Rental Housing Inspection Programs – A Necessary Response

In an attempt to discover poor-quality rental units and force property owners to deal with the problems, the Seattle City Council approved legislation establishing the Rental Housing Registration and Inspection Program on October 1, 2012 according to the Seattle Times article. Beginning in 2014, a four-year period of registration begins for the program with inspections following for the next 10 years along with 5-year renewal of registrations as explained in the summary sheet. Rental properties from single family houses to large apartments are included except for “Short-term vacation rentals; Commercial lodging such as hotels, motels and B&Bs; Housing units in state licensed facilities like assisted living, adult family homes or veterans’ homes; Hospitals and hospices; Emergency or temporary shelters or transitional housing; Facilities owned by or managed for Major Institutions; Housing units in a religious facility occupied by members of the religious order; Housing units, owned by a government entity or housing authority, like Seattle Housing Association” because they have on-going routine city inspections. "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. While many are concerned about the program’s voluntary registration phase, the success of Seattle’s program has built-in mechanisms for participation, like outreach, education, code violations to assist in identification of unregistered rentals or face a $1000 penalty for non-compliance. "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. And, from Sean Martin from Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound, "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?" Additional program components are: enforceable oversight, database availability for renters, program review assessment, and coverage of complete costs from inception of this fee-based program.


Seattle joins many cities and counties around the country who have previously created new ordinances for rental property as in Baltimore County, MD (2007) that enforces county codes and regulations, which protect and promote public safety, health and welfare; Kalamazoo, MI (2009) ensuring safe, decent and sanitary rental housing; Sacramento, CA; (2008) addressing the issue of substandard rental properties, promoting greater compliance with health and safety standards while preserving the quality of Sacramento’s neighborhoods and available housing; Tukwila, WA (2011) requiring all residential rental property owners to obtain an annual residential rental business license and a periodic inspection of each unit, which applies to all multi-family units (2 or more units) and to condominiums, single-family, and accessory dwelling units occupied by tenants who pay rent; and Waukegan, IL  (2001) guaranteeing all individuals who live in rental property having a decent place to live while improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods.


Where as in Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, with 1500 city population, the two-year old residential property inspection ordinance was recently challenged by one landlord claiming it violated the constitutional rights of property owners.  In a recent decision by the U.S. Middle District Court, the judge dismissed without comment the nine citations and $450 in fines for not obtaining a rental license according to Penn Live (8/28/2012).  Susanne L Woodford, Freelance Writer