Amidst a housing crisis, the City of Bellingham’s Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program is undergoing new improvements, with potentially positive implications for new renters.
The program was initially implemented in 2015, with the intention of maintaining a quality standard in all rental units in the city. Since then, new positions have been added to put more emphasis on inspections and ensuring that properties are up to the city’s standard in a timely fashion.
“Anybody that fails their first round of inspections will then go … to the specific rental inspector so that we can have some follow-up,” said Blake Lyon, director of planning and community development for the city. “With a dedicated rental inspector, it gives us the ability to have somebody who’s focused in on those cases … to make sure we’re getting the compliance that we need.”
In addition to adding new positions, the city is attempting to track inspection data for multiple purposes. First, the data will ensure that rental companies and landlords pass their inspections by knowing the most common areas of improvement.
Second, by making inspection history available to the public, prospective tenants will be able to make more informed decisions when entering the housing market. This is especially important for students, many of whom are navigating their first years of rental housing in a new city.
“There’s a concern that that’s a group of the community that might be taken advantage of,” Lyon said, referring to the student population that may not have the time or resources to fight their landlords when rental issues come up.
Not everyone has the luxury of exploring multiple options. With property management companies owning a large chunk of Bellingham’s housing stock, some renters are left scrambling for affordable situations that aren’t always ideal.
Marcos Muñoz, Keira Matkins and Luke Ferrell are among those who have experienced this. Their current home, managed by Lakeway Realty, was the cheapest option they were able to find when their previous landlords raised rent prices. Muñoz described their situation as “moving out of necessity.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of people – this situation is not unique,” Matkins said.
Their house, built in 1904, has seen more than its fair share of maintenance issues. Broken and single-pane windows, sinking ceilings and a faulty outside fuse box have been among some of their biggest concerns.
“When it’s [issues] we can literally sue them over, they come in and do something,” Muñoz said.
Justin Creamer and Sam Townsend, who have been renting through Landmark Properties since August 2023, have shared a similar experience.
“For the things that are higher priority, I do feel like they have been pretty responsive,” Townsend said.
The couple identified the square footage in their home to be an issue, as the apartment came 150 square feet smaller than advertised.
“It was a big pain trying to negotiate a change in rent,” Townsend said.
Creamer and Townsend, much like Muñoz, Matkins and Ferrell, were put in a position where they needed to make a fast decision about their housing. The two weren’t able to take a tour before moving in and said that they would have made a different decision if they had.
“I always tell students, ‘Do not sign anything, do not put your name to paper before you look through your place,’” said Dawson Kamalu-Nako, one of the program managers for Western Washington University’s off-campus living department. “Pictures can only show you so much.”
Similar programs have been implemented in other parts of the state as well. The Rental Housing Licensing and Safety Inspection Program in Othello, Washington, was implemented in early 2021 and requires that all rental units meet basic standards of living, such as heating and plumbing.
According to Community Development Director Anne Henning, Othello’s program was created to give the city more power to enforce a higher living standard, much like Bellingham’s program.
“We wanted something where we had more authority to make the landlord fix the unit without them, you know, going around renting it to someone else that we weren't aware of,” Henning said.
Othello took inspiration from other cities to create their program, including Bellingham. When asked about the biggest benefits of the program, Henning cited “improving the living conditions of our residents.”
Lyon identified the ultimate goal of the city’s improvement plan to be creating consistency in the housing market. “The rules of today are very different than they were previously,” he said.
Creamer said that honesty from the rental companies could have improved his and Townsend’s experience searching for their home.
“It kind of feels like big fish eating little fish,” he said.
Franny Vollert (she/her) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. She is a sophomore majoring in journalism with a news/editorial concentration. She enjoys reading, taking walks, and spending time with friends. You can reach her at email@example.com.