BELLINGHAM - City Council took cautious steps toward reopening the issue of inspection and licensing of rental homes Monday, Jan. 28.
During a committee session, council member Jack Weiss said he was bringing the topic back to the council to get a new community discussion started. He said he wanted the council's planning committee, which he chairs, to conduct a series of informal discussions that will include both renters and landlords, in hope of developing a city program that would improve health and safety in rental houses and apartments.
"I've seen a number of problems in our community," Weiss said. "I just can't see how we can ignore it any longer."
Neighborhood complaints about nuisances caused by student housing and other rentals have triggered past council efforts to tighten enforcement of city codes. At present, the code enforcement system relies on citizen complaints.
But past efforts to get four council votes for a rental licensing and inspection ordinance have failed. A 2004 proposal triggered a storm of opposition from landlords and eventually was dropped, while a 2011 ordinance failed on a 4-2 vote. A majority of council members said they weren't ready to impose new burdens on landlords who don't cause problems, or to set up a new city bureaucracy while the city is still struggling to cover its costs for existing programs.
Gene Knutson, who voted against the 2011 measure, applauded Weiss' willingness to work with landlords. He said the council should drop the licensing idea for good if members can't come up with a system that at least some landlords find workable.
City Planning Director Jeff Thomas told council members that the city gets relatively few complaints-roughly 100 per year. The vast majority of those complaints are directed at owner-occupied homes, not apartment buildings, Thomas said.
Perry Eskridge, representing the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, cited Thomas' statement as evidence that problems with rental housing are not widespread.
Real estate agent Cal Leenstra agreed, arguing that a citywide inspection system with fees on landlords would not do much to correct abuses.
"There's still one or two bad landlords, but this law won't do much to correct the mistakes that they are making," Leenstra said. "That's a pretty small number to set up a new bureaucracy for. ... It's a tenant tax. Most tenants don't realize that goes to the rent."
Two Western Washington University students said more regulation is needed.
Patrick Stickney, vice president of government affairs for Associated Students, said student renters are unaware that they could complain to the city about unhealthy or unsafe conditions, and may not even be aware of those conditions.
"Students aren't electricians," Stickney said. "They don't know if there's wiring problems."
Rachel Cochran, Legal Information Center coordinator for Associated Students, said students preoccupied with their studies and part-time jobs have difficulty finding time to deal with landlord issues.
She said she knew one student who had to leave her apartment because leaking plumbing caused mold that triggered potentially life-threatening asthma attacks. Cochran also contended that some landlords will deduct health and safety repairs from damage deposits if students complain.
Two longtime advocates of rental licensing renewed calls for council action to address years of neighborhood complaints.
"We have slowly been kicking this rock up the hill for 10 years," said Anne Mackie of the York neighborhood.
She invited the council to take a walking tour to see problems for themselves.
Richard Conoboy said the city needs to license and inspect all rental units, and drop the idea of somehow focusing only on "bad apples."
"How are we actually going to go after these bad apples if that's where our concentration is going to be?" Conoboy asked. "I don't think it can be done."
The planning committee will take up the issue again at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 11 in council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.