High Costs of Low Rent
Group Tries to Hold Slumlords Accountable
Last April, 38-year-old Corey Snelson, a scientist working at the University of Washington, found herself living in squalor in a dank University District basement through no fault of her own. "Before I moved in—but after I signed a one-year lease—there was a flood in the house that dumped 100 gallons of sewage water into my apartment," she explains. "And the landlord refused to remove the carpet."
Snelson's pet basset hound became severely ill before her landlord finally agreed to replace the carpet. But that revealed a bigger problem: mold.
"When I contacted him about getting the mold cleaned up, he wouldn't answer e-mails, texts, or messages—he ignored me entirely," Snelson says. "My dog was dying. I couldn't stay there. I couldn't really afford to leave. I didn't know what to do."
The Tenants Union of Washington State, which helped Snelson terminate her lease, has been resolving horror stories like this one for years, one tenant at a time. But the challenge has been preventing this sort of scenario from happening in the first place. Now the group is finding traction as city hall considers new rules that would force landlords to keep their properties safe and sanitary.
On March 28, the Seattle City Council's housing committee discussed recommendations from the mayor's office to register the city's 147,000 rental-housing units and subject them to random inspections.
The proposal, issued by the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD), would require all Seattle landlords to register their rental properties over a period of three years (while "self-certifying" that their properties meet safety and health standards). It would also mandate inspections of properties with multiple reported violations in three years and eventually conduct random inspections by private companies.
For violators, the penalties would remain similar to what we have today: fines, city-enforced closures for deficient properties, and $3,321 in relocation assistance paid by the landlord to all tenants forced to move. However, the new inspection process could discourage landlords from violating at all, says DPD code compliance director Karen White.
Still, the Tenants Union says the recommendations don't go far enough. For example, the group is concerned that landlords could simply check a box "self-certifying" that their properties comply with health and safety standards, even if they don't.
"Landlords are already supposed to comply with those standards, but obviously, if they did, we wouldn't have a problem," Emily Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Tenants Union, points out. She adds that the current recommendations fail to identify the percentage of rental properties that would be subject to random inspections and, currently, only 80 properties qualify for mandatory inspections. "That's simply not good enough," she says.
DPD's White counters those concerns by explaining that the city wants to complete a citywide rental-housing registry before committing to specific metrics for inspections. "We only know of about 75 percent of the rental properties in the city," she explains.
Housing committee chair Nick Licata agrees that the DPD's recommendations need sharper teeth. During the council's recent meeting, Licata proposed setting a hard number of inspections by requiring 3,500 properties to be certified by a third-party inspector over a six-month period and for the city's entire pool of rental properties to be inspected within 10 years. "That's where I want to see us go, and that's what I intended as an original cosponsor of this legislation," Licata says.
Indeed, Licata got this ball rolling to begin with. In 2010, the council passed legislation that he sponsored, establishing a Residential Rental Business License and Inspection Program. But now that the program managers have put their suggestions on the table to implement the program, Licata is not satisfied. Fortunately, there's still room for change. The recommendations must still be drafted into legislation that, if passed by the council, would amend the 2010 ordinance. The housing committee is slated to discuss the recommendations again on April 11.