Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Sue Lani Madsen: Code enforcement launches new program on a fast track

Last March the city of Spokane adopted two ordinances changing the rules for both landlords and tenants. Nine months later a new inspection process has been born.

Landlords have until Dec. 31 to register all rental units in the city in a system only launched Dec. 1, and they have questions.

“I’ve been getting seven to 10 calls a day since it came out on Friday asking how do I do it?” said Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest. “What’s crazy is, the draft info only came out in November, and then expecting everyone to complete it during the holidays.” He pointed out there are no meetings of his association scheduled in December or time to organize training.

Luis Garcia, director of code enforcement for the city of Spokane, is confident the registration process will be intuitive. He used city staff members who are also landlords as his test subjects. Registration is intended to be an online process using the existing Accela Citizen Access portal for permits (https://aca.spokanepermits.org/CitizenAccess/default.aspx). A fee of $15 per rental unit is required, and requires information on the address, ownership and age of each unit. Garcia encouraged landlords to call the city with questions.

Spokane has approximately 43,000 rental housing units, based on a study undertaken by the city working with Avista a few years ago. According to Corker, the majority of rental homes and about 40% of apartments are older. Corker said the inventory is a good idea, and so are inspections to help crack down on the bad apples in the landlord basket. “We’re not arguing about basic safety standards but the problem is the added fees to landlords” and concerns about inconsistency in applying the standards to older properties.

The city has a new checklist for quality inspections that is intended to maintain consistency. The checklist includes categories ranging from dilapidated siding to unsanitary trash accumulation and silent smoke alarms, and doesn’t take into account who hoarded trash or took out the batteries.

From Corker’s point of view, Spokane’s older housing stock will be an issue. “They keep saying they’re going to accept grandfathering and then in some cases have ordered properties to be vacated,” said Corker. “Putting people on the street isn’t the answer.”

Garcia says most deficiencies are usually the result of nonconforming modifications during the life of the building, like a large older house where a closet was turned into a bedroom when it was converted to apartments. He agrees those are a challenge to resolve. “The home was never designed to do what the home is now doing,” said Garcia. “I’ve never failed a building based on era of construction but on interior partitions added during the life of the building. These are not new standards, we still respect legal nonconforming status,” said Garcia.

While the initial inspection is covered under the basic registration fees, re-inspections will be the responsibility of the landlord, even if the nonconforming condition is out of the landlord’s control. The expectation is that the landlord and tenant will work together to resolve the problem.

Anyone who has ever lived next to a collection of rat-infested junked cars in a backyard or trash visibly piling up in the apartment hallway understands the problem of bad tenants. Code enforcement can try to mediate a solution but ultimately holds the property owner responsible.

Landlords have to hire attorneys at their own expense and rely on a civil suit to be made whole. Collecting blood from a turnip would be easier than collecting damages from tenants without assets, who often have a free attorney provided from groups like the Northwest Justice Project.

In a perfect world, the tenant would be held personally responsible and the Northwest Justice Project would protect good landlords from defiant tenants as enthusiastically as they protect good tenants from exploitative landlords. That would be justice.

It’s not simple self-interest behind landlords’ objections to registration fees and inspections. They know their tenants’ limitations, and they know every fee and new regulation is eventually paid by tenants. It’s naive to think otherwise.

Driving up rent is not the goal. Some tenants may be reluctant to complain if their landlord is a classic slumlord, and regular inspections may be effective for their situation. The hope is to drive higher quality housing by providing a system of pre-emptive inspections instead of relying only on complaint-driven inspections.

But the city is planning to add only three new inspectors to handle the expanded caseload – and the inspectors the city already employs are fully booked.

Garcia has worked on all sides of the issue, as a residential property owner as well as a building official, and has had to deal with bad examples on both sides of the landlord/tenant table. He’s upbeat and enthusiastic about his work. “Fines are not the intent of the program, if we educate we shouldn’t have to fine,” said Garcia.

Ah yes, shouldn’t have to. If everyone did what they should do, we wouldn’t need code enforcement.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

More from this author