Business

Bremerton residents weigh the risks of renting

Robert Caires can tell the difference between the owner-occupied and rental homes in his neighborhood on Veneta Avenue.

The homeowners on the street take pride in their properties, he said, while most of the rental lots are in disarray. His renting neighbors, for example, don’t mow the lawn or pick up after the dogs, and the property smells like dog waste. He has called city code enforcement every two to three weeks to try to get the tenants or landlord to clean up the lot and keep animals quiet.

“I shouldn’t have to be calling up, saying, ‘Dogs are barking 24 hours a day,’” said Caires, who rents his home from his mother.

It’s properties like these that City Council President Nick Wofford has tried to fix up with proposals aimed at regulating landlords that have since been postponed or scrapped. Though rental owners have spoken against the measures, decrying government encroachment and higher costs, Bremerton renters and homeowners alike want to see a change in the quality of their neighborhoods.

One measure would have mandated that landlords purchase $65 business licenses for each property, instead of the current practice of requiring one license per landlord. Wofford has said the licenses would help track who owns which properties in the city. No one has a count of exactly how many rentals are in Bremerton, but Wofford’s estimate is 7,000.

That proposal was slated for a vote during the June 16 City Council meeting, but was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of feedback from landlords, despite the gaggle of rental owners who showed up to the meeting.

Since that time, Wofford has heard “not a word” from landlords, despite promises of written recommendations. He hopes to reintroduce another measure to the Council by the end of this month.

The other measure would have required state-certified inspections of rental properties once every three years at the owners’ expense. When Wofford brought the proposal to the City Council in a June study session, council members quashed it, citing concerns about administrative costs, owner expenses and what to do with tenants living in homes determined to be unsafe.

ACTIVE NEIGHBORS, NEGLIGENT OWNERS

Ella Rae, a homeowner on Eighth Street in Bremerton’s Union Hill neighborhood, has tried to contact negligent landlords in her area in an effort to get properties cleaned up, including the six-unit apartment building across from her house. Having witnessed what she suspected was drug dealing and prostitution, she wants to help create a more family-friendly environment, but she’s skeptical about whether more city ordinances would fix the problem.

“They could be tools in the toolbox,” Rae said. “I don’t know that that’s really going to do much.”

For people who own rentals in a city they don’t live in, there’s less of an incentive to keep them well-maintained, Rae added.

“I think there’s kind of a disconnect with people who own lots of properties,” she said. “They don’t live in the community, they don’t have to look at it.”

Janet Lunceford, Bremerton’s code compliance officer, said the city has no numbers on how many code enforcement problems it handles for rental properties. Most issues are resolved between the landlord and tenant and disputes that reach the city represent a small percentage of rental properties, she said. Tenants have to sign a complaint form to allow city inspectors to search the unit. Violations neglected for a period of time after warnings could go before a hearing examiner, who can order the landlord to fix the property’s problems.

But incidents that go that far are rare, Lunceford said, and often happen because a rental owner may not have enough money to correct the issues. The most typical code violations that go before a hearing examiner are excess garbage or other debris piled up on the property.

Lunceford said the city often fields calls from angry neighbors frustrated with negligent property owners, but those complaints usually don’t go anywhere.

“The problem is they don’t have the ability to provide access inside the unit,” Lunceford said. “We have people that call on behalf of tenants and that doesn’t work.”

Tenants who may be worried about the homes they live in also run the risk of landlord retaliation if they complain too much, she added.

FINDING MIDDLEGROUND

Jeff Allen rents a duplex unit in Manette and is satisfied with his landlord’s care of the unit, but he knows that not all renters in the city are so lucky. However, as a former landlord himself, he thinks new regulations on rental owners would be “overkill.”

“Chances are, the costs incurred with all of that are simply going to be passed onto the renters,” he said, adding that owners will hand the extra licensing costs to tenants if such a measure passes. “If I were still a landlord, that’s exactly what I would have done.”

Allen sees the Council’s proposals as an imposition to all rental owners when small minority of them create problems.

Michael Greenberg, who rents in Union Hill, said the city should not make things difficult for new owners with more stringent regulations.

Rather than targeting owners, he said, it’s active tenants who help create healthy, livable neighborhoods. The city should consult multiple parties in the discussion, including landlords, tenants, homeowners and non-profits.

“The only way to have true consensus is to have everyone talking,” Greenberg said. “It needs to be a community decision.”

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