This post was written by Riya Bhattacharjee.

Seattle landlords beware. A new ordinance approved by the Seattle City Council last week will shift the onus for reporting problems with rental units—exposed wires, moldy floors, rats in the walls, etc.—from tenants, who currently have to request inspections, to requiring the city to conduct them automatically. Historically, some tenants are afraid to call for inspection because it means they could lose their housing. This rental housing licensing and inspection program, expected to take effect in 2012, would be limited only to code violations that pose a threat to the health or safety of tenants.

But while tenants’ rights groups consider it a major victory, others—primarily landlords—resent the new law.

“It’s more government interference,” says Bart Flora, co-president of Cornell Associates, which owns 6,000 rental units in Seattle. “It’s just another way for the city to gain control over private housing stock—to raise revenue and expand government.”

Flora warns that any new fees resulting from the ordinance could be reflected in higher rent. With utility costs already up by 20 percent in the last year, this may not be the best news for Seattle renters who occupy about 51 percent of dwellings in the city, according to Flora. “When a tenant has a problem, they call the city and the city then gets in touch with the landlord,” says Flora, referring to the city’s existing rental-housing complaint program. “We are talking about less than one percent of apartment buildings that have issues.”

Likewise, Julie Johnson, president of the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound, cautioned the council at the meeting that the new ordinance left many questions unanswered: “Our main concern is that the ordinance will add new costs and burdens to rental housing owners and renters without corresponding improvements in rental housing conditions," she said.

But Laura O’Connell, a tenant rights counselor with Solid Ground, which received 130 calls over the last one year from tenants complaining about shabby housing conditions, says her clients were often victims of cultural or language barriers or clueless about the existence of a formal complaint process. “They don’t have the resources to ask for help or are afraid of retaliation from their landlords,” she said. Solid Ground has been working with the city to come up with a way to help these tenants.

More after the jump.

Although most city council members—including Sally Clark and Nick Licata, who co-sponsored the bill—acknowledge that the overwhelming majority (85 to 90 percent) of Seattle landlords cared about their renters, they stressed there were a few who blatantly violated the law.

“A rental licensing and inspection program isn’t a cure-all for sub-standard housing, but we should preserve the ability to institute a program that safeguards the rights of tenants and property owners,” Clark says.
Some critics of the new ordinance questioned whether the council had acted a bit hastily in order to counter more restrictive inspection rules passed by the 2010 State Legislature. This legislation curbs a local government’s ability to create its own inspection program if it’s not in effect by June 10, 2010.

Council member Sally Bagshaw, a reluctant supporter of the ordinance, compared it to the audits carried out by the IRS. “We need to figure out the least burdensome program possible,” she said at the council meeting. Clark described the ordinance as a “placeholder” which would be tweaked by stakeholders and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) before being implemented April 1, 2012.

The city has yet to make up its mind whether to inspect all rental units or just a sampling, the frequency at which they will occur and the benchmark for failing an inspection. The DPD will also update the city council by July 1, 2011 as to whether civil warrants issued by a court to inspect rental units suspected of code violations are working.

Citing a study by the American Housing Survey which shows that Seattle’s rental housing stock is already in better condition compared to several other metropolitan areas—including those with a comprehensive inspection program—Johnson Johnson (with the Rental Housing Association) asked for more time for concerned parties to understand the proposal. “It’s important not to paint all landlords with the same brush,” she says.

Student leaders from the University of Washington were among the biggest cheerleaders of the rental housing inspection ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting. They testified how, as first time renters, students were often vulnerable to poor rental conditions. “Restaurants have health inspections, so why not housing rentals?” asked UW student body president Tim Mensing. UW student union vice president Eric Shellan called the inspection a “common-sense law.” “We are holding landlords accountable—we are not asking for a fresh coat of paint, we are ensuring that all rooms have four walls and a smoke detector,” he said.