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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Seattle rental-housing inspections approved

By Emily Heffter
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday to establish a city inspection program for rental-housing units, but it left many of the program details for a citizens group to figure out over the next two years.

Tuesday's vote sent a clear message that the council wants the city to be more aggressive about making sure the city's 100,000-plus rental units are safe and landlords adhere to city building codes.

The city will charge landlords a license fee, but it hasn't determined how much. The city could inspect every unit in the city, or just a sampling, or just in certain neighborhoods. The new program likely won't be in place until 2012.

Supporters of the new law said the city's complaint-based system, which has been in place since the 1990s, doesn't work.

"A lot of the tenants who are living in substandard housing don't have the resources to seek alternative living situations," said Laura O'Connell, a housing counselor with Solid Ground, which assists low-income tenants. "They are really worried about retaliation from their landlords."

But landlords who testified at the meeting said it's not fair to charge fees to good landlords in an effort to find the bad ones.

"Why penalize every landlord for a few dogs who do have this difficult problem?" said Gene Slagle, who owns a nine-unit apartment building in Wallingford.

The city hurried to establish a program specific to Seattle codes before a state law takes effect June 10. Having a separate program allows the city to tailor inspections to its building codes. A mandatory inspection program goes against the recommendations of the Cedar River Group in a broad, council-funded study released last February. That study recommended the city improve its current system before requiring inspections.

Bart Flora, a vice president at Cornell & Associates, a large rental firm, said violations on rental housing are extremely rare in Seattle. The council is going to cause expenses that will be passed on to renters — all to solve a problem that may not even exist, he said.

"I really don't understand what the problem is," he told the council before Tuesday's vote. "I think it all works fine."

The new law passed 7-0. Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell said they were reluctant to support a program that could burden property owners. The data show most rental property in Seattle is in good condition, Harrell said.

Two members — Tom Rasmussen and Mike O'Brien — did not vote, because they own rental property.

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