Questions remain as Bellingham continues work on rental safety program

Son-Rise Property Management Inc., property manager Diane Zapata, left,  and president Joan Sova inspect an apartment on Orchard Place in Bellingham on June 4, 2010. City Council is considering guidelines for a rental registration and inspection program.
Son-Rise Property Management Inc., property manager Diane Zapata, left, and president Joan Sova inspect an apartment on Orchard Place in Bellingham on June 4, 2010. City Council is considering guidelines for a rental registration and inspection program. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

As city staff continue preparing for what appears to be an imminent rental registration and inspection program, some community members remain unclear on how they might be affected by the program.

For at least the last decade the city has considered various iterations of a rental safety program, but so far no proposal has passed a final vote in front of City Council.

That could soon change as the current members of the council shifted their conversation late this year from debating whether a program was needed to discussing when and how one should be implemented.

Planning staff are crunching the numbers and should present guidelines to council on Monday, Dec. 15, for just how expensive a program might be if it kicks off in July 2015.

During each step of the public input process, people on different sides of the issue have raised concerns about problems that exist now, and problems that might exist under the program.

Below is an examination of a few common claims.

Claim: Every house will have to come up to current building code requirements. Status: False.

City Building Official Jim Tinner, who supervises city inspectors, said the idea that old houses would have to meet current code is a misconception.

“(Building) codes have a clause in them that say if something was built legally and has been maintained in good condition, it’s legal forever,” Tinner said. “Because we get new codes every three years, any building older than three years would not be up to code if that were the case.”

Claim: Landlords will be tasked with the costly endeavor of updating their electrical systems. Status: False.

Source: This concern was raised by property owners in response to a draft checklist of requirements Tinner compiled that was passed out to council and audience members at a Nov. 17 work session.

The list, based on requirements under the International Property Maintenance Code, included items such as each habitable room should be at least 7 feet tall and each unit should be served by three-wire, single phase electric service.

Property owner and real estate agent Peter Roberts said he ran the checklist by his contractor to see how an older property he owns would fare during an inspection. The contractor told Roberts it would cost a minimum of $20,000 to convert his electrical system to three-wire, single phase, and he would need to spend additional money to upgrade his heating system.

The checklist was copied from requirements that could be enforceable under the current complaint-driven system of inspections, which is provided for under the state’s landlord-tenant act. But as it turns out, state law strictly limits the type of inspection that may be performed under a municipal rental inspection program, Tinner said.

“The first checklist was based on items in the IPMC to give the City Council an idea of things you might look for on a condition inspection of a dwelling,” Tinner said. “State law doesn’t allow us to look for all the things on that checklist. For a rental housing inspection program, we can only look at things that cause a health or safety problem.”

Claim: Inspections are necessary because they will catch faulty electrical systems, a problem that has caused fires in some rentals. Status: Unclear.

Proponents of the inspection program often reference a handful of potentially preventable rental house fires in the last decade that involved a variety of electrical problems.

But under the same rules that limit program inspections to health and safety issues, electrical wiring problems may not be found.

“We’re going to be looking for things that are imminently dangerous — switch covers that are missing, so you could reach in and electrocute yourself ... or say you’re in a room and had a light bulb hanging from a couple wires in the ceiling — that would be dangerous,” Tinner said. “We’re not going to open a fuse box and count the fuses.”

Tinner said inspectors also would not go into attics or crawlspaces.

Claim: Many landlords will sell their rental homes rather than deal with the hassle of a rental safety program. Status: Unclear.

Perry Eskridge, a real estate attorney and government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, said he had at least two clients who opted to sell their five or so rental properties last year when the rental registration and inspection again appeared likely to come before council.

“They said they don’t want to deal with it,” Eskridge said. “I’ve heard similar stories from real estate agents.”

Claim: Rent will go up. Status: Likely.

Though the cost of registering rentals has not been released by the city yet, past estimates have ranged from $25 to $40 per unit per year. Inspections may not be done more than once every three years for such a program under state law. The cost will depend on the inspector and may total a few hundred dollars.

Eskridge and Roberts said they think rent will go up not only due to the cost of registration and inspections, but also as landlords pass on the cost of repairs required under the program, and as the already tight rental market gets even tighter.

“If you start shutting down rentals here because of your standards you’ve set, where are those people going to go?” Eskridge asked. “It’s supply and demand. You take away the supply, demand goes up and the prices start going up, mainly because (landlords) can get it.”

Kendra Thomas, local liaison for Western Washington University Associated Students, said she agrees that the demand on housing may get higher, but potential benefits of the program outweigh those risks.

“I think this might temporarily make that demand a little higher, but in the long run it will make everything safer,” Thomas said.

Before a public hearing in October, Thomas sent a letter on behalf of the Associated Students conceding that inspections might not be feasible but asking the council to at least pass a registration program with some education component as a first step. Since that hearing council agreed to add inspections back into the program.

“We’re very excited about the current proposal,” Thomas said. “Raising rent is harmful, but I think there are more conditions that are more harmful to student health. It’s hard, because on the one hand you want affordable housing, but you should be able to afford housing that’s livable.”

A few examples of things that could be looked for during a simple health and safety inspection include: a lack of running water, lack of a working toilet, rain intrusion causing water damage, and a lack of windows that open, Tinner said.

“We can’t look at general building condition. If there are junk cars, or an overgrown sidewalk, those are all issues that could be noted under a complaint-based inspection but cannot be used in a rental inspection program,” he said.

Council will look at an updated version of the rental ordinance during committee of the whole at 1:15 p.m., Monday, Dec. 15, in council chambers, 210 Lottie St.