The Gristle

See No Evil, Speak No Evil
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SEE NO EVIL, SPEAK NO EVIL: The end was in the beginning; and after a long, long and ambitious evening session filled with impassioned testimony on the issue of landlord licensing, Bellingham City Council appears ready to approve what was first set in front of them uncolored by the passion. They were determined not to kick the can down the road—though kick it they did, to another special work session in November to again consider testimony—and determined to resolve something on a rental housing registration concept that has boomeranged around the halls of city government for more than two decades. Beyond that, they’re determined not to do very much.

Bellingham City Council veteran Gene Knutson, who was feeling unwell, was excused from the meeting at 10:30pm, prompting council to continue their deliberations at a later date bolstered by additional information from staff. Council pressed on, completing city business at midnight. Gene also represents the very philosophic and historic heart of this ages-old issue—determined to do something, yes, about improving the health and safety of rentals; at a loss to know quite what to do, or to what extent to do it.

“If we’re going to do something,” Gene grumbled, “we need to do it. Either way, we need to move on. For God’s sake, let’s get this done before the end of the year.”

But moving on without achieving something meaningful only invites the issue back, and this issue has been bouncing back to Gene on council for 20 years.

On paper before them, City Council faces a mingy, bare bones licensing program that would place a little sticker somewhere in each of 6,000 rental units with a phone number renters can call when they perceive their health is in danger. This renters were already free to do. How might they know they’re in danger? Shrug. The proposed ordinance exempts entire classes of rental properties and provides little incentive for the classes that remain to comply. Scofflaws of the sort a rental inspection program was intended to bring into line can easily scoff off the passive requirements of this complaint-driven program.

Here’s the essential takeway: When a program is introduced to change the status quo and the beneficiaries of the status quo praise its final form and fall upon one another with fierce hugs of triumphant joy, you know the program you introduced hasn’t accomplished much to change the status quo. If it doesn’t change the status quo, what’s the point of the legislation?

Council’s current proposal does nothing to shift the power imbalance between those who hold all the rights of property owners versus those who hold few of those rights as tenants, yet who nevertheless form roughly half the city’s population. This is not democracy; this is rentier capitalism unchecked. The proposed ordinance does very little to improve health and safety beyond what’s already available in the legal toolkit.

“A complaint-based system does not work,” the York Neighborhood Association board asserted in comments to council. “It has failed in Bellingham and other cities. It puts the burden on the tenant to fight one-on-one with the landlord who has an unfair advantage and can retaliate by raising the rent, not giving a good reference, or just ignoring the complaint altogether, which does happen.”

A more robust proposal that included a modest audit of the interiors of Bellingham’s rental housing stock (currently obtainable only through warrant and judicial process) was driven off the rails earlier this year by Council member Roxanne Murphy, who proposed a model similar to one she was familiar with in the City of Tacoma: The exteriors of units provide sufficient evidence about the interiors of units; a trimmed lawn correlates with an IEEE-approved UL-compliant breaker box.

This is obviously an error in class and in kind: Bellingham does not have blighted or shabby boroughs that reveal themselves on pass-through. It does have a large number of rentals converted by builders of all skill ranges from aging housing stock in well-maintained neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Murphy’s passionate advocacy for a “see no evil, speak no evil” minimalist approach drew support from the target audience of landlords and property managers who in turn have knocked away the pins in support of a more robust program. Faced with division and aggressive counterfactuals, council policy has descended to the lowest common points upon which they might all agree.

“It’s not about loud parties, garbage, and unmowed lawns,” York board members commented. “Other enforcement tools exist to manage nuisances. No enforcement tools exist to evaluate the internal conditions of Bellingham’s rental housing. It’s about decent housing for all and thriving neighborhoods. Bellingham’s neighborhoods, particularly the older ones, are a patchwork quilt of decaying, neglected properties amongst well-maintained historic housing.”

Judging from the public testimony of landlords, tenants and property managers, 95 percent of Bellingham’s rental housing is in great shape, hurrah. From what data does this estimate arrive? Apparently (but by no means certainly) from complaints in the system about the remaining 5 percent of stock submitted by tenants who risk reprisal in the form of eviction and loss of referrals and deposits. It’s a spurious statistic—it might even be true—but the proposed ordinance does nothing to improve collection of this data, which in early years might just be the most important component of a licensing program: actual facts upon which to frame wise policy.

Imagine if the city monitored its restaurants in the same way, based on customer complaints of gagging and stomach pains. A list on the city’s website of eateries that do not induce gastric suffering.

Oy, no wonder Gene was feeling unwell! Get well.

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