As you compare candidates for Lakewood (WA) City Council in the upcoming election, consider that all four incumbents voted for the Rental Housing Safety Program (RHSP).
Terms ending in 2017 are those of John Simpson, Mary Moss, Jason Whalen and Mike Brandstetter.
Though there are five programs already which address so-called “rental housing problems within the city” the RHSP would, for the first time in the city’s 21-year history, require access by city-approved inspectors to the interior of private rental properties.
As the lone dissenting voice against Ordinance No. 644 – a mandatory rental registration and inspections ordinance that passed 6-1 August 1, 2016 – Councilwoman Marie Barth said, in reference to those already existing five programs, “I really prefer to strengthen the ordinances and codes that are in effect right now and pursue it in that manner.”
The RHSP will cast a net over the entire rental industry in Lakewood, some 14,000 individual units, to catch what the City admits is less than 15 percent estimated not to meet the 69-box, seven-page check list of standards (including wattage of light bulbs and “adequate food preparation space”) that the City has set.
For the renters and landlords – let alone taxpaying citizens – caught in that net, the actions of the Lakewood City Council – or, in some cases, nonactions – raise the following questions.
1. Deceptive presentation of the problem?
Exhibit A: Abbreviated video newscast.
At the July 5, 2016 Lakewood City Council Public Hearing concerning the proposed – and controversial – RHSP, public comment was preceded with a video of “a leaky roof and mold story” by KIRO 7 News Investigative Reporter Jesse Jones that originally aired March 16, 2016 involving a landlord/tenant complaint in the Laurel Gardens apartments located in the Woodbrook neighborhood-portion of Lakewood.
Jones wraps up his investigation by providing viewers – some 20,000 people ‘liking’ the story – how to get help and provides the link to the Landlord Tenant Law wherein all manner of options and remedies are available to tenants who find themselves in similar situations.
Lakewood didn’t show that part.
Jones also references in his brief conclusion the RCW that “if the landlord fails to remedy the condition or conditions within a reasonable amount of time the tenant may request that the local government provide for an inspection of the premises with regard to the specific condition or conditions that exist.”
Lakewood didn’t show that part either.
Additionally, in the transcript that accompanies Jones’ March 16 account, there is this: “If you want the best document on Landlord/Tenant Law check out the Northwest Justice Center.”
That too Lakewood left out.
The link here provided is the video record of the July 5, 2016 Lakewood City Council Public Hearing on the Rental Inspection Program. The Jesse Jones KIRO investigation excerpt begins at 32 minutes, 14 seconds into the Hearing. It ends, abruptly, at 35:08.
Twenty-three seconds was all it took for Jones to provide viewers with all the information they needed by which to find resolution to Landlord-Tenant disputes.
Twenty-three seconds Lakewood didn’t show.
Exhibit B: Financially – for many – out-of-reach apartments in the city are featured as the “Good” standard.
City staff’s presentation the night of July 5 at the Public Hearing showed pictures of rentals “that anyone would be proud to live in,” said Lakewood City Attorney Heidi Wachter, a statement Wachter makes at the 43:25 minute mark of the video-and-audio recorded tape.
While it may be true that anyone would be proud to live in them, could they? Financially? In other words, are the rentals that are pictured affordable, regardless of their esthetics, given the actual demographics of our city?
Two examples of the slides used by Wachter are the Echelon ($980-$1,670/month) and Hunter’s Glen ($995-$1,215) apartments.
But renters, in Lakewood, “earn about $29,745, per the median income in the area. That would allow for renters to spend up to $694 on monthly rental expenses.”
To make matters worse for the great majority of renters in Lakewood, in just this last April, “Lakewood posted the highest rent increase in the Puget Sound region, $750 to rent a one bedroom, the price hike even steeper for a two-bedroom apartment, $1,120 per month.”
In other words, the rentals pictured by city staff as “good” – as opposed to “bad,” or “ugly” – are in fact not remotely within the out-of-pocket capabilities of a large portion of Lakewood’s residents, so is this then even a fair – much less honest – comparison?
Exhibit C: From Day One, Lakewood’s plan was billed as an “inspection” – not “safety” – program.
