The scene inside a South Seattle apartment building despite multiple city inspections.
The scene inside one South Seattle apartment building despite multiple city inspections. washington can

The Seattle City Council this week took a significant step toward fixing its broken rental inspection program. But advocates for low-income renters say the real test of the council's attention to the issue will come during this fall's budget negotiations.

On Monday, after most of the crowd gathered to cheer on the passage of a local income tax had left, the council easily passed changes to its Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, drastically reducing the notice landlords get before building inspections.

The RRIO is used to require landlords to register their buildings with the city. The city then randomly inspects those buildings to make sure they're up to housing codes, meaning they meet basic standards: working heating systems, no rat and roach infestations, no leaks, and so on. But the inspection program has significant shortcomings.

It only requires inspections of a small number of rental units and gives landlords significant notice ahead of an inspection. That allows landlords to fix issues in several apartments, leave the rest of the building in violation, and still pass inspection. That's what happened in a high-profile case in 2015, when tenants whose building had passed a city inspection were living with rats, roaches, and broken heaters. And it's what's happening right now in a building on Rainier Avenue South, where tenants are living in similar conditions despite multiple complaints and city inspections.

The changes approved by the council this week will reduce the amount of advance notice landlords get that their building will be inspected from two months to 10 days. Landlords will still get a 60-day heads up that an inspection is coming; they just won't know which apartments exactly will be inspected. (Columbia Legal Services urged the city to go even further, giving landlords no advance notice of which exact apartments would be inspected. The council did not consider that change.)

The changes, led by Council Members Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson, will also increase the number of apartments city staff will look at during random inspections and, if one apartment fails inspection, will require that city inspectors look at more units in the same building. Another key change: Today, when landlords have to undergo an inspection, they can hire private inspectors rather than allowing city staff on their property and they do not have to turn over those private inspectors' reports to the city. The new rules will require that buildings that fail inspections turn over those reports.

"We were excited that these amendments passed and it definitely does signal that the council is taking tenant rights issues seriously," says Xochitl Maykovich, political organizer at the nonprofit Washington CAN, which organized tenants in a building with multiple code violations and lobbied the council for the changes. "But where we will really see that dedication will be in the budget."

That's because, Maykovich argues, the city should hire more inspectors and do more proactive outreach to educate tenants about their rights. Currently, about 14 city staff inspect apartments, according to Maykovich. Meanwhile, about 42 percent of Seattle residents—or 280,600 people—are renters.

The city council could continue to strengthen the inspection ordinance, but "if there's no enforcement or tenants don’t know what their rights are, then it doesn’t matter," Maykovich says.

In the council meeting Monday, Council Member Rob Johnson promised to "continue to do work in this fall's budget in order to make sure that we're adequately funding the department to continue to do their work."

The council will budget deliberations after the mayor releases a draft budget in September.