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Lakewood considers rental housing inspections to improve conditions

Lakewood landlord Betsy Tainer bought this 1960s duplex rambler in 2006 and has taken care to make sure it’s properly maintained. She is unhappy with the city’s plans to potentially require landlords to undergo regular rental housing inspections.
Lakewood landlord Betsy Tainer bought this 1960s duplex rambler in 2006 and has taken care to make sure it’s properly maintained. She is unhappy with the city’s plans to potentially require landlords to undergo regular rental housing inspections. dperine@thenewstribune.com

Betsy Tainer works full-time managing seven rental properties she owns in Tacoma, University Place and Lakewood.

When she bought a duplex near Lakewood’s Lake Steilacoom 10 years ago she updated the 1960s-era rambler with new fixtures, carpet and tile flooring.

She reconfigured one of the unit’s kitchens with new cabinets, counter tops and appliances. She also has added new windows and regularly helps with yard maintenance and upkeep.

That one of her tenants has been there five years shows she’s doing something right, Tainer believes.

That’s why she’s not happy with a plan under consideration in Lakewood that would require all rental properties to pass regular city-imposed inspections.

She’s not worried that her property won’t pass — she says she makes a point of offering above-market rentals to draw desirable tenants.

What she’s worried about is the cost of complying with a program she believes is being done as a “money grab” and to target absentee landlords.

“People think just because you have a rental property you’re taking in piles and piles of rent,” Tainer said. “The truth is all of these increases in things are getting passed on to the tenant.”

No decisions have been made on the proposed inspection program. The City Council is debating the details, including making sure whatever is proposed complies with state law.

We want to get at these properties earlier and sooner so they don’t turn into code enforcement issues.”

John Caulfield, Lakewood city manager

“It’s not something the city has made up,” City Manager John Caulfield said. “It’s a program that the state Legislature has put in place for cities to utilize.”

State law dictates how frequent inspections can happen — every three years — and if the city requires it, every rental would be subject to inspection.

“As a municipality we can’t select and choose,” Caulfield said. “It has to be across the board.”

Rental properties make up more than half of the housing available in Lakewood.

That leaves the City Council trying to find a balance between regulating problem properties without placing unfair requirements on legitimate landlords, Mayor Don Anderson said.

Anderson formerly owned rental property in Lakewood. Now his rentals are all out of state, he said.

“As a longtime landlord myself, I don’t want to create a situation that places a burden on good operators,” Anderson said. “At the same time, like most cities we have some bad operators.

“We’re looking for additional tools to make the city safer for tenants.”

City Attorney Heidi Ann Wachter has spent the last year researching the issue and updating the City Council on how a rental housing inspection program could look in Lakewood.

“We want to bring the bottom up,” Anderson said.

I want the city to understand that this is a small percentage of properties and the net that would be cast would be unnecessary to the vast majority of properties.”

Mike Larson, president/designated broker, Allen Realtors

The city currently uses an abatement program to address its worst properties. Last year 17 properties were handled through the program.

The abatement process is slow and expensive. It also is a last resort, said David Bugher, assistant city manager and development director.

The city would prefer to tackle the problem before properties reach the point of disrepair.

“We want to get at these properties earlier and sooner so they don’t turn into code enforcement issues,” Caulfield said.

An inspection program could identify problems with electrical wiring, heating or cooling systems, access to hot water, mold or other interior failures, he said.

That’s good news for tenants, especially those who are low-income, said Jennifer Ammons, staff attorney for the nonprofit Northwest Justice Project.

“We see clients who have units where there is no heat, there’s maybe no running water, no hot water, there’s a hole in the roof and the landlord isn’t going to fix it until they move out,” said Ammons, who provides free legal services to low-income individuals and seniors who are homeless or could become homeless.

Landlords should be held accountable, but inspection programs can have unintended consequences, Ammons said.

“Once inspections start that can result in the rapid displacement of tenants,” she said.

The Northwest Justice Project is not taking a position on Lakewood’s proposed program, Ammons said.

If the city implements inspections it also needs to be ready to address relocation needs of tenants who could be displaced if a property is deemed uninhabitable, she said.

Mike Larson, president and designated broker at Allen Realtors, guessed half of his company’s 425 managed rentals are in Lakewood.

We see clients who have units where there is no heat, there’s maybe no running water, no hot water, there’s a hole in the roof and the landlord isn’t going to fix it until they move out.”

Jennifer Ammons, attorney Northwest Justice Project

He understand what the city is trying to do, but said he is skeptical an inspection program would produce the results the city wants.

“I want the city to understand that this is a small percentage of properties and the net that would be cast would be unnecessary to the vast majority of properties,” Larson said.

State laws already protect tenants, Larson said. Requiring an inspection is an “unnecessary overreaction” to the problem of bad landlords, he said.

Anderson understands Larson’s position, but said in some cases tenants are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation.

“A lot of times the tenants that are being taken advantage of have documentation issues or some other problem so they’re reluctant to complain when they’re victimized,” he said.

The City Council is looking at ways a rental inspection program could benefit landlords doing things right, Anderson said. That could include allowing compliant properties to go longer between inspections, he said.

Lakewood is looking to Pasco, Seattle and Bellingham for guidance in creating a successful inspection program.

In Pasco, the city has had a similar program for close to 20 years, Caulfield said. The program recently was upheld when challenged in court, according to Assistant City Manager Matthew Kaser.

The Lakewood City Council could make a decision on the program by this summer with a 2017 implementation date at the earliest.

“Bottom line: it’s a work in progress,” Anderson said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

Percentage of rental homes by city

Lakewood: 55 percent

Tacoma: 44 percent

University Place: 42 percent

Steilacoom: 38 percent

2013 American Community Survey

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