Bellingham council members differ on rental registration programs

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 9, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - While a decision on a new registration and inspection system for rental housing is still weeks away, City Council member Roxanne Murphy says her more restrained approach seems to be gathering support.

But Murphy's call for a simple apartment registration system, with no random inspections, triggered a sharp exchange with council member Jack Weiss, a longtime advocate of a more extensive system to improve health and safety standards in rental housing.

At a Monday, June 9, discussion of the topic during a meeting of the council's planning committee, Murphy argued that a system that relies on random inspections to ensure compliance with a city checklist of health and safety regulations would impose a new and unfair burden on the majority of landlords who are conscientious. She called instead for a simple registration system with a low annual fee that would raise enough money to hire one additional city inspector to follow up on tenant complaints.

Murphy said she had discussed rental registration and inspection proposals with members of the Building Industry Association and with local real estate agents. She acknowledged that those groups would prefer to see no change in existing law but would be willing to accept a new city registration requirement for rental housing units. She said that approach also seems popular with Western Washington University students, who fear that if a more extensive city inspection system imposes significant new costs on their landlords, those costs will be passed on to them.

"We have maybe five percent of our overall property owners that have these issues," Murphy said. "Let's address that through code enforcement."

She also mentioned that her approach has been endorsed by a former mayor whom she did not name.

Weiss displayed some irritation.

"I guess we're talking to different people," Weiss said.

Then he asked Murphy to name the former mayor she had mentioned. When she refused, Weiss said he thought it was unfair of her to mention it.

"OK then, I'll take it back," Murphy said.

Weiss then complained that he had never been invited to discuss the issue with real estate agents or builders. Murphy said she had been told that both groups had invited Weiss to meet with them in the past, but Weiss denied it.

Murphy moved to bring her proposal to the full council for discussion. Weiss voted no, but the other planning committee member, Gene Knutson, joined Murphy.

Weiss then moved to also present his rental regulation proposal to the council - a plan that contains provisions for random inspections. Landlords would be required to certify that their units comply with health and safety codes, and there would be an annual fee of as much as $24 per unit.

Murphy and Knutson voted no, but under the council's procedural rules, a motion is submitted to the full council for consideration if even one committee member calls for it. That means Weiss' approach will get an airing at a future council session.

Knutson said he wanted to schedule a public hearing to give citizens a chance to weigh in before the council makes any decisions. In past years, no new rental regulation system has been able to get a majority of votes on the council, and Knutson noted that there is no guarantee that the council will agree on a new measure this time around.

"It's possible they (council members) won't move forward with anything," 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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