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October 4, 2012

Seattle's Rental Housing Inspection Program: What does it mean for you?

Myths & Facts about Seattle’s “Healthy Homes” Rental Registration & Inspection Ordinance

The City of Seattle has passed a “Healthy Homes” Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, and it will be important for you to know what are your rights! By having a proactive inspection program the work of enforcing the city’s building codes won’t be on the backs of tenants. There will be an online database created, so before you rent a home, you can see if it is registered and meets basic health and safety standards before signing the lease.

As more problem property’s are brought “onto the grid” they will be required to demonstrate they are a healthy and safe place to live, and over time we can eradicate our substandard housing and hold the slumlords in our communities accountable.

The law will require every rental property to pay a registration fee every 5 years and demonstrate through an inspection that the building meets basic health and safety requirements. Registration won’t begin until 2014, and will be phased in over three years starting with multi-family housing. There is a lot of misinformation out there on this important piece of local legislation, and we wanted to dispel a lot of the myth’s about the new law:

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Myth: Substandard housing is not that big of a problem in Seattle; this program is unnecessary.

  • Fact: Using data from the US Census and American Housing Survey it is estimated that over 27,000 people live in moderate to severe substandard housing in Seattle. That is greater than the entire population of the City of SeaTac.

Myth: This program is going to dramatically raise rents.

  • Fact: The cost of the program will have a negligible impact on rent, but it is a safe assumption that costs will be passed down to tenants. The City has not determined the costs of the program, however consider the following: The cost for an inspection of a single family home will run about $100. If we suppose the registration fee could range from $50-100 for a home, the total cost created by the program could be $200.
    This cost would be spread out over 5 years when the home is registered. For the owner to recoup the estimated cost that would mean passing on a $3.34 rent increase on to the tenant. This modest investment by the tenant will ensure their home does not slide into disrepair and meet basic health and safety requirements.

Myth: The complaint based system could be expanded to deal with this problem.

  • Fact: There are approximately 15,000 – 18,000 rental units in Seattle that have moderate to severe physical problems. In 2007, the Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) issued written housing code violation notices to approximately 550 addresses.
    This means that almost 95% of properties with possible housing code violations were NOT reported to the DPD. Under-reporting of housing code violations could be related to fear of retaliation, language and cultural barriers, lack of information about DPD, and other issues of equity.
    The complaint based system is only one tool to address the problem; a proactive inspection program creates a systematic approach.

Myth: My home will be subject to “surprise” government inspections.

  • Fact: Property owners and tenants will always receive proper notice under this program before an inspector can enter your home. The Department will contact the landlord in advance to notify them of when an inspection will be required. Tenants can refuse entry to inspectors when they are not given the proper 48 hours’ written notice to enter as already required under state law per RCW 59.18.150, and inspectors must display proper credentials.

Myth: The program does not target the bad actors first.

  • Fact: The rental properties that have had two or more Notices of Violation or one or more Emergency Orders issued within a two year period will be inspected within the first year of the program. This means that the city will deal with the known problem properties first.

Myth: The program will not identify the “bad landlords” who will not voluntarily register their properties.

  • Fact: The program would fund an extensive community outreach and education program to identify and register properties, which has never been done before. Over time the program will capture unregistered properties to grow the city’s registry. An effective model would be for the Department to contract with community based organizations already trusted in their neighborhoods to reach a broad section of the housing stock.
    The Department will review data from the King County Assessor and will also review information from other city programs directed to apartment buildings and known rental properties.
    Owners who do not comply will receive a warning, but are then subject to a $1,000 penalty.

Myth: The program wastes resources by requiring registration and inspection of all properties, with no exemptions.

  • Fact: The program exempts the following: owner-occupied homes where a room is rented out, transient lodgings like motels and hotels, hospital or care facilities, university dormitories, and subsidized housing that already receives comparable inspections like Section 8, tax credit, or public housing. This way the City does not waste resources on redundant inspections.

Myth: We will have to be subject to an inspection every year.

  • Fact: Every property that is registered will receive an inspection at least once over a 10 year period. After 5 years the registration will expire, and the property could be subject to a second inspection. 10% of registered properties are selected each year for an inspection by a random formula.

Myth: Tenants will have no idea when the inspector will enter their home.

  • Fact: Tenants can refuse entry to any inspector when the proper 48 hours’ written notice is not provided, and the tenant has a right to review the inspector’s credentials.

Myth: The inspectors are going to “nit pick” for minor code violations.

  • Fact: Only a focused subset of the building code that addresses health and safety concerns will be applied by the private inspectors. For example, they will ensure that the unit does not have defective locks, leaking plumbing, dangerous electrical systems, defective roofs, or dangerous structural conditions. They are not going to inspect for cosmetic concerns.

Myth: The inspectors are going to report tenants to law enforcement if they see anything unlawful in the apartment.

  • Fact: Inspectors are only authorized to assess building codes; they are not law enforcement officers.

Myth: This is a radical concept that only creates a bloated bureaucracy without solving the problem.

  • Fact: The City intentionally designed a lean government program by requiring landlords to hire private inspectors rather than city inspectors, focused inspections on strictly health and safety codes, as well as capped the number of units that can be inspected based on the size of the building.
    In the old system, the cost of complaint resolution was borne by the general public, but now housing provision is a business with consumers and providers. Many other cities across the country have created similar programs with great success in abating substandard housing: LA County, CA; Mountlake Terrace, WA; Pasco, WA; Boulder, CO; Fort Worth, TX; Sacramento, CA; Grand Rapids, MI.
    These health and safety expectations have long been accepted in other industries: Every restaurant receives a health inspection; every driver passes a safety test to receive a license. The same standards will now apply in a system to “trust, but verify” that all rentals are safe.

Myth: Improved housing conditions will result in displacement of low-income people.

  • Fact: Other municipalities that have enacted similar ordinances have not experienced increased displacement. The Department’s goal is to work with landlords to bring their units up to safe standards, not to close them. The Department gives landlords considerable opportunities to correct code violations and will continue to do so under the ordinance. In fact, the threat to a tenant’s health and safety from substandard housing is often the cause of displacement, a problem more likely to be solved by having a preventive code enforcement model to abate violations before they grow into a hazardous situation requiring the property to be condemned. If a property isn’t well maintained tenants end up being displaced because they can not afford to pay for repairs themselves that are their landlord’s responsibility, or for medical costs due to preventable environmentally attributable illnesses. In the complaint-based system, the full burden to enforce the right to basic health and safety code compliance falls on the tenant.

Myth: The program will cause gentrification and result in affordable rentals being redeveloped as high-end rentals and/or condos.

  • Fact: The City very carefully crafted the ordinance to ensure that both single family homes and multi-family apartments would not need major rehabilitation work to comply with the law. This was accomplished by taking a focused approach and applying only a focused sub-section of the building codes that dealt with basic health and safety requirements. For example, it will ensure that the unit does not have defective locks, leaking plumbing, dangerous electrical systems, defective roofs, or dangerous structural conditions. They are not going to inspect for cosmetic concerns.