By Kate Galambos and Daniel Roth
For The Bellingham Business Journal
Erik Martin and his three roommates knew the house they rented wasn’t in pristine condition, but they never expected it to start bleeding.
Martin, a Western Washington University student, and his three roommates live in a house on State Street.
Not long after they moved in, they started noticing serious problems.
Last winter, after heavy rains, the roof began leaking, dripping reddish-brown liquid down the former chimney stack that now serves as a ventilation shaft for the house.
Due to the liquid’s unsettling appearance, Martin and his roommates have jokingly dubbed it “the blood wall.”
The house was privately owned until a few years ago, when it was bought by Apex Property Management.
Phil Maxwell, Apex president and chief executive officer, said they had someone out to check the leaking chimney just one day after receiving the complaint. “We have a pretty proactive maintenance policy here,” he said.
Martin agreed that Apex was prompt about responding to maintenance requests.
But he wasn’t happy with the results. “They come out right away, and poke around and say that they’ll do something,” Martin said. “They said they sealed the roof, but everytime it rains a lot we get new ‘blood’ pouring down the wall.”
After years of complaints and reports of unsafe conditions from tenants, the Bellingham City Council decided to implement a rental inspection program.
More than a decade in the making, the program was finally approved by the City Council this past winter.
The program will have city inspectors and approved private companies checking on registered rental properties every three years for safe living conditions.
Most of Bellingham’s roughly 19,000 rental properties, which make up more than half of the city’s housing units, are registered for inspection.
Inspections are scheduled by the city and property owners are informed of the date and time window at the start of each inspection quarter.
Property owners are required to inform tenants of an inspection at least 48 hours in advance, according to state code.
For properties up to 20 units, no more than four total units will be inspected.
For properties with 21 or more units, no more than 20 percent of the total number of units, but not more than 50 units, will be inspected.
Inspectors will primarily be looking for health and safety violations, such as structural integrity, weather exposure, sanitation problems and defective or hazardous electrical wiring.
Mold will only be a part of the inspection if “it is determined to be a symptom of weather intrusion, plumbing leaks, or lack of ventilation,” according to the inspection page on the city’s website.
The city will not inspect for lead paint or asbestos. A complete list of building components inspected is available at the city’s website.
The city is only legally allowed to check for issues that affect the health and safety of the tenant, Bellingham building official Jim Tinner said.
“According to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), mold itself is not harmful,” Tinner said.
Although, mold may be a symptom of another issue like leaks and water intrusion, which the inspector will look for, he said.
Inspection of each unit costs $100, due to the city after the inspection occurs. Approved private inspectors can also be hired at the property owner’s discretion, but a fee of $45 per unit will still be owed to the city.
The Bellingham City Council had been considering a rental licensing and inspection program as far back as 2004.
“It was something that was talked about on and off for about 10 years in the city council,” Emma Burnfield, who runs the rental registration for Bellingham, said.
When the program was first discussed in city council, it fell short on the votes, Bellingham City Council Member Terry Bornemann said.
Then the recession hit and the program was put on hold.
Council members were concerned about putting any more financial burdens on landlords and tenants when the economy was so unstable, Bornemann said.
The economy began to recover and complaints from tenants were still coming in so the council decided to take another look at the program.
In December of 2014, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of the program. Registration of rental properties started last summer.
Bellingham is among a number of cities in the state that have added inspections to rental registration programs. Seattle, Tukwila and Pasco all have similar programs aimed at protecting tenants’ safety and keeping landlords accountable.
After discovering unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, poor to no ventilation, cockroach and rodent infestations, no smoke or carbon monoxide detectors, etc., Pasco implemented the inspection program in 1998, said Troy Hendren, City of Pasco building official and fire marshall.
“We have created better living for tenants and are receiving minimum code compliance from landlords and property owners,” Hendren said.
Seattle launched its rental inspection program last year after the City Council passed the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance in 2012. It has been working well, said Geoff Tallent, City of Seattle rental registration and inspection ordinance manager.
Bellingham inspectors will use a checklist that’s nearly identical to Seattle’s, Burnfield said.
“We took their checklist and our building official went over it and made some changes based on Bellingham’s criteria,” she said.
