Editor’s note: This article is one of a series written based on public information requested from the City of Bellingham Planning and Development Department for data covering Bellingham rental inspections between June 13, 2016, when the city began the inspections, and Feb. 9.
The data is not inclusive of all inspections as many landlords opt to use private inspectors who are not required to file detailed reports with the city. Links to additional stories can be found at the end of each article.
In the first eight months of Bellingham’s new rental inspection program, about 88 percent of the units inspected thus far have passed, but not all have done so without any issues needing to be addressed, according to data obtained from the City of Bellingham Planning and Development Department. About 38 percent of the units inspected failed their initial inspections, but the majority of those passed on their second, third or fourth inspection.
The city began inspections with rentals in the York and Sehome neighborhoods and is currently inspecting properties in Happy Valley.
About 31 percent of the units that initially or eventually passed did so “with conditions,” meaning some issues, such as missing batteries in smoke detectors or instances of exposed wiring, were noted by the inspector and left in good faith for the landlord to remedy and without further inspection, according to the city records.
Over 12 percent of units inspected either failed their final inspections or have yet to schedule a follow-up inspection after a failure. Reasons for failure range from signs of rodents, to water damaged floor boards, and include potentially threatening situations such as bowing structural support beams and decks that have “compromised structural members,” according to the city inspector’s notes.
Yet, no properties have been “red-tagged” and immediately evacuated as of Feb. 9, Rick Sepler, Bellingham’s director of planning and community development told a group of neighborhood association representatives at a meeting of the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Council.
In order for a property to be red-tagged, according to RCW 59.18.030, an initiative that the Planning and Community Development Department cites when explaining the inspections, a court or arbitrator is the one who decides if the property is unlivable, provided they allow enough time for the tenants to vacate the premise. Given a predetermined checklist, the livability can only be determined on a house-by-house basis.
Bellingham rental inspections:
88 percent of units have passed so far
About 38 percent failed first inspections, then passed during later inspections
Out of 38 percent of failed initial inspections:
140 had missing or nonfunctional smoke detectors
Over 150 had missing or nonfunctional carbon monoxide detectors
Over 120 had exposed or unprotected electrical wiring
Some of the most common issues noted were missing or nonfunctional smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and exposed or unprotected electrical wiring. Among the 38 percent of units that failed initial inspections, more than 140 had missing or nonfunctional smoke detectors, more than 150 had missing or nonfunctional carbon monoxide detectors and more than 120 had exposed or unprotected electrical wiring. These figures don’t include units with only one of the previously listed issues that passed “with conditions.”
According to the program’s website, components that are inspected include structural integrity of units, weather exposure, plumbing and sanitation concerns, heat, water, ventilation systems, defective/hazardous wiring, safe and functional exits, smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Additionally, standards for room sizes, visibility of address numbers, permanent heat sources and more specific requirements must be met.
Other issues, such as mold, are only addressed if they pertain to previously listed problems, such as plumbing leaks or a lack of ventilation.
Upon failing an inspection, a landlord is allotted up to three additional inspections and up to four months time to remedy issues, said Nate Pearson of the Planning and Community Development Department. According to the program’s ordinance, properties that fail their final inspections and continue to go without addressing the issues cited will be “punished by a fine not to exceed $200 per day for the first 10 days that the violation or failure to comply exists and $500 per day for each day thereafter.” If the property is deemed uninhabitable, tenants will be moved out. Fines will not be charged if tenants are no longer living in the failed unit.
Registration of rental units can be done online or in person by the owner of the property, but the enforcement of the law that states a property must be registered relies largely on the goodwill of the owner, said Shalyn Flaherty, of the city’s Planning and Community Development office.
“The only way to follow up is if someone notifies us that a property is not registered,” Flaherty said.
Prior to inspection, tenants should receive a written notification of intent from their landlord at least 48 hours in advance to allow an inspector to enter. The notification must include the date and approximate time of inspection, and the company or person performing the inspection. Any tenant has the right to see the inspector’s identification card before they can enter the property.
In the first eight months of the program, appointments for more than 300 attempted inspections were missed. Some appointments simply had nobody inside the unit to let the inspector in, while others were missed due to tenants not being notified of the inspection in advance and requesting to reschedule.
If an appointment is missed, the tenant is given up to three opportunities to reschedule the inspection and a $25 fee is levied on the landlord.
Landlords are required to pay several fees in addition to the costs required to remedy failures. An annual registration fee of $10 per unit for landlords with 10-20 units or $8 per unit for landlords with 21 units or more is required. There is a $50 fee if a payment is 60 or more days late. Additionally, the cost of inspection is $100 per unit and $50 for second and third re-inspections. The first inspection is free.
Inspections occur every three years, but not every unit on a single property must be inspected. For any rental properties containing up to 20 units, no more than four will be inspected. Regarding rental properties with 21 or more units, no more than 20 percent of the total number of units, up to 50 units, will be inspected. Inspection fees must be paid every time. Unit inspections are chosen by the city.
Other units have been inspected by private inspectors, the results of which landlords are not required to provide to the city other than saying whether a property has passed or failed. All landlords were given the option to request a qualified private inspector and pay the city a $45 fee, in addition to the charges from the inspector, according to the city’s policy.
According to Flaherty, despite the fact that inspections have only been done in three neighborhoods so far, it seems most of the city is registered and the program is functioning as expected. The process of inspections is ongoing, with the Happy Valley neighborhood currently being inspected.
Header image: A hole in the ceiling at 1310 Grant St. where repairs are being done to a leaking roof. According to tenants, the property management company did not complete repairs until the unit was inspected by the city. // Photo courtesy of Erasmus Baxter and Alexis Edgar