Op-Ed

Civic Agenda: Rental registration aims for safe, healthy homes

City Council sent a clear message to our community when they approved the rental registration and safety inspection program: every resident of Bellingham deserves a safe and healthy place to live.

This program, however, is not based on a new idea. Rental registration was first discussed by City Council in 2003, then again in 2008, and has been a topic of discussion every year until its adoption this year. The program is also not based on a unique idea, with more than 100 communities across the country implementing similar programs.

While the idea behind the program may not be new or unique, its goal of ensuring safe and healthy rental housing is one our community can support.

Why does Bellingham need it?

With Bellingham’s vacancy rate at just under 2 percent, residents don’t have many options when it comes to rental housing. This creates a situation where a portion of the population becomes vulnerable as they are forced by necessity into sub-standard housing. While it is acknowledged that many landlords in our community are very responsible, some do not maintain their rental property and are unresponsive to tenant concerns. Currently, tenants with complaints about unsafe living conditions need to file a code enforcement request with the city. While this will continue to be an option, the rental registration and safety inspection program creates a system to address and monitor rental property issues proactively without the need for a tenant to complain first.

How will it work?

The implementation of this program has been designed from the outset to both ensure that all rental units meet health and safety standards and to be efficient and predictable for property owners.

The program is divided into two distinct components, rental registration and safety inspection, each with their own procedures, policies, and fees.

Rental Registration

Anyone who owns rental property in Bellingham City limits will need to register. The initial registration period will be open July 1 through Aug. 1 with the option to register by mail, in person at the permit center in City Hall, or online at cob.org/rentals. A lot of time went into the online registration option to make it as convenient and user-friendly as possible, and program staff is excited to be able to offer this option to the public.

A fee is due at the time of registration and is determined by the number of units the property being registered contains. For properties with one to 20 units, the fee is $10 per unit. For properties with 21 or more units, it’s $8 per unit.

Registration will need to be renewed annually to keep the database of registered properties up-to-date. Registrations completed this year will not expire until December 2016.

Safety Inspection

The city anticipates inspections will start in early 2016, with all registered rental properties being inspected by the end of 2018, consistent with the three-year cycle outlined in the ordinance. Rental property owners will have the option to use a city of Bellingham inspector or a qualified private inspector. Inspection will focus solely on health and safety standards, such as structural integrity, adequate sanitation and heating systems, emergency exits and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

At this time, many details of the inspection component of the program are still being finalized, such as the inspection fee, the inspection checklist, and enforcement strategies for properties that do not meet the program standards.

Looking ahead

Often new city programs are viewed as being potentially complicated and costly. Through application of lean design principles, which allow for a continuous improvement and refinement of the program, the city is committed to implementing rental registration and inspection so that it is effective, efficient and affordable.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Kelli Linville is mayor of Bellingham. Rick Sepler is Bellingham’s Planning and Community Development director. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.

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