Photo by Josh Durias | www.joshdurias.com
When it comes to the three basic needs, Bellingham does a pretty good job of supplying food and clothing — especially if it’s local, organic, or fair trade. But what about shelter?
Housing is often a contentious issue, and the city has held numerous forums about the cost of housing, urban sprawl and building heights. Recently the debate has shifted to something that affects a majority of residents: the safety of rental housing.
In a city of 80,885 people, more than half of city residents are renters, according to 2010 census data. In fact, renters have outnumbered homeowners in Bellingham for more than a decade, so why is this issue coming up now?
“I think more than anything it’s a fear that citizens are living in substandard housing and they don’t have any choice,” said James Tinner, the building official for the city of Bellingham.
Currently, rental units are inspected for habitability only if there is a complaint by a tenant or neighbor. But in recent months, the Bellingham City Council has been considering a proposal to create a rental licensing program that would require landlords to pay $24 a year for a license and submit their rental units to inspection every three years. The licensing fee would go toward hiring a full-time inspector.
The proposal stalled when the Council voted against it at a June 20 meeting, but the issue is by no means dead. Still at issue is whether a rental licensing program is the right solution to ensure safety of rental units. And if so, what should that program look like?
A few bad apples
Tinner estimates that the city receives about two rental complaints each month, with a few more around the time college students move in for fall quarter. Most of the complaints are about minor issues that can be easily fixed, he said.
“Keep in mind that many, if not most, of the rentals here are pretty old,” Tinner said. “I’ve only had one in my time here — I’ve been here a year and a half — that I’ve condemned.”
Since the city doesn’t receive many complaints, very little information is kept about the complaints. For example, the city doesn’t record whether a complaint came from a tenant or a neighbor.
But one trend is evident: a select few landlords have received more complaints than others. The presence of a few so-called “bad apples” has bolstered the arguments for and against rental licensing.
“Landlords don’t like bad landlords because it gives everybody a bad name,” said Perry Eskridge, government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors. Eskridge has been one of the most outspoken opponents of rental licensing in Bellingham.
“We all know there’s some problems with rental housing in Bellingham. We know people who have lived in poor housing and there’s always horror stories out there,” Eskridge said. “But the problem isn’t necessarily as big as everybody is making it out to be.”
On the other side of the issue is Dick Conoboy, a retired intelligence analyst who has taken on the cause of rental licensing and worked closely with student groups at Western Washington University. For him, the fact that safety hazards are continually found in rental units is reason enough to create an inspection program.
“There is good cause that a good percentage of the rentals here in Bellingham are substandard and present a safety hazard,” Conoboy said.
How does rental licensing work?
Both sides agree that there are some rental units out there that probably aren’t safe to live in. But what should the city do about them?
Eskridge believes the current complaint-based system does an adequate job. If the city feels the need to step up housing code enforcement for rentals, the focus should be on the landlords with the most complaints and on educating tenants about their rights, he said.
“It might be just as simple as telling tenants that they can contact the city about complaints,” Eskridge said.
But Conoboy believes the city should go further in order to ensure that all rental units are safe for residents. He points to the city of Pasco as an example of a rental licensing program that could work in Bellingham.
The city of Pasco launched a rental licensing program in 1998 that requires the owners of rental properties to get a business license and submit a certificate of habitability every two years. That certificate must be completed by a licensed inspector.
“What it seeks to do is ensure that anyone paying money for residential space is provided a home or apartment that is free of defects and housing code violations,” said Mitch Nickolds, the Pasco inspection services manager.
The license costs $30 a year, plus $3 for any additional units on the parcel (so a duplex would cost $33). And there is no charge for the inspection if the landlord uses the official city of Pasco inspector to complete the certificate of habitability.
In 13 years, there have been only two instances where private inspectors were brought in — and both times those inspectors ruled that the rental units did not pass the inspection, Nickolds said.
From Nickolds standpoint, the program has done “fantastically well.” During the first few years, more than 10 percent of units were failing inspections. Now that number ranges between 1 percent and 4 percent.
The program was not without its detractors, though. The city was sued and the case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which in 2009 upheld the rental licensing program.
Will it work in Bellingham?
One of the major issues that has been brought up in discussing a rental licensing program in Bellingham is whether it would lead to increased rental rates. Landlords are likely to pass on the cost of the licensing fee, a proposed $24 a year, and any costs to renovate a unit.
“Obviously $2 a month isn’t significant in the big picture,” Eskridge said, adding that the cost of inspections was more worrisome.
Full home inspections generally cost between $300 and $500. While the city of Pasco offered free inspections, it’s unknown whether Bellingham would have done the same.
“The problem we had here was that it was a very broad net that was cast very wide in the hope that we might catch a few people who we think might be bad landlords,” Eskridge said. “We need to be more surgical in our attempts.”
It’s also still unknown whether anything will become of the issue since the City Council voted against the proposed program. The Council mentioned the need for future discussions, but no date has been set.
“I just think the Council abandoned a large slice of its constituency,” Conoboy said, adding that he’s worried any future resolution might be weaker than the recent proposal. “I don’t think they’re going far enough. I think they’re trying to do it on the cheap and do the minimum to answer to the public.”