Bellingham council wants more info on rental registration plan

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 5, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - City Council is still wrestling with the costs and complexities of a proposed new system to tighten health and safety controls on rental housing through citywide registration.

The council's three-member planning committee discussed the topic for about 90 minutes Monday, May 5. One of the biggest uncertainties is the cost of the proposed new system to both landlords and city taxpayers. Committee members agreed to direct City Planning Director Jeff Thomas and his staff to prepare a range of cost estimates for a future council discussion session yet to be scheduled.

Council members also agreed they will conduct a public hearing before any vote on a rental housing regulation ordinance.

The draft rental regulation system now before the council 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 the city's estimated 13,000 rental units each year, and would continue to respond to tenant complaints.

Council members have questioned whether that level of inspection - about 65 units per year - is adequate to improve housing conditions in the city. Thomas said the city administration proposed that number because it could be accomplished without adding city staff.

Committee chairman Jack Weiss suggested that the city staff provide council with an estimate of the cost if the city inspected 1,200 units per year. Weiss said that was probably the highest realistic number. Committee members Roxanne Murphy and Gene Knutson agreed they wanted that estimate for discussion purposes.

But Murphy also questioned the need for random inspections. She urged her colleagues to consider improving code enforcement, responding to complaints from tenants and neighbors and then working with landlords to encourage them to get their properties up to code.

In Tacoma, where Murphy formerly lived, the city got good results from that approach. In Tacoma, the city sent registered violation notices to property owners with a three-week grace period to fix problems.

"You get so much voluntary compliance when you give them three weeks," Murphy said.

Committee members also agreed they wanted to get a report on what that approach would cost, as well as a draft of the checklist that landlords would have to fill out to certify that their rentals meet city codes.

Perry Eskridge, governmental affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, warned in a later interview that the wrong kind of rental regulations system could wind up increasing already-high rents to Bellingham tenants.

Eskridge said some landlords are leery of having to self-certify their properties as a registration requirement. They will want to get either an official city inspection or a private inspection service to vouch for their units, but the cost of that could be hundreds of dollars apiece.

The city could take steps to reduce the number of problem properties by requiring a simple registration of all units that potential tenants could view online, Eskridge said. Units with unresolved code complaints could be flagged on that list, motivating landlords to clean up their records.

Eskridge thinks Murphy is on the right track in proposing a more robust system to follow up on complaints from neighbors and tenants. That approach would crack down on owner-occupied neighborhood eyesores as well as rental problems.

"Don't single out one type of property owner," Eskridge said. "Go after everybody if that's what you want to do. ... Let's get a few more code compliance officers in there, and really go after the problem."

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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