Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Seattle inches closer toward rental housing licensing

by April 11th, 2012

The City of Seattle continued today to advance toward implementing a rental housing licensing and inspection program that officials say would be aimed at especially at chronically negligent landlords and tenants who may well be afraid to use the city’s existing complaint-based enforcement process for rental quarters languishing in poor condition. At a meeting of the council’s Housing, Human Servies, Health and Culture Committee, council central staff member Michael Jenkins presented a draft outline of the program being configured by the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). In its current draft form, the plan would require owners of rental housing units to go through a registration and inspection process designed to ensure code violations are repaired, or face a revocation of registration, plus possible fines and a prohibition on re-renting the unit to any new tenant until repairs are made. Problems with plumbing, heating, electrical wiring and conditions of building materials are among the most common issues. The city council in coming months will work to finalize the program and estimate ongoing costs, to be integrated into the city budget for 2013 and coming years.

Some 53 percent of Seattle’s residents are renters. There are 147,000 residential rental units in the city, spread among 42,000 residential rental properties. The new policy would be adopted not as a stand-alone measure, but an amendment to an ordinance passed in 2010 by the council which committed the city to establishing the housing licensing and inspection program. It required further work on the details, said Lisa Herbold, a legislative aide to Seattle City Council Member Nick Licata, who chairs the committee. A recent DPD blog post further explains the backstory.

The draft proposal now emerging incorporates perspectives from a city-convened stakeholders group. Herbold said council discussions on the planned amendments to the existing ordinance will probably begin in July, so that the council would be able to approve language in August, and associated added costs from planned implementation can be factored in city budget deliberations beginning in September.

Jenkins’ committee presentation on the draft policy outlines a multi-step process. Owners of all rental units in Seattle would review code requirements provided by the city, see to the completion of an inspection and sign a compliance declaration they’d then submit to DPD. They’d also pay a fee to complete the registration process and post the registration in a common area of the building, visible to all tenants. No less than 20 percent of all rental units in the city would be subject to verification inspections by city or trained third-party inspectors; owners and tenants would be notified in advance and inspectors would provide identification.

Those who pass would be issued a certificate of compliance and have to submit it to the city within 60 days, then they would be not be inspected for another five years. Those who fail inspections would either have to make repairs and pass a re-inspection or would be issued a notice of violation which if it does not prompt needed repairs could then result in civil fines and a ban on the owner re-renting the unit to new tenants. Existing tenants would not be displaced, however.

DPD Director Diane Sugimura recently issued her own more detailed memo on the planned program. She wrote that the program would be phased in over three years. In the first six months, registration would be required for rental properties with seven or more units, 3,407 in Seattle. In the second six months properties with three to six units would have to be registered, currently numbering 3,613 in the city. In years two and three, the 35,000-plus rental properties in Seattle with one or two units would have be registered.

A “significant effort” would be needed to ensure all rental units in the city actually get registered and thus become eligible for inspection, Sugimura stated. She estimated total start-up costs of the program at $462,000 and acknowledged added workloads for some city staff. Inspections costs are another matter. Where qualified third-party inspectors are engaged, she wrote, costs can range from $150 to $250 per single-family rental unit and for multi-unit buildings, a base fee of about $250 plus another $25 to $33 per unit.

The current complaint process isn’t enough, Sugimura wrote:

It is well known…that a complaint response program does not result in all rental units meeting health and safety standards because not all substandard units are reported to the City. There are a variety of reasons why substandard rental housing isn’t always reported, including language and cultural barriers and the fact that some renters are afraid of the potential consequences of reporting problems such as a rent increase, or a worsened relationship with the landlord.

An online database would allow current and prospective tenants and members of the general public to confirm that a given rental unit has been registered, and would also provide information on the owner, as well as when inspections occurred, and their outcomes.

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