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Originally published Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 5:15 PM

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Seattle likely to require inspection of rental units

The Seattle City Council on Monday is expected to approve legislation that requires anyone who owns rental property to register with the city and certify that the unit meets city safety and health codes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Two days after Florencia Ybarra filed a complaint with the city of Seattle over cockroaches and mold in her Rainier Valley apartment, her landlord filed an eviction notice against her. Although she won in court, she said it remains in public records, making other landlords wary of renting to her.

Retaliation, and fear of retaliation, is a big reason renters don't report more problem housing to the city, say tenant and public-health advocates. Now the City Council is poised to make mandatory a rental registration and inspection program in an effort to identify poor-quality rental units and get owners to address the problems.

On Monday, the council is expected to approve legislation that would require anyone who owns rental property, from a single-family home to a large apartment building, to register with the city and certify that the unit meets city safety and health codes. All registered properties would be inspected within the first 10 years of the program and, once inspected, would be on a five-year cycle for reinspection. Owners would have to hire a city inspector or a private, city-approved inspector to examine the property and certify that it meets city housing standards.

City-code enforcement officers would work with property owners to bring them into compliance, but if a landlord failed an inspection and refused to make repairs, the unit could not be re-rented and the city could impose fines starting at $150 per day.

"Every restaurant receives a health inspection. Every driver passes a safety test to receive a license. We should apply the same health and safety standards to housing," said Jonathan Grant, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.

Grant said Ybarra is one of hundreds of renters his organization works with every year to try to address substandard housing conditions, from leaky roofs and windows to exposed electrical outlets to infestations of rodents and roaches.

With rentals making up about half of all housing in Seattle, Grant, using census data, estimates that about 27,000 residents live in problem housing. The current system relies on complaints, but he said the city typically receives only about 500 per year, suggesting that the vast number of problems go unreported.

Groups representing large apartment owners have worked with tenant advocates since 2010 to draft the legislation and generally support the bill, though they have reservations about how well the program will work.

"The biggest challenge will be getting people to register their properties. The bad guys are not going to register," said Tim Hatley, lobbyist for the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association.

Another unknown is how much it will cost to administer the program, which won't go into effect until 2014. The city said it will set fees for registering rental units to cover its costs, including registration, inspection and recording which units have certified their habitability.

The ordinance requires the city to create a public database of all rental units so prospective tenants, or tenants with complaints, can see if an owner has registered a property. The city also will require any owner who was the subject of a complaint or a code violation within the previous two years to be inspected within the first year of the program.

Hatley suggests that the city use existing utility bills to identify unregistered rental units. He said that the more owners who sign up, the lower the cost to other owners, and the lower the amount that likely will be passed on to renters.

Sean Martin, with the Rental Housing Association, also worries that few owners will register. He said a city program that asks apartment owners to voluntarily conduct energy audits has only about 35 percent participation, despite widespread outreach.

"We're very concerned people aren't going to register. If someone has an illegal rental in their basement, how is the city going to know?"

Under the proposed ordinance, the penalty for not registering is $1,000.

Councilmember Nick Licata, chairman of the Housing and Human Services Committee, said the city does not want to create a big bureaucracy. Other cities with inspection programs typically employ the inspectors. Seattle sought to mitigate that by giving owners the option of hiring their own inspectors.

"We want to cover our costs. This is not a profit-making enterprise," Licata said. He added that the city checklist wouldn't be a catchall for potential code violations, but would focus on health and safety issues.

A broad coalition of community groups has endorsed the legislation, including the Seattle Immigrant and Refugee Advisory Board, the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, the American Lung Association, the University of Washington, the Associated Students of the University of Washington and the Seattle/King County Advisory Council for Aging and Disability Services.

Aileen Gagney, a program manager with the American Lung Association, which conducts free indoor air-quality assessments, said people living in the poorest rental units also tend to be the most vulnerable — immigrants, the elderly and disabled and other low-income people.

She recently visited a home that turned out to be a former meth lab. The family, including an asthmatic grandson, said they were often sick. Gagney said that after they started asking the landlord about the home's history and its air quality, he left rat poison in the family's mailbox.

Lucas Barash-David, with the office of government relations at the Associated Students of the University of Washington, said students often don't report crummy living conditions because they're afraid of having their rent increased or of the time involved in pursuing a complaint.

"There are a lot of students living in low-quality housing. They should be worrying about getting good grades, not whether the mold in the walls is making them sick. We need this legislation," he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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