Bellingham City Council approves rental registration, inspection program

City Council has approved a rental safety program that will require landlords to register their rental properties and have them inspected.

At their last meeting of the year, Monday, Dec. 15, the council voted unanimously to set the program in motion, but details of just how it will be implemented will not come before the legislative body until the rule is up for third and final vote early next year.

Previous councils have considered similar proposals for more than a decade, but before Monday none had received the votes necessary to pass.

Rather than hammer out details before passing the ordinance, such as the exact cost of registration fees and how best to conduct inspections, the council has directed staff to compile the program and bring the specifics back as soon as possible so the council can finalize the ordinance.

Council member Jack Weiss, who has fought for a rental safety program for at least the last six years, said he was glad to see the program pass. He thanked those who had fought for the program and the hundreds of responsible property owners who he said would benefit from the program.

“By requiring minimum health and safety standards for our rental housing stock, every owner is on a level playing field,” Weiss said. “This means they can charge a fair rent knowing some bad apple down the street will not match or undercut them with an uninhabitable, unsafe and inexpensive place.”

In a presentation Monday afternoon, Planning Director Rick Sepler said staff had narrowed down the cost for the registration portion of the program to somewhere between about $25 and $40 per property per year.

Though it had appeared the city could piggyback registration on business and operations software run through the state, Sepler said he’d learned Tuesday that would not work. Instead a contractor will likely create a web form on the city website, which owners would use to register.

“The good news is the likely cost for the system and work to get it together is probably going to be less than the pass-through from the state would have been, so we might have some savings,” Sepler said Tuesday.

Sepler told council he was confident that if the city started collecting registrations July 1, 2015, the registration requirement of the program could be implemented by Aug. 1, 2015.

The inspection portion of the program is proving trickier to develop, as staff consider whether to add the option of contracting with private inspectors, who might not want to take on those cases.

Staff are also figuring out how to include an incentive for those who pass inspection. Other cities with similar programs reported 85 to 90 percent of rentals passed their first inspection or had made repairs by the time the city followed up, Sepler said.

“How will inspections be handled or processed? I don’t have the full information on that,” he said.

Bill Henshaw, managing broker at Windermere Real Estate, said he considers program overkill.

“It’s one of those things that is a solution looking for a problem,” Henshaw said in an interview Tuesday. “If in fact all of the landlords or management companies would distribute a copy of the (landlord-tenant act) and how to go about complaints, that would go a long ways toward solving the problem and be a heck of a lot cheaper.”

Though staff estimated registration could start in July, inspections would not be feasible before October of 2015, Sepler said.

Tim Seth, president of the Washington Landlord Association, said he had somewhat supported the idea of simple registration, but didn’t think inspections should be mandatory.

“I would really urge they drop the mandatory inspection feature and only inspect upon request or with probable cause,” Seth said.

Council member Roxanne Murphy, who had pushed for a registration-only program earlier this year, said she had supported the registration and inspection ordinance Monday because the most important thing is to get a program started.

“I fundamentally believe that as the program goes on, we will gather the information we need to see exactly what is needed to deliver,” she said. “The number one thing we need is the data on problems and issues, and then we can reshape the program if we need to.”

Murphy said she and her fellow council members would use the information from people who opposed the program to scrutinize, review and refine it to make sure it would work for everyone.