Safe and Healthy Housing: Protecting Burien’s Renters

New rental housing inspection program helps ensure all Burien community members have safe and healthy housing. Credit: iStockPhoto.

Two years ago, just before Christmas, the Burien City Council Chambers was packed with residents from Fox Cove Apartments, pleading for help. The owner of the apartment complex had made the decision to sell the property and had given the tenants less than a month’s notice to leave.

The community rallied behind the residents, and immediate relief and aid was found, but it uncovered an uglier truth. Burien’s current tenant laws did not go far enough to protect renters at other properties from facing a similar situation. It also revealed that Burien desperately needed to do more to prevent buildings from falling into disrepair, creating unsafe and unhealthy housing for our lowest income neighbors.

After an intensive community engagement process, Council passed a suite of renter housing policies, including the creation of a rental housing inspection program. Burien joins five other Puget Sound cities in the establishment of a proactive inspection program that would require property managers to submit proof to the City of Burien that their units meet basic health and safety criteria. If issues are found, landlords will be required to correct any substandard housing conditions.

Rental housing inspection programs like the one in Burien are a helpful tool in keeping rental properties maintained, lessening the need for tenants to demand repairs to their housing unit.

Aging housing leads to uptick in complaints

Sixty-seven percent of Burien’s housing units were built before 1970. Many of the multifamily housing complexes have systemic structural problems or are suffering the effects from years of deferred maintenance.

Edmund Witter of the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal aid for those facing eviction, says their group has seen an unusually high number of complaints from Burien. Some of those complaints are related to repairs not being completed, but there have also been calls about landlords attempting to get around the current moratorium on evictions.

“Last year we helped more than 50 clients in Burien,” said Harry Higgins of Housing Justice Project. “Common issues that we see include rat infestations, no locks on doors, broken windows, leaks, and mold.”

Tenants have the right to ask for repairs and landlords have a duty to keep their properties habitable.

“This winter’s unusually wet weather meant a lot of people were dealing with leaking roofs and flooding,” said Lori Fleming, rental housing inspection program coordinator for the City of Burien. “It underscores why this program is so necessary. As our housing stock gets older, we want to emphasize how it important it is to keep properties maintained so everyone can have decent housing.”

Ensuring safe and healthy housing for everyone

The program launched on January 1, 2021 and all Burien landlords have been given notice about the new program’s requirements.

“We structured the inspection program to be a simple process for landlords,” said Fleming. “We hope the program provides an incentive for them to keep their properties maintained.”

Apartments, duplexes, triplexes, and four-plexes will be required to conduct a health and safety inspection on at least 20 percent of the property’s rental units every three years. Burien has been divided into three rental housing inspection zones. Zone 1 (NW), north of SW 152nd St and east of 1st Ave S, is the first area required to participate in the program.

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