Bellingham council debates again whether rental housing should be registered

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 21, 2014 

New downtown apartments

Dustyn Bull, left, and Dylan Evanger, right, of Ridgeline Builders work on installing siding on a new apartment complex, Thursday, April 17, 2014 1000 block of Railroad Avenue. The two new apartment buildings will be a mix of studios, one and two bedroom apartments and a fourth building is planned to be built off Laurel St. in the fall, said local developer Rick Westrop. West View Real Estate is currently taking reservations for July and August move in dates.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Regulation of rental housing is getting another round of discussion before the City Council, but action on new regulatory measures appears to be many weeks away.

Mayor Kelli Linville and her staff got the discussion started Monday, April 21, by presenting a broad outline of a rental registration system to the council's planning committee. All seven members of the council were present for the 90-minute session.

There was no time for any public testimony, but committee members agreed they want to hear from tenants, landlords and other interested people during their next session, tentatively scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday, May 5.

The full council also would hold a more formal public hearing before voting on a completed ordinance.

Linville said the goal of the new registration system is to focus on landlords whose properties don't comply with existing health and safety regulations, so renters can move into apartments and rental houses with greater confidence.

The council has discussed tougher regulation of rental housing in previous years, but has never been able to muster four votes for any measure that would get beyond an existing system that relies on tenant complaints to pinpoint problems. Landlords are not required to register or get inspections, under current law.

In June 2013, the council agreed to direct Linville and staff to try again and develop a new registration, licensing and inspection program for discussion in 2014.

City Planning Director Jeff Thomas said the proposal resulting from that directive would require all rental housing units to be registered with the city, but there would be no inspection requirement. Instead, landlords would certify that their rental units met existing health and safety regulations, using a regulatory checklist provided by the city. The city would conduct random inspections of one-half of 1 percent of all rental units each year, and would continue to respond to tenant complaints.

But the regulatory outline now before the council does not spell out what would be on the registration checklist, or how hefty a fee landlords would have to pay for their annual registration.

Thomas said the city has an estimated 13,000 rental dwellings.

Registered dwellings found to be in violation of health and safety regulations would lose their registration and be required to get thorough professional inspections before their licenses were restored, Thomas said.

Violations of registration requirements would be civil infractions subject to fines, not criminal violations, he said.

Dwellings found to have dangerous conditions could be shut down, but that is already the case under existing law, Thomas said.

Richard Conoboy is a community activist who has pushed for tough inspection and licensing requirements for rental housing. He said the measure before the council is not strong enough, partly because the level of random inspections now envisioned is far too low to ensure broad compliance.

Council member Gene Knutson noted that the council has wrestled with the issue for years without agreeing on what new regulations of rentals are needed, if any.

"It's really time to move forward or back away," Knutson said.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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