Bellingham’s checklist, like Seattle’s, will not check for mold, lead or methamphetamine, which has been discovered in a handful of Bellingham properties, Tinner said.
In order to test for methamphetamine contamination the city would have to get permission from the legal owner of the property. “If that happened, it’d be through the police department, not the rental inspection program,” Tinner said.
“Methamphetamine contamination is something way beyond basic health and safety. We aren’t testing for that as part of the program,” Burnfield said.
If a home is found uninhabitable, Bellingham has a general plan in place for temporary housing, said Burnfield.
“There’s the framework for a plan but not something that is written out step-by-step. It is going to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis because every tenant situation is different,” she said.
Due to Bellingham’s large student population, the city has partnered with Western to connect student tenants with resources on-campus, Burnfield said.
The city has budgeted money for temporary housing in emergency situations but doesn’t expect homelessness to be a huge consequence of the rental inspection program, Burnfield said.
“If the place is failing because it is uninhabitable, we’d be looking at then moving the tenants out. That is probably going to be extremely rare.”
Many rental property owners are unhappy with the program.
Marc Cascio is the owner of Chuckanut Property Management, which manages several hundred rental properties in Bellingham. He sees the program as a “redundant level of red tape.”
The rental inspection program was mostly developed internally, with little input from landlords, Burnfield said.
“We talked to other cities and had a lot of collaboration with Seattle since they had just pushed their [rental inspection program] through,” she said.
Although, there were a few focus groups run by the city for stakeholders, like landlords, to voice their thoughts before the final program was introduced to the city council, Burnfield said.
When developing the program the city council tried to keep it as easy and straightforward a process as possible, Bornemann said.
“We tried not to make too onerous on the landlords but at the same time have the added protection for those renting.”
Cascio sees the costs of the program as an undue punishment for responsible landlords and property owners.
“We’re not slumlords,” he said, though he acknowledged that there are a few landlords that try to skirt the rules. “It’s unfortunate because of those few,
that we all have to suffer for it.”
While Bornemann said he believes most landlords in Bellingham are taking good care of properties and tenants, he said there are landlords who aren’t doing their jobs.
“Unfortunately, it was because of a few bad actors in the community who have more shoddy
rentals and we were having complaints and problems particularly with younger people who don’t really know their rights,” Bornemann said.
Instead of gradually inspecting all of Bellingham’s rentals, a better solution, in Cascio’s eyes, would simply to have landlords self-police, taking care of problems with their properties as they arise.
If tenants have problems that their landlords are unwilling to address, he said, then at that point they should reach out to the city for help.
Dick Conoboy, despite being a retiree who hasn’t rented property since the ‘80s, is an active figure in promoting the rental inspection program.
He bristles at the notion that landlords are responsible enough to police themselves. There may be many good landlords, he said, but they do nothing to weed out bad ones.
“The real estate industry doesn’t go after those people who are operating unethically,” Conoboy said.
In 2007, after taking notice of overcrowding and poor living conditions in rentals near his home in the Samish neighborhood, Conoboy started a blog dedicated to improving conditions for renters, to which he still regularly posts today.
Over time, Conoboy built a network amassing email addresses and working with the Associated Students at Western, and eventually capturing the attention of former Councilmember Jack Weiss, a strong proponent of the inspection program.
Conoboy’s blog has kept a keen eye on other rental programs across the country.
He said the backlash from landlords against the program is far from unique, and they are likely exaggerating about the problems the program will cause.
“They have the same arguments every time from the real estate folks, the property owners, the rental industry, and none of the catastrophes happen,” Conoboy said.
He uses Pasco as an example of rental programs producing significant results: after initial inspections, about 10 percent of rentals failed to meet required standards.
Seattle’s rental inspection program found a similar percentage of below-standard rentals, he said.
While Conoboy is happy with the program as it stands, he has a few issues with the process.
He’s particularly disappointed that they will not be testing for methamphetamine contamination.
Bellingham has seen problems arise from meth contamination; in 2013, three Western students were forced to move out of their rental home when a private inspection found contamination well above the legal limit.
Conoboy is hopeful the rental inspection program will be effective.
“Once they start these inspections, there’s going to be a big surprise,” he said.