As Maria Angeles makes tortillas on her kitchen counter, cockroaches scurry along the wall under the edge of her cabinets. A few feet away, her husband Humberto Sanchez sits at the kitchen table. Above his head, dozens of small black insects crawl around a framed photo of Jesus.
The roaches aren’t the only problem in their one-bedroom apartment on Rainier Avenue South. The pair also deals with rats, mold, leaks. Several outlets are burned out and the heater doesn’t work—and didn’t in the coldest days of winter either, Angeles and Sanchez say. But Sanchez is hesitant to file a complaint against his landlord. He even feared talking to me for this story.
With the $880 rent and easy commute to his construction job, Sanchez says he can't afford to give up this place. He's worried about having to move "to Kent" or the building getting shut down entirely, he tells me through an interpreter.
Angeles and Sanchez have lived in this one-bedroom apartment in an 18-unit Rainier Avenue South building for six years. They say the problems have been present the whole time. But no matter how many times they ask the landlord to address the issues, they say he either doesn’t or sends a contractor who does a poor job. Neither the landlord cited in city documents, James Boyd Jr., nor the attorney who registered the LLC that owns the property responded to requests for comment from The Stranger. But Boyd is no stranger to the City of Seattle or the city programs meant to stop these kinds of conditions.
Tenants have twice filed complaints about similar conditions at this building, and the city has found dozens of housing code violations on the property. Still, the building passed when it came up for a random inspection last year—despite the city program's mission to keep a check on poor housing conditions. Today, the building’s current conditions expose several key flaws in the way Seattle keeps an eye on landlords.
“Seattle likes to tout itself as a welcoming city for all,” says Xochitl Maykovich, political organizer at the nonprofit Washington CAN, “but how can we consider ourselves a welcoming city if we’re OK with having immigrants and other vulnerable communities living in terrible conditions? I’m not OK with it and I don’t think anyone else should be.”
The conditions at the building are not unfamiliar to some renters in Seattle. Last year, tenants at another south Seattle building organized after their landlord increased rents despite roach and rodent infestations, broken heaters, and other violations. In response, the Seattle City Council passed a law named after the landlord at that building—the Carl Haglund Law—banning rent increases at buildings with serious housing code violations.
Now, the building where Angeles and Sanchez live highlights other shortfalls in the way the city enforces its housing laws:
• Problems like insects, leaks, and electrical problems are unlikely to be limited to just a few apartments, Maykovich says. (“I don’t think cockroaches are thinking, ‘I can’t go into unit 16 so let me just head on down to another building,” she says.) Yet the city’s current rules do not mandate inspectors search a whole building after finding violations in a few apartments. It's at the discretion of the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) whether to inspect more units in the same building. And it’s rare for SDCI to use that discretion. According to Tallent, SDCI has required additional inspections three times since 2014.
Maykovich argues further inspections should be required—not optional—when serious violations are found. “When one unit fails—in particular when it fails in the way these units should fail—that signals broader problems with the apartment [building],” she says.
• It’s not always city inspectors looking at apartment buildings to determine whether units are up to code. Landlords can hire private inspectors instead, and 60 to 70 percent of do, Tallent says. But private inspectors don’t have to give the city any details about their inspection other than to say whether the building passed or failed. That means city staff don't actually know details about the conditions of the vast majority of buildings—even the ones that fail an inspection.
• Landlords receive 60 days’ notice when they’re up for a random inspection, plus notice of exactly which apartments the inspector will look at. That provides ample time to fix a handful of units without addressing issues in others. Like the building on Rainer Ave South, the Haglund property from last year had passed an inspection. Inspectors eventually found more than 200 code violations at the latter building.
• Landlords do not face fines as long as they fix the violations. The city’s focus is on getting landlords to fix the problems, not on punishing them, so they only charge landlords if they refuse to fix the problems. For a landlord, that leaves little incentive to fix code violations until they get caught.
Beginning today, the city council will consider some changes to the inspection program, most importantly requiring private inspectors to hand over reports and shortening the length of advance notice to landlords. Not on their list: requiring inspections of entire buildings where serious code violations are found, as Washington CAN proposes.
Council Member Lisa Herbold, who helped create the inspection program when she worked as an aide to former Council Member Nick Licata, says she may consider it.
“If we’re only learning about buildings like this because of community organizations,” Herbold says, “I would say we need to move away from just hoping SDCI uses its discretion to requiring a higher threshold of units be inspected.”
A spokesperson for the Rental Housing Association of Washington said his organization did not have comments on changes to the inspection law.
For Angeles and Sanchez, such policies could've prevented their current abysmal living situation. Their building, built in 1956, has come to the city's attention before.
Back in 2014, after a tenant complaint, the city warned the building's landlord of 55 violations across several units, including leaks, sources of moisture (which can cause mold), and cockroaches, according to Department of Construction and Inspection documents obtained through a public records request. Boyd, the landlord, fixed the problems, but complained that the cockroach infestation was because a tenant refused to clean and claimed that tenant threatened a contractor sent to address issues in the apartment. That tenant later moved out.
In early 2016, another tenant made similar complaints. Again, a city inspector found 62 housing code violations in several apartments at the building. Those violations included rodents and cockroaches, a deteriorating floor, a broken heating system, leaks and moisture, defective smoke detectors, and other illegal conditions. Boyd fixed the problems, according to city documents. He did not face financial penalties in either case.
In August, the city inspected the building through a program called RRIO (Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance). That program is meant to ensure every apartment building in the city gets inspected so that, even when tenants are afraid or unable to complain to the city, landlords won't be able to get away with substandard conditions. But landlords receive 60 days’ notice that an inspector is coming and notice of exactly which apartments they will look at. According to RRIO manager Geoff Tallent, a city inspector looked at eight apartments in this building and they all passed.
Nine months after passing the city's inspection, as many as 10 apartments in this building may have blatant violations of the city’s housing code. I saw the conditions I described at the beginning of this article in two apartments. Maykovich, whose organization is helping the tenants navigate the city complaint process, says she’s seen similar conditions in eight other apartments in the building. After Maykovich filed a complaint, city inspectors visited the building, but have not yet released their findings.
Next door to Angeles and Sanchez, Artoro Vejar lives in a two-bedroom with a roommate and his roommate’s two teenagers. The rent is $1,040 a month. Mold and mushrooms grow on the ceiling of his bedroom. In the next bedroom, he says the ceiling collapsed and had to be repaired by the landlord. The light in that ceiling now hangs over the bed by its wires. Vejar complains of bed bugs, cockroaches, mice, and rats, many of which he says get in through a gap under the front door. Vejar says he works 11-hour days in construction job. Like his neighbors, he speaks very little English, which makes complaining to the city or interpreting notices left on the door by the landlord difficult.
The conditions in the building are “depressing,” he tells Washington CAN community organizer Luis Herrera Perales, who translates, and he's fed up.
“I pay my rent here,” Vejar says. “I have the right to criticize my living conditions.”
For Maykovich, whose organization has also pushed for requiring landlords to allow tenants to pay their move-in costs in installments, strengthening the city's random inspection process would be another step toward shifting the power imbalance between renters and their landlords.
“The thing that stuck out to me most is that every person in that building is a person of color or immigrant,” Maykovich says of the apartments on Rainier Avenue South. “The racial and economic inequity that exists in our society is just in your face in this building... We need to be looking through what can we do to stop this situation from happening again."