What is it like to be a Bellingham rental inspector?
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 Julia Phillips and Joely JohnsonThe City of Bellingham’s nine-month old rental inspection program is one of only three in the state and has covered about 1,600 units so far. Rental inspector Rob Barker, 33, has inspected most of them. Barker has lived in Bellingham for 14 years, many of them as a tenant. “As somebody that rented in Bellingham for a long time, I have a bit of interest in making sure that rental housing is meeting the minimum of health and safety requirements,” Barker said. “I am excited to be someone that gets to help make this all happen.”There are about 400 items on Bellingham’s Rental Property Safety Inspection Checklist, which mirrors the International Property of Maintenance code. Safety inspectors are not responsible for evaluating the general condition of the building or looking for other code violations such as checking improper bathroom ventilation or checking if there are enough automatic sprinklers per square foot. A typical inspection can be completed in about 10 minutes, Barker said. When inspecting apartment buildings or condos, Barker said he can inspect up to 30 units a day. Whereas if he is inspecting single family homes, he said he can inspect 10-12 units in a day.“We’re not poking into drywall seeing if there’s any mold spores there. We’re not going through closets, we’re not crawling up into attics or crawl spaces. But we do check every room and every window,” Barker said. “We are just making sure that the basics are there and that the tenants are safe.”Barker described his job as simply going into each rental property and performing a thorough, safe and “non-invasive” inspection, meaning he won’t go through the tenant’s personal belongings during the inspection of the home.
"In the end it comes down to these three things: can we get out in a fire, is there any plumbing that is going to make anyone sick and is there any electrical wiring that is going to be a hazard?"
Rental inspector Rob Barker
“I’m very thorough.” Barker said. “I don’t miss a lot. But it’s not an invasive inspection either. We try to respect the privacy of the tenants. They’ve got a stranger coming into their place and we try to make sure that we can perform the inspection as well as we can while still respecting the time and privacy of the tenants.”Barker starts inspections by introducing himself, showing his ID and checking with tenants to ensure they were given proper notice and ask any questions they have about the program, he said.Barker walks through every bedroom and makes sure that ground level windows lock and that bedroom windows open up enough for people to escape in case of a fire. He also checks to see if there are any plumbing issues that could cause potential sickness, and he looks to see if there are any electrical wiring problems that could potentially cause shock or a fire.“It’s a full walkthrough,” Barker said. “I keep my left hand to the wall and walk clockwise. Then we perform an external inspection, as well. A lap around the outside. In the end it comes down to these three things: can we get out in a fire, is there any plumbing that is going to make anyone sick and is there any electrical wiring that is going to be a hazard?”Bellingham’s Rental Registration & Safety Inspection Program had been in the works for more than 10 years when the Bellingham City Council approved it on March 9, 2015. The city approved the program because officials were concerned about the health and safety of student housing and worried that Western students renting properties were living in unsafe spaces, said Jim Tinner, building official for the City of Bellingham.The inspection program requires all rental property owners in Bellingham to register their rental units to be inspected by one of the inspectors from the City of Bellingham Planning and Community Development Department every three years. The city has four full-time rental inspectors and two full-time electrical inspectors. But for now, the bulk of the inspections have been assigned to Barker.To become a rental inspector, Barker was given in-house training and is given ongoing education if the need arises, Tinner said.“In our business there is no baccalaureate program that’s certified, but there are education opportunities that Rob will be going to, and that will be ongoing throughout his career,” Tinner said.Prior to the beginning of the inspection program in Bellingham, only two other cities in Washington had rental inspection programs: Pasco and Seattle. The Bellingham City Council looked closely at these programs in crafting its policy.Pasco’s rental inspection program looked not only at the health and safety conditions of the rental, but also at conditions such as junk cars on the premises, number of pets and whether tenants were emptying their garbage cans often enough, Tinner said. Feeling that these extra precautions were unrelated to the health and safety of the tenants, Bellingham decided that its program was not going to include these extra conditions. Instead, Bellingham would follow Seattle’s policies, which also look solely at the health and safety of the tenants.When Barker inspected the rental home of 27-year-old Western graduate Cathaleen Stewart on High Street, she thought the inspection was thorough.
“He looked at the entire house, every room and closet. He was looking at windows, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, stairs and the overall state of the house. He came into my room and noted where the detectors were and inspected the window. The windows were considered the fire exit so they needed to be big enough for someone to get out of and openable,” Stewart said. “He did a good job. My landlord had to put in two railings for stairs, but overall he said the house was in good condition and I agree with him. I don’t see any problems that he missed.”
So, what constitutes a failed inspection?Barker explained that if the corrections needed are little and easy to fix, the rental passes and they trust that it will be fixed and not need to be looked at again. If the corrections that are needed to be made are bigger and pose health and safety concerns, such as a non-working fire alarms or windows that do not open all the way, the property would fail.“But I should note that failing an inspection doesn’t mean that the property fails and that’s it,” Barker said. “A failed inspection means that we need to come back. We give the property owners time to fix the problem and we come back and re-inspect it. And if they fix it, it passes.”Western student Zoe Barnes’s rental home was inspected multiple times by Barker before it passed inspection.“He didn’t pass for things like the windows and flooding and mold in the basement. Mold was also in our bathrooms without any fans. [The mold] was the main reason we failed,” Barnes said. “He didn’t pass us until it got fixed, which it eventually did. The next times he came he just checked the things he didn’t pass us on to see if they were better.”Barker has yet to “red-tag” a property, meaning declaring it uninhabitable. He noted that most things are usually fixed when they come back for the second inspection, and properties that initially failed will then pass.“After finding some deficiencies and having the property owners come through and fix them, doing the follow-up inspection and running into folks that are saying ‘This is so much better than it was before,’ is the best part of my job as an inspector,” Barker said. “It is so rewarding.”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