Bellingham City Council unanimously approves rental safety program

The City Council unanimously approved a a rental registration and inspection ordinance Monday night, March 9, that could go into effect as early as August.

The council voted 7-0 to approve the program with changes that had been made during work sessions in recent months. The council would need to vote on another ordinance outlining the fees needed to register rental units and have them inspected.

In February, council recommended a plan – based on numbers compiled by staff – that would charge owners $10 per unit to register annually if they own one to 20 units, and $8 per unit if they own 21 or more. Staff members expected registration could be required for rental properties as of Aug. 1.

For the first two years after the ordinance passes, in certain cases where owners have failed to register their units on time, the city planning director could waive or suspend all or part of a late fee.

The inspection component of the ordinance wouldn’t take effect before early 2016.

During Monday afternoon’s committee meeting, council member Dan Hammill asked what the process would be for dealing with illegal units.

In cases of properties where an owner tries to register but can’t be in compliance from the get-go, city staff would try to work with those owners as much as possible to see how they can get that unit to meet city rules, said Rick Sepler, planning director.

“It is anticipated with 14,000 units we will have some that cannot come into compliance,” he said.

In rolling out the inspection phase of the program, the city will have a small amount of money set aside to help renters relocate if they are forced to move out in an emergency situation, Sepler said. For example, if an inspector were to find that someone was living in a bedroom with no second egress – a window or another door – the city would have to act immediately, Sepler said.

Staff plans to launch a webpage with answers to frequently asked questions about the program, then start putting together informational mailers that would likely start going out to owners in May.