Many tenants who have lived in older buildings in Seattle know the problem: Sometime after they move in, the toilet stops flushing, the roof starts leaking, or some faulty wiring puts on a light show in the living room. And the landlord never fixes it.
Up to 15 percent of the city's rental units have severe housing code violations that affect an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Seattle residents, members of the City Council were told last week. What to do about it is something the council's Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee finally took up Feb. 11, after a year of waiting for a consultant's report that presents three options.
They include modifying the city's current complaint-based program, in which only a tenant or landlord can call in a building inspector from the Department of Planning and Development, or moving to a system of mandatory rental inspections every two to three years similar to programs adopted in Los Angeles or Pasco, Wash. -- something landlords say neither they nor tenants want.
"Tenants aren't wild about inspections," says Randy Bannecker, a spokesperson for the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound. "Their home is their home."
In a city where more than half the homes are now rental units, the council is looking for ways to keep older, less expensive apartments safe and occupied -- something Seattle has been wrestling with for years. In 1990, the city instituted a licensing and inspection program for multifamily rentals, but landlords and tenants sued over privacy issues and the state Supreme Court struck down the program.
In the ruling, the court said the city didn't have the right to order inspections because it lacks authority under state law to get what are called "inspection warrants": court-ordered warrants that allow entry to a premises when code violations are suspected.
In December 2007, after a rental inspection program in Pasco survived court challenges, the council picked up the issue again, passing a resolution that called for a study to assess Pasco's and other programs and their cost.
In the Pasco model, according to the report presented Feb. 11 by the Cedar River Group, the city charges property owners $30 a year per apartment building and $3 per unit for a rental housing license that isn't issued unless an architect, engineer, or housing inspector certifies the units are up to code every two years. The program has survived legal tests, consultant Claire Powers told councilmembers, because a city inspector isn't required to make the site visit -- property owners may hire their own professionals.
A similar program in Seattle, Powers said, would cost about $3.5 million and could be paid for by charging owners $28 a year per unit for a rental housing license that would require certification every three years.
But Powers advised against the approach, saying a new licensing system would cost money to set up and it wouldn't target the worst landlords: repeat offenders who commit 25 percent of all housing code violations. Instead, the Cedar River Group advocates beefing up the city's complaint-based system, in part, using inspection warrants, which would require a change in state law.
In the past two years, former Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, tried to pass a bill that would have allowed cities to get inspection warrants, but co-sponsor Adam Kline, D-Seattle, has not revived the legislation this session.
Council staff member Michael Jenkins told the committee that another bill would make Pasco's housing inspection program illegal. House Bill 1296, which the Rules Committee could send to the floor Feb. 19, would stop cities from requiring landlords to hire housing inspectors and prohibit assessing fees to pay for city inspections.
Committee chair Sally Clark said she wants to call a stakeholders group to study the issue further. But, after the meeting, Councilmember Nick Licata, who supports housing inspections, said it's unlikely much will be done to beef up the complaint system or adopt a Pasco-type program.
With the city looking at a $20-$30 million revenue shortfall this spring, he said, starting a new program would be difficult. And, "The political reality is that there's not the votes on the council for inspection warrants."