Rental Inspections in Bellingham
by Dick Conoboy
Dick Conoboy is a retired intelligence officer and resource manager who writes regularly for the online news site NWCitizen. He also writes a blog under the name Zonemaven. Dick serves on the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission and the board of the Samish Neighborhood.
Exposed at last! Bellingham’s unsafe rental housing conditions receive the attention deserved as our city council makes a huge leap forward to implement housing inspections and enforcement.
After more than 10 years of debate, delays and disinterest, the city administration has received a mandate from council to implement what other cities have done long ago. This is a victory for low-income families, students, neighborhoods and, ultimately, the quality of our community as a whole, as rental inspections and enforcement of repairs bring the bottom of the barrel up to basic health and safety housing standards. This victory demonstrates what can be accomplished when activists unite around a common goal and engage in a multi-pronged community campaign.
Awareness of the problematic condition of rentals in Bellingham arose several decades ago in discussions among and within the neighborhoods. There was, however, little in the way of support for any measures to ensure the health and safety of tenants. The Washington Landlord Tenant Law had been in effect since 1973, yet rental conditions remained largely unchanged ,as the law did little to improve the health and safety of tenants. The law spells out the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, but does little more than provide a template for the parties to snarl, snap and sue one another for compliance. Complaints about landlords and the condition of rental units created a risk for tenants to be “blacklisted” by a landlord’s bad reference, guaranteeing those tenants persistent problems in renting another unit.
City Council Ignored Rental Issue in 2004
A decade ago, issues around rentals — overcrowding, conditions, noise, parking, etc. — were raised again in Bellingham, but there was little or no support from the city council after a very large citizen/council meeting in 2004 that was, in effect, hijacked by the landlord and real estate groups by their overwhelming presence. Nevertheless, City Council President John Watts exclaimed at the end of the meeting, “Bellingham, we have heard you tonight!” An action plan to look further at the issue was developed but never carried out. Council must have heard only the landlords, because the council just quietly dropped the matter from further consideration.
Over the past five years, a new, concerted effort by neighborhood organizations gained the attention of the city council. But this time, Western Washington students came to realize that they were the ones living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Since there was no city-wide tenants’ union, the student government (Associated Students) stepped up to represent the 10,000 or so off-campus renters who comprise approximately 25 percent of the tenant population (40,000+) in Bellingham.
Although the university administration refused to become involved, in 2010 the student government passed the first of several resolutions calling for the city council to pass legislation to register and inspect rental units. This was followed by editorials and articles over the next four years in the student newspaper, The Western Front, which likewise called for health and safety inspections of rentals. Students also conducted and published two surveys of renters that showed the problem of unhealthy and unsafe rentals was widespread and serious.
In 2010, the Washington legislature passed a law modifying existing statutes regarding landlords, tenants and rental inspections. The new law placed a limitation on inspections to no more than once every three years, and also provided for administrative warrants to enter properties when access was refused by the landlord, the tenant or both. This statute was supported by both landlord and tenant groups who participated in its writing. Those cities with then current inspection laws on the books, such as Pasco, were grandfathered and were able to keep their inspection codes as is. Since that time, several cities including Prosser, Tukwila, and Seattle have passed rental registration ordinances.
Landlords Oppose Rental Ordinance
In Bellingham, opposition, mostly in the form of a misinformation campaign, came from the landlords, the landlord association and the real estate community. Claims that the city would charge wildly inflated registration fees circulated in emails among landlords, who were warned that passage of the ordinance would result in thousands of dollars of repairs on most units. In high dudgeon, landlords bemoaned having to pass on these costs to the poor, struggling tenants, although they had been raising rents over decades merely because they could do so and without a hoot of concern over the ability of tenants to pay. This was aided and abetted by a rental vacancy rate approaching zero. Tenants had few choices.
A concomitant effort was made by the boards and representatives of some Bellingham’s neighborhoods to push council into adopting an ordinance. These neighborhoods were generally those with a high percentage of rentals such as York, Sehome and Samish, where the rental blight was more than obvious. Several attempts by council to bring forth an ordinance were thwarted by lack of votes.
During her campaign for mayor, Kelli Linville indicated her support for a rental ordinance. In early 2014, she pitched her own proposal that called unfortunately for inspection of one half of 1 percent (only about 67) of the 14,000 rental units per year. All other action on rental health and safety was to depend on a complaint-only system which was the then current, unworkable model. Staff estimates for inspection of as few as 1,200 units produced ridiculously astronomical costs — more than $700,000 and seven inspectors. The intent to dissuade was palpable.
Council Finally Passes Inspections
On the council side, Jack Weiss, as head of the council’s Planning Committee, took the lead to gather support for an ordinance and held a series of workshop meetings in 2014 with neighborhood representatives, student government leaders and interested citizens. He then drafted his own option for an ordinance that included a proposal for inspections. To the chagrin of ordinance proponents, newly-elected At-Large Council Member Roxanne Murphy, who had arrived from Tacoma several years earlier, floated her proposed ordinance based on what she described as a very successful program in that city.
At the same time, my investigation of the Tacoma model found that it was deeply flawed and could not possibly achieve the goal of safe rentals. This was a complaint-based proposal with registration only, even less stringent than that which had been proposed by the mayor. The reality of the Tacoma program was that although it was successful in cleaning up the outside appearances of some neighborhoods and ridding others of rentals populated by gangs and drug dealers, a minuscule number of the 9,000 –10,000 or so rentals have ever been inspected on the inside. Moreover, approximately 50 percent of the landlords have not registered their units to this day.
Faced with several rental ordinance options, our City Council regrettably voted to move Ms. Murphy’s version forward. A few months later, however, in an opportune turn-around, Councilman Terry Bornemann declared that he had changed his views on rental health and safety and would support an ordinance with registration and inspection. That announcement ultimately turned the tide, and on Dec. 15, 2014, the Bellingham City Council voted seven to zero to adopt an ordinance to register and inspect all of the city’s 14,000 rentals. Nearly 3,000 other rental units are already inspected by other government agencies, such as HUD under their Section 8 voucher program [about 1,100 units] and various local non-profits [about 2,600 units].
Internal City Opposition Fades
With a new Planning Director, Rick Sepler, taking the helm of the city’s Planning Department in late 2014, much of the internal opposition from that unit faded. Funding for the start-up costs was approved by the city council on Jan. 26 aided by a detailed financial projection by Sepler. The council is now developing the registration and inspection fee structure and reviewing the draft of the inspection checklist. Assisting in this effort is Mark Gardner, the council’s legislative policy analyst, who all along has been providing factual studies and analyses, much of which was imprudently ignored as various parties relied on rumor or anecdotal and apocryphal information. I have met one-on-one for several hours with the new director and observed that he has excellent program management skills. Sepler has created a chart that maps out an aggressive timeline of implementation that will see inspections starting in January 2016 after a period of registration of properties slated to begin on July 1. Education of the public to include renters and landlords will take place by way of focus groups, media outreach and informational websites.
It will take several years of inspections before the city can ultimately claim that the rental health and safety problem has been brought under control. However, after the first round of inspections the city must remain vigilant. The Pasco experience was that even after two years many of the previously checked units inspected again in the second round had deteriorated to a surprising degree. Let that serve as a cautionary note.