Two Cities, Three Approaches to Rental Housing Inspections

Gresham, Portland and East Portland take different tacks when it comes to renters' health

September 24, 2012 -- Mold, lead paint dust, rodent infestations and inadequately placed smoke detectors can all adversely affect one's health. And for tenants whose landlords don't quickly respond to and fix those problems, the stress of a difficult, unsafe living situation only makes matters worse.

In 2007, the city of Gresham decided to revamp its approach to rental housing inspection and make it routine and somewhat randomized, according to Darryl Godsby, senior rental housing inspector for Gresham Development Services, speaking at the 14th Tri-Regional Lead Conference in Portland last week.

The city set up a rental housing inspection program paid for by rental housing fees that would respond to complaints, but also performs random visits to rental properties (mostly apartment buildings) after sending plenty of advance notice to landlords.

“We're trying not to be sneaky about our process,” Godsby said. Instead, landlords are served with written notices in advance of inspections that include a check list of things inspectors will look for.

At first, landlords and property management companies resisted the new program, but now actively cooperate – and inspection findings have reflected that.

When the program started, mold – which can cause respiratory problems as well as aggravating breathing problems renters may have had due to other causes – was the biggest problem inspectors found. But, as they started paying regular visits to properties, it dropped on the list, and while in the last couple of years mold has become more prevalent, it's not the problem it once was.

“It will always be a problem, but people know how to take care of it,” Godsby said.

One reason for adopting a rental inspection program that wasn't completely complaint based: some tenants are afraid to complain about the quality of their homes because they're afraid property owners will evict them, or retaliate in some other way.

In addition, Godsby said, while many property managers are happy to work with the city to improve their properties – partly because tenants who feel comfortable in their living spaces are more likely to stay – others consider the fines accrued for not complying an expense, even after the city begins to take liens against the property, a possible consequence of unpaid fines after a failed inspection.

Historically, Portland has evaluated renters' homes using a complaint-based system. While many officials argue that method is flawed, budget woes didn't present the city with many alternatives, according to Ed Marihart, senior management analyst, for the Portland Bureau of Development Services, speaking on a panel discussion with Godsby on healthy housing at the same conference.

Instead of adopting a system like Gresham's, officials proposed a compromise between a complaint system and routine mandatory inspections: an “enhanced complaint” system where, if the city did receive a complaint meriting inspection, additional, random inspections in the area will be performed.

Budget concerns prevented the enhanced complaint system from being adopted citywide, so it's only in place in sections of East Portland between 82nd Avenue and the Gresham boundary.

Steve White, a project manager for the Oregon Public Health Institute, was the team lead on a health impact assessment that investigated the East Portland pilot project in terms of health equity.

That institute argues for keeping the enhanced complaint program in place: “Inspections funding is often the first to go in a downturn,” White said. Officials knew it would be unlikely that the city would go for a randomized inspection system so they argued for keeping or expanding funding for the enhanced complaint system instead – and used the health impact assessment as a tool to underline the importance of rental housing oversight on tenants' health.

“The enhanced inspection model works really work really well in neighborhoods where people are vulnerable, or are unable to make complaints themselves,” White said.

Image for this story by Will Vanlue (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr.

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