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Bellingham rental inspections to start; fees set

Two rental signs along North Garden Street in Bellingham in July 2014. The city will start inspecting rentals this spring for health and safety issues.
Two rental signs along North Garden Street in Bellingham in July 2014. The city will start inspecting rentals this spring for health and safety issues. The Bellingham Herald

Once every three years, rental housing owners will need to pay $100 for a city inspection, or $45 plus the cost of a private inspection if they choose to go with an outside inspector.

City Council approved the inspection fees Monday, March 7, following up on the 2015 implementation of the city’s rental registration and safety program.

The city planning department finalized the fee schedule after receiving more than 18,800 registrations under the city’s new rental safety program late in 2015, surpassing the number of units the city had expected, Planning Director Rick Sepler told the council on Monday.

Only about one-third of the city’s rentals will be inspected in any year.

The fees are based on many assumptions and could change once the program is in practice, but staff expect the fees should recover nearly all of the costs to the city to run the program, Sepler said.

For those who opt to use a private inspector, the $45 will cover the city’s costs of notifying property owners, recording the results of inspections, and any follow-ups needed, Sepler said.

18,800 Roughly the number of rental units registered in the city’s rental registration and safety inspection program since summer 2015

As early as late April or early May, the first wave of the city’s rental units to be inspected could start getting notices.

Though more than 18,000 units are registered, not all will be inspected, Sepler said. A few thousand of those are already inspected under housing authority or other programs, so they are exempt from the inspection requirement.

The city rule also states that only 20 percent of units on rental properties with 21 or more units (such as apartment buildings) will be inspected, unless an issue is discovered in one of the units, in which case all will be inspected.

Inspections

Inspectors will look for health and safety issues, including: “structural integrity; weather exposure; plumbing and sanitation; heat, water, and water facilities; ventilation systems; defective or hazardous electrical wiring and/or service; safe and functional exits; smoke and carbon monoxide detectors,” according to the city.

Mold will play into the inspection and remediation only if the inspector determines it is “a symptom of weather intrusion, plumbing leaks, or lack of ventilation,” according to the city.

“In the event mold is determined to be caused by lifestyle, the City will only offer advice to the tenant in how to reduce or eliminate mold in their dwelling,” the city website states.

The city will not inspect for lead paint or asbestos.

Detailed information is available at the city website at cob.org/rentals.

Fixes and emergencies

In most cases, if a small issue is found, such as a missing battery in a smoke detector, the inspector can just direct the tenants or property owner to take care of it and no follow-up inspection will be needed, Sepler told the council.

For larger issues – say a bedroom window can’t open for some reason – a follow-up inspection would be needed to make sure that window has been fixed, he said.

The first follow-up inspection by the city will be free. Each one after that is $50.

In the event an inspector finds something so serious they can’t allow the tenants to stay there that night, there are some emergency options for people, Sepler said.

We’re hopeful we won’t find many cases where we will have to red-tag the property.

Rick Sepler, Bellingham Planning Director

During fall quarter, Western Washington University won’t be able to help students displaced from a rental unit with emergency housing on campus as there are few to no spaces available, according to university spokesman Paul Cocke.

But the university will be able to help during winter and spring quarters on a space-available basis, as more rooms tend to open up at that time of year. Students may contact University Residences at 360-650-6565 or Housing@wwu.edu.

The university also has posted additional information on its off-campus housing website, and has shared information on the registration program with transfer students and at events for students hoping to move off-campus.

“We’re hopeful we won’t find many cases where we will have to red-tag the property,” Sepler said.

Tenants are protected under the state’s landlord-tenant act, but the city is setting aside $15,000 for very limited emergency housing assistance and legal assistance for low-income renters who may be displaced and don’t have the means to pay for a lawyer, Sepler said.

If the date the city has scheduled an inspection doesn’t work, property owners will be able to work with the city to change their appointment, Sepler said.

But if the city inspector shows up for an appointment and no one is there as planned, and no notice was given beforehand, there will be a $25 rescheduling fee.

The inspection fees approved Monday night ($100 or $45) will be due after an approved inspection is done.

“When you pay the fee, you get your certificate of inspection,” Sepler said.

Payments that are more than 60 days late will accrue a $50 fee plus the cost of collection, under the council-approved ordinance.

If someone wishes to appeal to the city Hearing Examiner, there is a $550 Hearing Examiner fee and $531 fee for staff time, according to the ordinance.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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