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 includes inspections in the York and Sehome neighborhoods and in part of Happy Valley. Other neighborhoods have yet to be inspected.
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.
By Questen Inghram and David Whorpole
Prior to 2016, Bellingham tenants concerned about the safety of their rental units had no option other than to complain to the city about their landlords — and risk eviction. Bellingham’s Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program, approved by the Bellingham City Council in 2015, “levels the playing field” by requiring all units to be inspected once every three years, said Rick Sepler, director of the city’s Planning and Community Development Department.
But the inspection program, one of only three in the state, did not have an easy start. It was the topic of heated debates and rejected ordinances.
Nearly a decade ago, City Councilman Jack Weiss suggested the city look at a “landlord licensing and accountability program.” Soon after, landlords lined up at Bellingham City Council meetings to oppose forming an inspection policy. For example, city council minutes show that six people spoke against rental licensing at a May 24, 2010 meeting, including Robert Cunningham, Marlene Jensen, Maggie Hanson, Amy Meyers, Mel Davidson and Cal Leenstra, who owns dozens of properties in Whatcom County, including rentals near Western.
“This isn’t Sacramento with 400,000 people in 14 different colleges and two law schools and a huge non-white population which may have more trouble understanding rules and regulations,” Leenstra told the council during the public comment period of the meeting. “This isn’t Pasco, which has some of the same problems as Sacramento. This is Bellingham and we have a completely different demographic than either of those cities.”
Cunningham called the proposed inspection program, “a solution looking for a problem,” according to the city council minutes.
When a proposed ordinance that would have required rental registration and spot inspections came before the council in 2011, the council rejected it.
When the issue came up before the council again in 2014, the council considered three versions of the program prepared by city staff. One involved registration, another included registration and inspections and the third looked at registration with possible inspections.
The council ultimately approved the second option by unanimous vote on March 9, 2015.
Despite the battle to get it in place, city officials said the program’s first couple months revealed successes and underscored its need.
“I think the program is working,” City Councilman Terry Bornemann said. “We found a lot of sub-par rentals that we wouldn’t have found without the inspection program. It’s catching a lot of the bad actors. I think it’s actually catching more people with violations than we assumed would have been.”
The city feels confident that most landlords have registered their units.
“This is not about aesthetics, this is about safety for renters and ensuring that every one of our rental units meets minimum standards. It’s in everyone’s best interests.”
Rick Sepler, planning director for the City of Bellingham
Mayor Kelli Linville said the process to create, approve and implement the rental inspection program was “long and arduous.” Linville credited planning director Rick Sepler for working with the council to come up with a program that is “implementable,” “practical” and “not too expensive.”
Linville said that despite the slow process, the city saw an “extremely high rate of compliance” with the registration of rental property units.
“We didn’t know that we would have that many landlords actually comply,” Linville said.
According to code BMC 6.15.110, failure to register a property will result in a fine of $200 per day for ten days and up to $500 a day each day after.
Registration for the program began July 1, 2015. Sepler announced in August 2015 that 14,340 units were registered and said this was “very high rate of return” and a “successful exercise.” Properties must be re-registered annually.
The Bellingham City Council settled on fees of $100 every three years for a city inspector, or $45 plus the cost of a private inspector. Missed appointments are levied a $25 rescheduling fee.
Bornemann said it upset him when he heard complaints from renters that their rent was raised because of inspection costs.
“It’s not because they’re doing inspections, it’s because the landlord is greedy,” Bornemann said. “I hate it when I hear that landlords are taking advantage of renters by jacking up their prices with some false excuse.”
Sepler said the registration and inspection fees are a “small price to pay” to monitor for safety hazards.
About one third of all rental inspections so far have been conducted by private inspectors approved by the city. A list of approved private inspectors is posted under the Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program on the city’s website.
Here is a timeline of Bellingham's discussion of rental inspections:
The cost of a private inspection is based on what the private inspector quotes. It can be cheaper than a city inspection if the private inspector is willing to do it for less.
State law requires the option for private inspectors, and all of the private inspectors go through training put on by the Planning and Community Development Department, Sepler said. They use the same checklist when inspecting a unit, but they do not have to submit the checklist to the city, only whether or not the unit passed or failed, he said. The department would like to see that changed in the future.
Seattle’s rental registration program does not require private inspectors to submit the checklist, but they are in the process of modifying that. “If they [Seattle] do it, we will probably modify ours too,” Sepler said.
Official inspections of the Sehome neighborhood began in June 2016 and ended in late September when inspections began in the York neighborhood.
Happy Valley units will be inspected in April. Then the program will continue on to South Hill, Fairhaven, Edgemoor and South Bellingham before the next year of the program arrives.
Fire Marshal Ron Richard said the rental inspection program is making a “nice impact” and making Bellingham a safer community by fixing multiple problems.
As far as potential improvements to the program, Sepler said it was “too early to come to conclusions, in terms of the inspection component.” He said the city is looking at changing the way of notifying landlords that their properties need to be re-registered from flyers to bills so property owners are more likely to take notice of them. He noted that 2,700 property registrations were not renewed this year.
Sepler also said the inspections could go from every three years to every five years.
“There has been a lot of recent work in a lot of units to bring them up to snuff, and that’s a good end,” Sepler said. “This is not about aesthetics, this is about safety for renters and ensuring that every one of our rental units meets minimum standards. It’s in everyone’s best interests.”
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
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