Bellingham council looks again at requiring inspections on rental properties

Brent Shields of Express Electric installs a light on the porch of one of the apartments being built near Depot Market Square on April 2, 2012.
Brent Shields of Express Electric installs a light on the porch of one of the apartments being built near Depot Market Square on April 2, 2012. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

In a flip-flop from five months ago, most members of City Council once again appeared in favor of requiring inspections in the city’s most recent iteration of a proposed rental registration program.

In July the council chose to move forward with member Roxanne Murphy’s suggested rental-registration ordinance, which would require most property owners to register their rental units and state that they comply with certain safety code requirements, but would not require inspections.

Following a three-hour public hearing Oct. 27, at which many people spoke in favor of inspections while dozens spoke against even a simple registration program, council decided to bring the ordinance back to a work session.

In a déjà vu-inducing moment during that session Monday, Nov. 17, council members directed staff to draw up some numbers for how much it could cost to inspect rental units in the city but did not provide specific scenarios to consider.

Council most recently heard estimated calculations for various options in May of this year, when staff laid out rough pricing for programs from a simple registration-only system to an option that could include random inspections. But those numbers were mostly based on different staffing models, with an undetermined number of inspections, said Mark Gardner, legislative analyst for council.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten the direction yet to be able to specify the precise costs,” Gardner said in an interview. “There’s still a sort of baseline assumption. We need a little more specificity for the frequency (of inspections) to be able to put a precise number in.”

Bellingham’s legislative body has considered various options for a rental registration program for at least a decade.

In 2011 the then-council voted down an ordinance that would have required registration and spot inspections by 4-2, with one absence.

Much of Monday’s discussion was spent talking about various points of a memo outlining possible program principles that staff should try to work out.

“I think the difference I’ve heard from previous discussions and now is that we’re not saying ‘if’ we get inspections, it’s how,” Mayor Kelli Linville said during Monday’s work session.

One option might allow landlords to hire private inspectors for required inspections, rather than use the city’s, who could cost more.

Council members argued whether creating a roster of approved private inspectors would be necessary.

Council member Pinky Vargas said it would be important to vet inspectors so there would not be arguments on opinion-based decisions about building code compliance. Member Michael Lilliquist said that list would not be necessary.

“As I see it, state law already invented the wheel,” Lilliquist said. “(Inspectors are) already licensed, governed by their own licensing board, and have professional conduct standards.”

Among the council’s other rental registration talking points Monday were:

•  Establishing standards using the health and life safety part of the Landlord-Tenant Act.

•  Identifying the cost to the city and property owners for developing, implementing and supporting the program.

•  Evaluating incentives for early registration and inspection.

•  Cost of enforcement.

•  Requiring staff to report back to council annually.

The council made a few amendments to the draft registration-only ordinance, including removing language that would have asked half of the city to register at a time over the next year, instead requiring they all register at the same time.

“If the (Affordable Care Act) can register 3 million people in a month, I think we can do 6,000 by July,” Vargas said.

Council also voted for an amendment that would essentially put inspections back into the ordinance.

City attorney Peter Ruffatto said the language likely would be drafted similar to how it was written when a percentage of inspections were going to be required, but the paragraph would have to be reworked by staff.

It was still not clear if council would try to vote on a framework ordinance before the end of the year or wait and give more direction to staff.

Planning Director Rick Sepler said his staff would look at other cities that have already implemented programs to try to come up with numbers. In the past the council and staff have looked at programs in Sacramento; Gresham, Ore.; and in Seattle, Gardner said. Planning staff could pull the best elements from two or three cities into its estimates and recommendations.

“Everybody’s scrambling to put some numbers together,” said Gardner, who will likely provide estimates and research to council members while the Planning Department could provide specifics. “I think there will be two different levels: One is an estimate with a bunch of assumptions, the other is when they’ve really had time to dig into program details and exactly how to administer it, which will bring more specificity.”