Realtors: Steep costs for ‘cheap’ rental inspections in Bellingham

Bellingham’s passage of rental registration and inspection is imminent. Ignoring calls to quantify the actual number of annual tenant complaints and for an in-depth economic analysis of what the inspection requirements mean for tenants and landlords alike, the city has invoked the new governing model of “passing it to find out what’s in it” leaving many details to be sorted out by city staff. Although the city’s competent staff found a “cheap” resolution, this program will cost us dearly.

A majority of Bellingham residents rent and, unfortunately, many tenants already pay a disproportionate share of their income to meet their basic housing needs. Recognizing the need for an effective, low-cost method for tenants to resolve complaints about substandard housing, the Realtors worked with several council members to use registration and robust code enforcement to meet those tenants’ concerns. It apparently was a good idea because the city has confirmed that registration will cost less than $1 per month per unit and the council has subsequently added another code enforcement officer to the new budget. This was the low-cost solution utilizing existing regulations and enforcement mechanisms to address an identified need.

But the city wants inspections. The city is attempting to keep costs low by limiting the scope of inspections to basic elements. This approach, while cheap, costs the city by irritating supporters who want comprehensive inspections, tenants who want assurances of safe housing, and property managers and landlords who recognize the city will charge to duplicate efforts already performed voluntarily by most at appropriate times considering the property and tenant needs. One point on which all seem to agree is that an $80 city inspection will not meet anyone’s needs.

Property owners are required to schedule inspections under the city’s proposal. While it is unclear what costs a private landlord managing the landlord’s own properties may incur, property managers will charge for posting the required notices, having an agent present while the inspection occurs, and an hourly rate for any resulting actions such as filing the inspection certificate, performing repairs and conducting supplemental inspections. Several property managers estimate that these actions will easily add $100-$150 dollars to the $80 city inspection fee not to mention additional costs for identified repairs. The council may declare victory with the $80 figure, but ignoring basic economics and resulting in additional expenses on landlords and tenants leaves many wondering about the “real cost.”

Additionally, significant questions remain unanswered. “What constitutes a failing property?” “What code controls when the city’s inspection standard differs from the building code (e.g., electrical wiring)?” “If a failure results from tenant conduct, is the tenant fined?” “If unit condition changes so rapidly, why is a two-year-old inspection allowed?” “Why are mobile homes of any age exempt?” “Where are the landlord incentives the council suggested?” The cost, in terms of credibility, is steep when people have provided input on these matters for years and our elected officials persist in offering little to no guidance on these fundamental questions.

Finally, one must consider the cost to property and tenant rights, rights that some either do not understand or are willing to subordinate to the public will. Many tenants have contacted me this past week wondering if this scheme mandates that they permit government inspectors to inspect their homes? These tenants state they have an excellent relationship with their landlord or property manager and have no interest in government inspectors entering their residence looking for violations. They are disappointed to discover that the answer is “yes, you must.” There are many resources for tenants seeking assistance to resolve disputes but the city chose the most intrusive course rather than seeking a strategic, cost-effective solution that would honor individual relationships and rights. The result is to subject tenants to a level of intrusion that council would not dare impose on homeowners absent a judicial warrant, intrusion that comes at the cost of weakening the tenant’s ability to decide if and when government will enter their home.

Former councilwoman Louise Bjornson once addressed her colleagues about rental inspections asking, “Why would we charge money to have so many people angry at us?” She at least recognized that “cheap” inspections come at a steep cost.