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By City Councilmember Nick Licata. With assistance from my legislative aid 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.
Committee Vote Tomorrow
Today, Wednesday, May 26, at 9:30 the City Council Committee on the Built Environment (COBE) heard and voted to approve my proposed legislation to enact a rental housing inspection program to inspect rental housing for conditions that endanger or impair the health and safety of renters. I expect the Full Council to vote on it and two accompanying resolutions on Tuesday, June 1.
Hundreds of cities in the United States have proactive rental housing inspection programs requiring periodic inspections that don’t rely on a renter complaint. Renters often fear threats of retaliation when they complain about their housing conditions. Some proactive rental housing inspection programs have been in existence for more than 40 years, while others were created within the past year. For example in cities like Los Angeles, the Systematic Code Enforcement Program (SCEP) has as its goal, inspecting all 800,000 units in Los Angeles every 5 years.
Today, as in the 80’s, Seattle only has a complaint-based rental housing inspection program. Only renters or owners of rental housing can ask for a housing code inspection. As described in Urban Politics 241, after a number of high profile cases in the late 80’s revealed tenants living in deplorable conditions, the Council established a proactive rental housing inspection program. It was subsequently suspended in 1994 due to a legal challenge and as a settlement it, or any similar program, was not to be re-established until after 2006.
2010 Legislative Session
In Urban Politics 287, I wrote about Senate Bill 6459 passing the State Legislature largely thanks to the efforts of interest groups who historically have been on opposite sides of the table. The Rental Housing Association (RHA) and tenant advocates at Columbia Legal Services and Solid Ground came together to pass a bill that had been on the City of Seattle’s State legislative agenda for the past 11 years.
The bill authorized cities to obtain a warrant to allow a code enforcement official to inspect if there is prior knowledge of a housing code violation. Prior to the passage of SB 6459, a court could issue a search warrant only if a criminal fire code violation existed. In SB 6459, the legislature also approved specific parameters for a proactive inspection program.
I had intended to request that Department of Planning and Development (DPD) proceed with the next steps of:
1. Developing procedures for using a warrant as a Housing Code enforcement tool. Agencies would also document conditions of rental properties that could serve as the basis for seeking an inspection warrant in those instances when it was needed; and
2. Developing a proposed structure and staffing model to implement an inspection program for unsafe housing as permitted by the passage of SB 6459.
In the meantime, DPD proposed legislation to enact an inspection program that went beyond that authorized by the new state law. SB 6459 only related to inspection programs enacted by cities after the effective date of SB 6459, or after June 20. The bill DPD proposed would have run counter to the agreement struck by landlord and tenant advocates to broker the passage of SB 6459 – namely:
1. The DPD proposed bill would have required licensed rental housing to be 100% housing-code violation free.
2. The DPD proposed bill would have required that 100% of all units be inspected.
I expected that these requirements would have resulted in the opposition to the City ordinance by many of the stakeholders involved in the passage of SB 6459.
Licata Substitute Bill
My bill restores the elements in SB 6459 that tenant and landlord advocates agreed upon. It requires that if the building contains 20 or fewer units, no more than 4 units need be inspected and if the building or complex has more than 20 rental units, no more than 20 percent of the rental units are required to be inspected. The random sample of units must be chosen by the local government to inspect. All tenants – even if they did not live in the units selected for inspection – would be given notice of the inspections and told they could report violations. Further, if any unit failed, the local government could require all units to be inspected.
Inspections for this program are to be limited to the code violations that could endanger or impair the health or safety of a tenant. The City Housing Code requirements are: the structural members of the unit be of insufficient size and strength to be safe; the tenants are not exposed to the weather; the plumbing and sanitation don’t expose renters to illness or injury; the heat, water, hot water, and ventilation facilities are functioning; and the unit is free from defective, hazardous, or missing electrical wiring, electrical service, or hazardous exits and conditions that increase the risk of fire.
The City complaint-based program can still be used by tenants who wish to have an inspection for other housing code violations. Some of the landlord representatives have asked why commit to implement a housing inspection program now, before testing out DPD’s use of its new administrative warrant authority? The legislation enacting the housing inspection program will not go into effect until October 1, 2011. I have an accompanying resolution that directs DPD to develop policies and procedures for the use of the warrant authority and report back to the Council before the enactment of the proactive inspection program to evaluate the effectiveness of the new inspection warrant tool. There is also an additional resolution that Councilmember Clark has proposed that requests DPD to report back to the Council by July 1, 2011 with recommendations about specific items necessary to implement a rental housing inspection program.
In 1988, the City inspected 350 buildings chosen at random for housing code compliance. The results of those inspections showed 13 percent of rental units had moderately severe to severe Housing Code violations. The Census Bureau also periodically surveys various housing characteristics. In their last assessment of housing quality in Seattle, based on telephone interviews, the survey showed that 3 percent of rental units in Seattle have severe physical problems and 7.3 percent have moderate physical problems. It’s hard to say exactly how much rental housing is in poor shape, but I hope that maintaining the compromise struck by tenant and landlord stakeholders in the State Legislative session we can move forward towards improving the quality of Seattle’s rental housing stock and in doing so maintain the supply of affordable rental housing.
Councilmember’s & 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
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