Every document on the City of Lakewood website – from July 27, 2015 up to May 9, 2016 related to the Rental Housing Safety Program omits “Safety” in the title and in its place substitutes “Inspection.”
But on May 9, 2016 there is a rather radical departure from the usual nomenclature to something more innocuous.
July 27, 2015 – “Rental Housing Inspection Program”; December 14, 2015 – “Rental Housing Inspection Program”; February 8, 2016 – “Rental Housing Inspection Program Update”; March 28, 2016 – “Rental Housing Inspection.”
On May 9, 2016, “Inspection” is removed leaving “Rental Housing Program.” Then on June 6, 2016 the headline would read “Rental Housing Safety Program” where “Safety” is mentioned in the title for the first time following an entire year during which “Inspection” sufficed.
The acronym then changes from RIP to RHSP.
Even the emails among city staff (Public Disclosure Request # 16-1581, 1,633 pages) concerning the program have this as their subject line: “Rental Housing Inspection.”
The question becomes, in reviewing the above, why the name change?
Even the July 5 announcement for the public hearing has no mention, at all – not in the title, not in the text – of the word “inspection.”
On February 15, 2016 the Tacoma News Tribune ran the rental “inspection” story which opened the floodgates for many, many articles critical of the city for its “inspection” program.
The title of the program was changed from “inspection” to “safety” shortly thereafter.
Exhibit D: Fires caused by faulty wiring are presented as reason why an inspection/safety program is needed. But the evidence is questionable.
Forty-two minutes into the video/audio recording of the proceedings of the Lakewood City Council the night of July 5, 2016 there is a PowerPoint slide depicting an apartment fire in Lakewood. Lakewood City Attorney Heidi Wachter represents the slide during the public hearing on the RHSP as evidence of the need for rental inspections.
Here’s Wachter’s voice-over when the apartment fire slide appears: “As you can see agencies end up with sometimes the worst of the situations where further resources are put into apartment fires which we have experienced in the City of Lakewood.”
That same presentation – and apartment-fire slide – appears on page 38 of the December 14, 2015 City Council meeting culminating the “ugly” portion of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” visual walkthrough of Lakewood rentals.
Two of the fourteen slides flashed on the screen during “the Ugly” portion are of a mobile home and what appears to be a trailer. Wachter admits during this portion of her presentation that mobile homes are excluded from the RHSP given the dwellings themselves are not rented, only the ground upon which they sit.
One-half the remainder of the slides (whether they are taken inside mobile homes or other rentals – apartments or single-family rentals – is not clear) show exposed wiring leaving the impression then that it is in fact unsafe wiring that is responsible for apartment fires which is the last slide shown.
Turns out that may not be the case.
An inquiry of West Pierce Fire and Rescue (WPFR) as to the cause of fires in Lakewood resulted in the following disclosure.
In researching data from 2011-2015, WPFR “found 106 structure fires that had electrical/arcing as the suspected heat source. The data is only as reliable as what gets inputted by the crews. We are not able to breakdown by zip codes to determine Lakewood only. The 106 incidents represent 14% of all structure fires.”
So, 106 structure fires with faulty wiring as the suspected cause; over four years; unknown how many in Lakewood.
And then WPFR concludes their findings with this:
“Unattended cooking is by far the source of the majority of structure fires.”
The presentation to the City Council however does not suggest that the fires in Lakewood – however many there are, which is unknown; over however long a time, which is also unknown; whether multi-family or single-family rentals, which is unknown, or whether they are even rentals at all – are anything other than faulty wiring to which then the conclusion is reached, and as the evidence shows is a conclusion unfairly drawn, for the supposed necessity of the RHSP.
Exhibit E: Stubborn landlords and substantial code issues are alleged as the reasons requiring inspections. Does the evidence bear that out?
According to a July 17, 2016 Tacoma News Tribune story, Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson said that “Inspections wouldn’t focus on cosmetic issues. The purpose is to identify and fix substantial code issues that a landlord refuses to address.”
