For a year, the Lakewood City Council has studied how to strike a balance between regulating unsafe, rundown rental properties without placing burdensome regulations on landlords who are doing it right.
The council was to vote on a proposed rental housing inspection program this week. Now that decision has been put off until next month. In the meantime, council members plan to sort through their options at a work session July 25.
“A couple of them said point blank they were really torn. They see both sides of it,” City Attorney Heidi Ann Wachter said. “They want to really vet all of their various concerns.”
Regulating rental properties has been a contentious issue for Lakewood landlords. Eighteen people spoke at a July 5 public hearing, the majority against the proposed inspections.
The common theme: Don’t penalize the majority of landlords because a few “slumlords” aren’t providing safe housing.
“Overwhelmingly a majority of the properties in the city are not causing the problem here,” said Sean Martin, external affairs director for the Rental Housing Association of Washington.
There are an estimated 13,700 rental units in Lakewood. The majority (11,200) are multifamily. Of those, 45 percent are in complexes with 100 or more units located on 30 properties in the city, according to city data.
Our goal is to attempt to strike a balance between the need for proactive inspection and support for quality owners.
Mayor Don Anderson
Currently, the city inspects rental properties if it receives a complaint and if the tenant agrees to allow inspectors in. But city officials are concerned that many problems do not get reported because tenants don’t know their rights or fear retaliation.
Lakewood officials think 10 to 15 percent of the city’s rental properties could be in poor condition based on data from other cities with inspection programs. The city has more rental properties than other Washington cities of similar size, and many of its multifamily units were built more than 50 years ago, city officials say.
“We’ve got a rather significant problem and we have to find the best way to address it,” Mayor Don Anderson said. “Our goal is to attempt to strike a balance between the need for proactive inspection and support for quality owners.”
Inspections wouldn’t focus on cosmetic issues, Anderson said. The purpose is to identify and fix substantial code issues that a landlord refuses to address.
“We found one where the structural timbers were failing and it was unsafe to live in the bottom unit,” Anderson said of past complaints fielded by the city’s code enforcement officers.
The program is being considered because the council believes there should be “minimal health and safety standards that people should expect to receive if they are renting a home” in the city, Councilman Jason Whalen said.
“We have to level the playing field so people of modest means aren’t basically saddled with the burden of substandard housing,” he said.
Legally the city can’t target properties it believes have safety violations, Wachter said.
We have to level the playing field so people of modest means aren’t basically saddled with the burden of substandard housing.
Jason Whalen, Lakewood City Council
“If we are targeting particular places we will be very ripe for a legal challenge,” she advised the council July 5.
State law was used to craft a legally defensible program, Wachter said. The city also looked to six other Washington cities with similar programs including Tukwila, Tacoma, Seattle, Mountlake Terrace, Bellingham and Pasco.
How properties would be chosen for the random inspections is still to be decided. State law allows an inspection every three years, but Lakewood is looking at one every five years.
Properties with positive inspections could receive an exemption, giving them a 10-year period without an inspection, Wachter said.
The program is estimated to cost $175,000 annually. Options to pay for that include charging landlords a fee or using a combination of fees and other city revenue.
The cost to landlords hasn’t been determined. One idea is to charge a base fee and a per-unit inspection fee. Properties with a large number of units may be capped so they don’t pay a disproportionate amount, Anderson said.
“The city’s going to break even or less on it,” Anderson said of the program. “It’s certainly not a money maker and it’s not intended to be.”
If the council approves the program the earliest inspections could happen would be 2017.
The council’s July 25 study session starts at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 6000 Main Street.