After public input, Bellingham City Council could change rental registration plan

It could be the end of the year before City Council decides whether to vote on a controversial rental registration ordinance.

After hearing three hours of public testimony from landlords and renters both opposed to and in favor of rental licensing, council members decided to take the ordinance back to committee during the regular Oct. 27 evening meeting.

Council will hold a work session at 1 p.m. Nov. 17 to discuss potential changes to a proposed program that would require owners to register rental properties each year and certify they are safe to live in.

The fee to register wouldn’t be finalized until the council votes to set a fee structure, but staff estimates show that to pay for the program, which could cost the city around $200,000 per year to operate, owners would need to pay about $20 to $40 if they own one to four units, $75 to $150 for five to 19 units, and $150 to $300 for properties with 20 or more units, according to a memo sent to council.

Certain types of property owners would be exempt from registration.

More than 50 people spoke before the council at a public hearing on the ordinance Monday night.

Several critics blasted the proposal for not requiring rentals be inspected on a regular basis. Western Washington University student Luke Cosbab told the council about his troubles combating rats, black mold and possums in his 100-year-old rental, with little help from his property management company.

“It’s been about seven weeks since I sent a letter and I’ve called in every two days. Just today I finally got a contractor assigned to check out some of the repairs that need to be done,” he said. “I really think there needs to be a proactive system instead of a reactive, complaint-based system.”

On the other hand, as many, if not more, people criticized the idea of requiring owners to register at all, citing the state’s landlord-tenant law and existing building code as sufficient legislation enabling each side to fix problems. Landlord Maggie Hanson said she owns five rentals in the city and has gotten many thanks from tenants, including the mother of one man who thanked Hanson for helping her son with his first rental experience.

“I don’t agree that we are slumlords,” she said. “We do the very best we can for our renters.”

Some of those opposed to the ordinance pointed out what they saw as potential flaws, such as the lack of detail about exactly when fines of $200 per day would go into effect for owners who don’t follow the rules; the legal ability, or inability, of any owner to state that their rental won’t present any danger to people who stay there; and a lack of clarity about who would perform inspections if they are required.

Proponents who called for mandatory inspections compared the practice to regular health department visits to restaurants, and said an unfair power balance exists between tenants and landlords.

Landlord Beth Beyers said she considers her rental properties asa business, and should be registered and licensed like other businesses. Beyers has rented some of her properties to tenants through Section 8, a federal low-income housing program that requires yearly inspections of properties and evaluates tenants based on their housekeeping.

“The inspectors had a wealth of information and knowledge. This service was free to me, but it’s something that’s well worth paying for,” Beyers said. “While I’ve always (strived) to have great tenants, that has not always been the case for properties around mine. It has had a great impact on my tenants and my property.”

Perry Eskridge, government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, said the association supports the registration process, as it could be helpful to get a handle on how many rentals are in the city, and said students and other renters should use existing rules to follow through on fixing issues.

After the hearing, council member Terry Bornemann said he had wavered on whether to include an inspection element in any rental program, but had changed his mind.

“We need to have an an inspection component to this for it to be effective,” he said. “Even with rent getting raised - I hate to see that, but it’s necessary.”

In 2011, the council considered requiring registration and random inspection of a certain percentage of the city’s rentals each year. That program was expected to cost property owners $24 per rental unit to cover $300,000 per year for administrative and inspection costs. Then-council members voted down the proposal, which would have required property owners to submit a form stating that their rentals complied with city health and safety codes.

Council member Gene Knutson said he thought the council owed it to residents to try to vote on something before the end of the year.