant advocates at Columbia Legal Services – came together this legislative session to work on the common objective of implementing the Cedar River Group recommendation. They get my thanks for working together and securing passage of this important bill.
Although administrative warrant authority was on this year’s state legislative agenda (for the 11th year running), the City of Seattle opposed the bill, and so, unfortunately, did many of the elected officials from our delegation. DPD had concerns with some of the bill’s constraints, but most housing advocates that I talked with believed that moving forward with this improvement is better than maintaining the status quo: having no administrative warrant authority to allow for securing decent housing conditions for tenants.
The great majority of Seattle’s rental housing is safe. But some of it is not. The Department of Planning and Development, in its testimony in Olympia reported 3 such instances.
- One instance was a rental with 6 unrelated tenants renting rooms and sharing a kitchen. Yet the kitchen also had a toilet and shower in it.
- Another instance was a crawl space that you couldn’t stand in with a dirt floor that was being rented out to a couple.
- Still another example is of a UW student renting a room that also contained a furnace who went to the hospital twice from carbon monoxide poisoning.
What’s the Law Say?
This law allows a warrant to be issued by a judge to allow a code enforcement official to inspect and determine the presence of an unsafe building condition or a violation of any building regulation, and only if there is sufficient evidence establishing probable cause for the inspection. It is a good compromise bill. The legislature also approved specific parameters for an inspection/licensing program in the bill.
Thanks to Columbia Legal Services and the Rental Housing Association, the first part of this recommendation (securing State legislation granting the City warrant authority) is an accomplishment we can now celebrate. Now that warrant authority has been secured, I will be asking the Department of Planning and Development to proceed with the next steps: providing new resources to increase outreach and education activities, and by stepping up enforcement.
I am looking forward to receiving their proposed structure and staffing to implement an inspection program for unsafe housing as permitted by the passage of this law. I will continue to work with interested stakeholders as the Council implements the next steps towards safer rental housing.
COUNCIL MEMBERS & MAYOR’S EMAIL ADDRESSES
Citizens are directed to the following website to complete a form to send an email to the Mayor’s Office. http://www.cityofseattle.net/mayor/citizen_response.htm