Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Landlord Accountability: Defining the PROBLEM & What to do about it?

It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.- Winston Churchill

There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true.- Winston Churchill

This subject has been around as an issue for some time, but now there is renewed interest in resolving in an more effective manner.
Whether 'Landlord Accountability' is the proper description is debatable, but certainly landlords are a part of the problem - and ought to be held accountable as part of the solution.

What IS the problem?

I believe it is simply inappropriate behavior that causes neighbors stress, not some abstract concept that can't be effectively enforced.

What specific behaviors are actionable nuisances?


Bright lights?



Late hour disturbances?

Threatening or intimidating behavior?

Domestic violence?

Fear of retribution?

Time & trouble to file a complaint?

A pattern of repeated nuisances - or complaints?

Public health & safety issues, like drug houses or excessive filth?

Illegal activity?

Acts or series of acts requiring abatement proceedings?

All of these are enforceable, but only after they are reported, investigated and verified

Who is responsible for reporting these nuisances?
Might it be those most inconvenienced?
Anyone else?
Would a second witness be helpful?
Photo evidence?

What constitutes a report or complaint that can be investigated and verified?
Are nuisance complaints easily documented, investigated, reported?
What constitutes a documented complaint?
Something written, timely and signed by the complaintant?
Whose responsibility is that?

Who can be responsible for causing a nuisance?
Is it only renters?
Is it only students?

How do we verify that a complaint is legitimate, not just a hoax or vengeful act?
How many different people are required to lodge a complaint?
How many complaints for a specific address constitute identifying a problem residence?
How many complaints are to allowed in any given time frame?

Should any LL ordinance apply citywide?
What about private residences that rent rooms? Or not?

Should all Landlords be required to register with the City to verify who owns/manages property?
What registration fee should be enacted?
[Bear in mind that State Law requires the same fee be applied to all Landlords, regardless of number of rental units]
Should Landlords of rental income property be subject to B&O Taxes?
If yes, at what minimum level? [elderly widows renting 1 room?]
How do we define 'landlord'?
Could this definition be applied to owners of homes in single-family areas, who share these living spaces with friends?

Should the City enact a citywide enforcement mechanism, with registration fees and/or B&O Tax to pay for administrative & enforcement costs?
Should Muni Court be used for hearings & judgements? Hearing Examiner? Appeals to Superior Court?
Shold the Bellingham Police Dept be the primary enforcement agency? Will additional officers be required?
What role should WWU play? What costs should WWU bear?

Is the 3-unrelated persons rule enforceable?
Should it be enforced? How? Only if other nuisance complaints trigger an investigation?

If the City enacted a Citywide LL ordinance, could this be used when specific landlords 'nominate' themselves for enforcement?
This might amount to a 'grace period' for good behavior, allowing LL's who manage their tenants well to not be unduly penalized.

What role will Neighborhoods have?
How will the existing complaint system be used, or integrated into a new Ordinance?

How will LL complaint performance be measured?
How often would the new rules be reviewed for updating?

We already know where the 'hotspots' are that attract most complaints, even though tenants change over time.
We also know those who have been most frequently vocal about complaining.
These dynamics change!
City resources are limited, and there are higher priorities than nuisance complaints.
How do we determine what level of service to enforce any LL measure?

As is well known, 99+% of compliance with any rule or regulation is VOLUNTARY.
That means if citizens don't willingly comply, we have a problem!
So, the rules need to be reasonable and well communicated, backed up with enforcement if needed.

Also, we need to clear about exactly who is harmed.
Is it one person?
Would this harm -if unchecked- be likely to impact other people?
How many people might be harmed to justify defining a public nuisance?

If additional corrective action is deemed necessary, how much will this cost, and how will these costs be paid?

Would this be similar to enforcing parking rules, with tickets & citations?
Now, there's a popular model!

Where the City decides to go with resolving the 'LL' problem or public nuisance, or whatever we decide to call it, needs to be carefully done.

It will likely NOT be a one size fits all solution, the way some may expect.

So, get ready for focused discussions, new Council!
This issue has now been passed into your custody, care & control.
Good luck!

Despite the increasing complaints now being heard, some progress has been made since 2004.

A fairly recent summary combined report from the Police Chief, WWU Campus Coalition, Landlord Association(s), Judicial Services Dept, Planning Dept, Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Board & Neighborhood Coordinator outlined the steps that have been taken. In their view, the problem has been alleviated, although certainly not eliminated.

To document this problem is alive and well, a litany of complaints is available at the following Blog:

Concluding Comments: Landlord Workshop 11/16/04 at Ferry Terminal:

Thanks for here coming tonight in such numbers, to participate in developing practical solutions to this annoying problem, which is adversely impacting the quality of life for too many citizens. While it is the City’s duty to seriously address this problem, we want to do it reasonably and effectively with the community’s input and support.


Now, here’s what we plan to do:

1. Gather all comments, review them and post them on the City’s website. This also includes the Police Dept statistics by neighborhood.

2. Set up a follow up meeting early next year, say Jan/Feb, to summarize our conclusions from this meeting, present our recommended action plan and get additional feed back from this group. If that feedback is positive, we will proceed accordingly. If additional substantial changes seem necessary, we’ll reiterate this process and set up other meetings until we arrive at an action plan we can all agree upon that has a high likelihood of success.

3. Develop and adopt an action plan, likely to contain a number of the elements and methods that have been identified here tonight. Distribute this plan and enlist the help needed from those involved to implement it.

4. Set up an Advisory Committee representative of this group to become an integral part of implementing any action plan agreed to. This Advisory Committee would monitor the program’s performance; be available as a resource in its application; coordinate with the Police Department, WWU, NW Rental Association and others as required; and periodically provide feedback to the City Council.

5. Evaluate the program and determine its success, or whether modifications are necessary after a trial period of one-year.

We sincerely hope this process will work to correct the persistent, annoying problems that are being experienced, but it will likely require active involvement from all stakeholders to achieve this success. The last thing we want to do is come back later with another version of an onerous ordinance to address problems that can be more effectively handled otherwise.

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go." -- Oscar Wilde

Everyone has his day and some days last longer than others. -Winston Churchill