However, the draft of the Rental Inspection Program (RIP) Check-list (pp.186-192) as found on the City of Lakewood’s website dedicated to this issue includes “interior surfaces (shall be) maintained in good, clean and sanitary conditions; suitable space to prepare food”; and “no peeling, chipping or flaking paint” among similar potential red-tags which certainly appear more cosmetic than catastrophic.
2. Why was a “robust tenant/landlord outreach educational program” (p.9 of 12) discarded by the City Council?
An option presented the Council – one that would have very likely made unnecessary the RHSP – was suggested by City Staff as a communication emphasis utilizing what common sense would indicate was adequate state law as contained in the comprehensive Residential Landlord-Tenant Act.
Ironically, ‘robust’ – the term used by city staff – means “straightforward and imbued with common sense.”
But the City Council rejected this ‘straightforward-and-imbued-with-common-sense’ informational campaign in favor of the inarguably far more regimental rental inspection compliance mandate.
Why would not a city council make use of any number of informational resources, focusing, educating and communicating to the citizens concerning their abundant rights, responsibilities and privileges whether renters or landlords all while thus avoiding yet another layer of regulation?
Ironically, when the new distracted driving law went into effect on Sunday, July 23, 2017, the very next day the City of Lakewood’s Facebook page provided a link “for everything you need to know” about this law.
No such “everything you need to know” communication piece was forthcoming from the Lakewood City Council as concerning the law pertaining to renter-landlord matters.
“Many alternatives to suspicionless searches exist,” argued lawyers defending the rights of home owners and residents of rental properties against “ordinances authorizing general administrative searches.
“The reasons offered for upholding these schemes are insufficient to justify such a substantial weakening of constitutional protections, to advance what valid interests local authorities may have.”
Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson said, with regards the decision to implement the RHSP: “My rule is to first try and do what’s right. And in this case, we can do nothing, or we can try.”
But the ‘try’ aspect, the something that the Council could have done, communicating to the citizens “all they needed to know”, was never tried.
Even while acknowledging the existence of a most applicable State Landlord Tenant Law that addresses – already – everything remotely related to this issue, the council nevertheless declined to give that option a ‘try’ and rather than availing itself of the opportunity to draw attention city-wide to that document favored imposing its own local layer of enforcement instead.
“Empowering tenants and community residents to ensure safe, decent and sanitary housing,” is most certainly commendable. But those words belong to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which has set up a complaint line to address such matters as “poor maintenance, dangers to health and safety, mismanagement, and fraud.”
A complaint line.
Not an intrusive and oppressive and over-bearing and unnecessary bureaucracy.
But rather a phone call.
3. City Council representatives are to represent the citizens who vote for them. Do they?
Exhibit F: Expenses related to the start-up and ongoing program overhead for the RHSP are far over the head financially of those the program is designed to serve.
Lakewood’s RHSP called for ‘hiring a Housing Safety Inspector at $93,900; a program manager at $49,720; purchasing a car at $30,000; a workstation at $20,000; a Tablet at $1,000; and a Smart Phone at $50.’
The City adds ‘another 10 percent for overhead’ (p. 3 of 5); ‘step raises’ which periodically increase a position’s salary simply because the employee has been in that position for a certain amount of time; annual cost of living raises; and ‘merit pay’ which by far and away the majority of city government employees receive.
Then there’s the software package to support the RHSP originally budgeted at $50,000 that has since ballooned to $133,000 (p.75 of 185, June 19, 2017 Lakewood City Council Study Session).
Just the Inspector’s salary alone would be two-and-a-half times the average household income for Lakewood which is $36,422 ($29,745 for renters), far in excess what one would think appropriate, let alone reasonable, for the community they are supposed to be serving.
Based on the $175,000 annual package, fees for rental registrations and inspections for the 13,700 units in the city were assessed accordingly.
Assistant City Manager David Bugher, who also serves as Community Development Director (CED), wants all 4,707 rental properties in the city – regardless of whether those properties are multi-family or single-family rentals – to be each levied a $60 general business license yielding $282,420 which would “more than double the number of licenses processed by the CED annually from about 3,500 to over 8,000.”
This does not include CED’s proposed per unit fee ($9 recommended initially but later increased to $12) generating nearly another $200,000.
