Bellingham rental registration could cost less than $1 per month

Within a month, City Council could take a final vote to approve a rental safety program that staff members are working to roll out this spring, according to city Planning Director Rick Sepler.

In an update Monday afternoon, Feb. 9, Sepler and other staff members briefed council on different pieces of the program, including registration fees, items that might or might not be involved in inspections, and small changes that need to be made to the ordinance, which council initially passed in December. Council needs to take a third and final vote on the program for it to go on the books as city code and be enforceable.

To make the program self-sustaining, staff worked out three options for how the city might charge owners to register their rental properties each year: $23 if charged per property, $9 if charged per unit, or a sliding scale that would charge a fee per unit based on the number owned.. That scale ranged from $6 per unit for those who own 50 or more units, to $12 for those who own one.

That sounded a little unfair to council member Jack Weiss, who suggested a smaller sliding scale: If someone owns one to 19 units, they might be charged $10 per unit, if they own 20 or more units, it’d be $8 per unit, which should bring in the same amount, based on Weiss’ calculations. The other council members said they preferred Weiss’ option.

“Whether it’s $10 or $9, it’s less than $1 per unit, per month,” council member Michael Lilliquist said. “I’m pleased to see these are small numbers that should have a minimal impact.”

Sepler said staff expect the inspection component of the program wouldn’t be required until at least January 2016.

For now, staff members estimate that the cost of an inspection would be about $86 every three years for those who opt for a city inspection, and about $40 every three years for those who opt for private inspections, on top of whatever the private inspector might charge. Those numbers might change slightly if an automated scheduling system doesn’t work out and the city has to hire a full-time employee, instead of a part-timer.

City Building Official Jim Tinner also briefed the council, responding to a letter from longtime rental registration and inspection proponent Dick Conoboy, who called on council to also include methamphetamine, lead and mold screening or enforcement in the inspection portion of the ordinance.

The county health department can conduct meth tests at the request of tenants, Tinner said, and those lab costs usually run $40 to $80.

For lead, there is no federal threshold for what is unhealthy unless you test blood samples, Tinner said.

“There is no amount of lead in paint or finishes that can be determined as definitely unhealthy,” Tinner said. Those tests also are expensive, he went on, typically costing more than $200 per house.

Tinner also spoke about asbestos, which the federal government recommends leaving alone. Testing for it would likely require additional training, hazardous materials suits, and typically cost $100 to $150.

On the issue of mold, Tinner said that inspectors are limited in what they can do about it. If it appears to be a symptom of a building issue, such as not having a ventilation system installed in a bathroom, inspectors might be able to take action.

“If it’s a tenant not wanting to open a window, not so much,” Tinner said. “It’s not a health issue, except for asthmatics or if you’re allergic to mold. ... But there is not a limit where we can say, ‘This amount of mold is unhealthy.’”

Sepler said all of those issues — mold, asbestos, lead and meth contamination — are important to the city.

“We’re not avoiding these because of a lack of importance,” Sepler said. “But we can’t get our arms around applicable testing that could be duplicated across 14,000 units.”

The city will post educational information about how to address each of those issues on a webpage that will outline the rental safety program, Sepler said.

“I think meth, lead and asbestos are probably a little out of our realm,” council member Pinky Vargas said. “I would like to start simpler. Let’s start with getting a program going first.”

City Attorney Peter Ruffatto outlined some small changes that will be made to the ordinance before it comes back to the council for final approval, such as changing the date that registration will be required to August 2015.

The number of years covered by the private inspection fee was initially mislabelled. It was updated at 4 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2015.