Rental licensing to be discussed Monday in Bellingham

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 8, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The years-long discussion of rental housing licensing and inspection will continue Monday, June 9, at a City Council work session.

The council's three-member planning committee has scheduled that discussion for 10:30 a.m. in council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

The council has wrestled with the issue since at least 2003, spurred by complaints from neighborhood residents and renters about the conditions in some apartments and rental houses. While council members have repeatedly stated that they believe most landlords are conscientious about health and safety codes and tenant well-being, they are looking for a way to crack down on the troublemakers.

In recent months, the discussions have drawn interest from Western Washington University students and student government leaders, who have told council members that students are often afraid to complain to landlords or to the city about rental housing conditions, for fear of losing their lodgings.

Landlord representatives have been wary of any new city system that would impose headaches and costs on landlords who are already doing a good job, and they warn that tenants will wind up paying the extra costs in most cases.

Among other things, the latest draft licensing system facing council scrutiny on Monday would change the name of the program to "Residential Safety Program" instead of "Residential Rental Registration Program."

The draft also envisions an annual maximum fee of $24 per unit, with slightly lower fees per unit for large complexes. The draft now before the council would set up a phased approach, with rental housing units west of Interstate 5 required to be registered by July 1, 2015. For units east of I-5, the deadline would be Jan. 1, 2016.

The requirement would not apply to federally subsidized housing that is subject to federal inspection requirements, or to rental units in homes occupied by the owner. That leaves an estimated 13,000 housing units subject to the new program if it is enacted as now written. Besides registering the dwellings and providing the city with the names of owners, the owners would be required to certify that their rentals are in compliance with city codes.

In addition to responding to complaints, the city would enforce the new law with a small number of random inspections each year. The current draft sets the random inspection level at one-half of 1 percent of all units.

The draft ordinance also envisions civil fines of up to $200 per day for violations.

The council has not scheduled a vote on any such measure for Monday. In a memo to council, City Attorney Peter Ruffatto has asked the council to provide direction to city staff on the next steps to be taken.

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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