The City Council at their November 14, 2016 meeting, initially balked at charging the same rate per location but “agreed to consider business licensing for single family rental housing at a later date.”
Multi-family rental housing also received a reprieve – for now – when the Council waived business licenses for those properties in 2017 per the Council consensus December 5, 2016.
But perhaps what we’re seeing is what a spokesperson for a similar program in Pasco suggested to the Lakewood City Council: “avoid being too strict for the initial period of enforcement and step up enforcement after the initial cycle.”
It is legitimate to ask, given every single residential rental property in the city will – most likely (multi-family soon, single-family later) – be required to register; pay fees per location and per unit; and be inspected for which of course there are associated fees, whether the net cast over all residential properties, regardless of their condition, was perhaps not so much about safety as about bolstering the economy?
Exhibit G: Were the public meetings and the one Public Hearing really about hearing from the public?
The City Council held two public meetings and one Public Hearing before passing the RHSP. The reaction from property managers, landlords, housing associations, realtors, and citizens in general was overwhelmingly in opposition: “Landlords are being singled out because they are perceived to have deep pockets”; “Way too much regulation/expense compared to the problem”; “Another layer of government/taxes”; “Penalizing the majority of the good landlords/owners for the conditions maintained by the minority of the bad landlords/owners”; “Government intrusion into private business”; “The City already has abatement programs that work.”
Nevertheless, the City Council representatives voted for the RHSP anyway.
At its retreat held on February 21, 2015 “Council was clear that no consideration will be given to legislation without a better understanding of the community perspective.”
However, by the time the Public Hearing was held July 5, already the draft of the rental housing inspection checklist was done; dates requiring property owners to register had been set; ‘commencement exercises’ for the entering of private rental properties by city- or city-approved inspectors were scheduled; fees associated with the program (estimated by city staff at $175,000 annually) to be borne by landlords were in place; and financial remuneration “comply or face penalties” were established.
Exhibit H: Is the RHSP subject to referendum, that is a vote of the people?
On October 17, 2016, each of the Lakewood City Council was polled individually as to whether they, as elected representatives, would in fact represent what would appear to be a sizeable segment of the population who opposed the rental inspection program.
Specifically, would the council members, on the citizens’ behalf, inquire of the Municipal Research Services Center (MRSC) as to the susceptibility of the RHSP to an election by way of an initiative?
MRSC will reply only to elected representative’s inquiries, not to the general public, hence the request of our city council.
Four did not respond; one offered to provide a list of attorneys; one said they would make the inquiry but then did not, there having been nothing further; and one even said rather emphatically “No.”
Summary and conclusion
Given the evidence presented above, each step leading to the next:
(1) suspect presentation to the City Council of the need for interior assessment of living conditions in rentals – that required investigation to be performed by government-approved inspectors; and
(2) outright rejection by the City Council to avail itself of the opportunity to educate and communicate to the citizens city-wide the information contained in the already existing and comprehensive laws pertaining to landlord-tenant issues; and
(3) consequent expansion – at the approval of the City Council – of city government at an expense far exceeding the financial capability of the people the Council is ideally elected to serve; then:
Based on the above, Lakewood voters have legitimate reason to consider carefully their decision as to whether in fact the current council represents them let alone support them with their vote especially in light of Federal Court rulings that have concluded rental property inspections and licensing fees – “indiscriminate and warrantless government inspections of rental properties,” and “unlawfully-extracted rental inspection fees’’ – are unconstitutional.
“The physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.”
“A rental inspection law that forces landlords and tenants to open their properties and homes to submit to intrusive inspections; (an ordinance that) allows the government to enter the most intimate confines of tenants’ homes—including bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and closets—in search of housing code violations, even when landlords and tenants object”; such rental inspection programs, says the Institute for Justice, that “give the government the green light to conduct blanket searches of innocent people’s homes without their consent, are an end-run around constitutional protections for property rights.”
That’s what this city council election in Lakewood, Washington is about.
In “Watchdog.org”, M.D. Kittle wrote, “Unfortunately, the creep of overbearing government at all levels has imperiled property rights and homeownership. It’s time for reform that protects and defends homeowners from non-essential regulation.”
Your vote can do something about that.