Seattle inspection law may be slum lords' best friend

KING 5's Chris Ingalls reports.

With press conferences and protests, Seattle City Councilmembers and tenants rights activists helped make the apartment complex at 6511 Rainier Avenue South the most scorned building in the city.

They decried the deplorable conditions, and they noted the August purchase of the building by an alleged slumlord who immediately raised rents.

But outrage over the terrible conditions at the 13-unit Charles Apartments could be pointed right back at the City of Seattle itself.
The Charles was one of the first apartment buildings inspected under a law designed to register and inspect every rental building in the city over the next ten years.

The Charles passed that inspection just a few months before the building made the headlines. It passed even though roaches and rats crawl throughout the complex, and despite the fact three units had no heat at all.

The city department with oversight of the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) doesn't fault the program for failing to help the tenants living at the Charles.

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"You know the RRIO program really worked exactly as it was designed," said Faith Lumsden – the city's Compliance Director.

On July 20, three months before councilmembers rallied renters outside the Charles, the City of Seattle gave the apartment building seal of approval by issuing a "Certificate of Compliance" to its owner.

"When I found that out I said, 'What the heck is going on here?'" said Councilmember Nick Licata. "This is the kind of thing were trying to catch."

Licata is one of the architects of the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, which created a system of randomly assigned building inspections as a supplement to the current complaint-based system. Relying on complaints alone wasn't enough, as city leaders said tenants were often too fearful of landlord retaliation to file complaints about building conditions.

The Charles's 13 units suffer from years of landlord neglect, with broken plumbing and peeling paint. Rodents and cockroaches run wild throughout the complex, and some parents – like Mohanned Arabi – believe the building is making their children sick.

"The apartment is mold and roach," Arabi said in broken English as he flashed a photo of his eight year old son. "He has a breathing problem and I take him to the hospital," he said.

Public records reveal the Charles was inspected by Tyler Tachell, a private inspector who owns To the T Home Inspections in Bothell.

RIO allows landlords to choose either a city inspector or a certified private home inspector like Tachell. He made two visits to the building in June and July.

City officials say a computer randomly chose the Charles for inspection. It also selected two specific units to be inspected. The RRIO program requires that 15 percent of the units in every rental building be inspected.

Tachell declined an on-camera interview request from the KING 5 Investigators. By phone he said, "I'm doing these (RRIO) inspections a lot now and that was one of the worst buildings."

Tachell said he was instructed to inspect apartments 101 and 304. Unit 101 caught his attention.

"It was in extremely poor condition. I made them fix a lot of things," Tachell said.

Tachell said private inspectors are trained by the city to complete a seven-page checklist. It has check boxes to guide the inspector as he looks for things like broken heaters, exposed wiring and evidence of insect or rodent infestation.

Tachell said once repairs were made to apartment 101 and to some of the common areas of the building, there was nothing more he could do.

"From what I could see I knew the building was in poor condition," said Tachell. However, he said he did not feel he could overstep the inspection guidelines set up by the city.

Councilmember Licata says that current way RRIO is applied is wrong.

"If a unit fails – particularly in a building that doesn't look good on the outside – you should inspect every single unit. You shouldn't just walk away," Licata said.

The city department that investigates housing violations says it found no fault with Tachell's inspection process.

However, the city's Department of Planning and Development (DPD) had no clue about the conditions Tachell saw at the Charles.

DPD does not receive a copy of the seven-page checklists that private inspectors are required to fill out. DPD Compliance Director Faith Lumsden says that is because RRIO walks a fine constitutional line and the department is worried that landlords could claim the program is an unreasonable search of their property by the government.

In an attempt to lessen the intrusion, the city receives no detailed record of the inspection findings. Private inspectors are only required to submit a two-page "Certificate of Compliance" stating whether the rental units passed or failed inspection.

"That is the way the program is designed because there is a constitutional provision against the forced search of someone's property," Lumsden said.

She said a 2007 decision by the Washington State Supreme Court decreed that cities must be wary of making private inspectors "an agent of the government" when operating a program like RRIO.

DPD can't say, though, that it was totally in the dark about the Charles. Records obtained by the KING 5 Investigators show that a city inspector – not a private housing inspector – was called to the Charles on September 3. The resident in unit 103 had filed a complaint, and the inspector found numerous violations like doors that wouldn't shut and evidence of rodent infestation.

However, DPD did not conduct a building-wide inspection of the Charles until the following month when city councilmembers were contacted by the Tenants Union of Washington about the building's unsafe conditions and a steep rent increase by new owner Carl Haglund.

That inspection turned up an additional 225 violations of the housing code.

The building's new owner – Carl Haglund – denied claims by Councilmember Kshama Sawant that he is a "slumlord." He did not respond to requests from KING 5 for an on-camera interview, but he has said that he raised rents to cover the costs of making repairs to the building. He also said his August purchase of the building was predicated on its passing a RRIO inspection. He called the city's inspection process flawed for allowing a building in such poor condition to "pass."

Lumsden could not think of many fixes that would have improved the scenario that unfolded at the Charles.

When told that the same thing could happen again at another building, Lumsden agreed. "That's true. The program is going to inspect a limited number of units on any property," he said.

Councilmember Licata says that answer is not good enough. On Friday he introduced a budget proposal to pay for audits of RRIO-inspected buildings to make sure inspectors are not missing glaring housing violations, like those at the Charles.

He believes that in spite of the legal limitations, city and private inspectors should be digging deeper.

"The way that the program is currently being operated is that it's not aggressive enough in pursuing safety and health concerns of the tenants," Licata said.

-- Follow Chris Ingalls on Twitter:@cjingalls.


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