A little-noticed Seattle City Council resolution authorizes a $50,000 study of a possible rental-housing inspection program, and it could produce a fierce political battle between landlords and tenants this fall. Last December, the council authorized by a 6-3 vote an examination of alternatives to the city's existing complaint-driven system. The resolution cites a Pasco program that has withstood legal scrutiny.
Mitch Nickolds, the Pasco official who runs the 10-year-old program there, recently said he has been interviewed by a consultant to Seattle and has been contacted by city officials from Grandview, Pullman, and Tukwila, Wash.
Pasco assesses landlords a license fee, tied to the number of rental units they own, and gives them a choice between using city inspectors at no additional cost and hiring qualified private inspectors. It also gives advance notice of inspections and conducts them on a rotating basis so that all units are inspected every two years.
The Seattle resolution was pushed by then-council President Nick Licata and since-departed council member Peter Steinbrueck, who mentioned atrocious conditions in the Roosevelt neighborhood, among other areas of the city. In a recent interview, Licata said he is not "married to the concept of a housing inspection program if we can get to safer housing [through other means]. But I am a bit skeptical about what else is out there."
Meantime, Claire Powers of Cedar River Associates, the consultant picked to do the study, was slated to report back with options by the end of March. But work has been delayed due to an unexpected problem analyzing Seattle's existing housing complaint data.
Despite the delay, Licata remains confident there's enough time to take action this fall, as part of the budget process, if the council decides to establish a rental housing inspection program.
According to 2000 census data, nearly 52 percent of Seattle's population lives in rental units. Karen White, director of code compliance with the Department of Planning and Development, said the number of complaints the city has received represent less than 0.5 percent of the city's roughly 125,000 renter-occupied units.
But she has also acknowledged that those numbers might not tell the whole story, because in some cases tenants may fear retaliation if they report violations. The state Supreme Court cited such concerns, including a scenario in which the landlord threatened to have the tenant deported if she continued to complain about an apartment with broken doors, sinks that drained into buckets, collapsing shower walls, and rotting floors.
In Seattle, the possibility of introducing an inspection system takes place against a tangled history. In 1996, the city agreed to pay $10 million in restitution to landlords to settle a lawsuit filed by property owners that alleged excessive fees were levied in an earlier housing inspection program.
The difference this time could be the recent state Supreme Court decision. But that doesn't mean there won't be further debate.
In one corner stand tenant advocacy groups, including the University of Washington, which contend the existing complaint-driven system is inadequate to police marginal landlords. Opposing a tougher stance is the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound (RHA), representing more than 4,300 property owners of an estimated 100,000 units, which contends such proactive inspection programs violate the privacy of tenants and also could prove expensive.
In testimony before the City Council last fall, RHA president Julie Johnson denounced the state Supreme Court decision as "appalling." In a "call to action" newsletter to members in December, the landlord group estimated the cost per unit of an inspection program could hit $100, but the accuracy of that number is far from clear.
In the Pasco case, the RHA tried to file an amicus brief to get the opinion overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the court last March declined to review the case.
Still, Johnson recently said her group has not ruled out further litigation. She contended there are other aspects of the Pasco ordinance that could be challenged but declined to elaborate.
(The RHA is keeping track of similar efforts by other municipalities in the wake of the state Supreme Court decision. For example, Kathy Stetson, Tukwila's code enforcement officer, said the RHA met with city officials this spring to try and "head off" preliminary efforts to set up a rental housing inspection program).
"We remain concerned that mandatory inspections represent an invasion of a tenant's right to privacy," Johnson said.
The notion that tenants' rights are uppermost in the minds of the RHA is soundly rejected by Tenants Union spokesperson Michele Thomas. "That's such crap," she says. "Their main goal is to protect their private profit. ... If they [landlords] would keep their housing in such good shape, we wouldn't have to be considering such legislation."
The UW has also weighed in to support of an inspection program. Aaron Hoard, the school's deputy director of regional affairs, said he looks forward to the matter coming up before the council later this year.
Anecdotally, Hoard said, he's aware of problems including inadequate fire escapes, no smoke detectors, and no locks on doors. "It's a life and safety issue for our students," he said, referring to the thousands who live in rental units off campus.
In many cases, students are living "on their own for the first time, and working through the complaint-driven system can be challenging for them," Hoard said. "My impression is they're more likely to sort of give up."
He also said that students are concerned about landlord retaliation in a tight housing market. His office tried to encourage students to invite city inspectors to take a look at conditions, but they were hesitant to do so for fear the inspectors would find the rental units in such bad shape they'd shut them down, leaving them with "nowhere to live," Hoard said.
Mayor Greg Nickels has also signaled he's willing to get behind a more aggressive approach. In late May, mayoral spokesman Alex Fryer said: "In general, the mayor has been in favor of enhanced inspections. We want rental houses to be safe and we're not satisfied with the status quo. We are supportive of a more proactive program."