City planning director talks rental registration

Rick Sepler, City of Bellingham Planning and Community Development director, is working out how to implement City Council's rental registration program. [Oliver Lazenby Photo | The BBJ]
Rick Sepler, City of Bellingham Planning and Community Development director, is working out how to implement City Council’s rental registration program. [Oliver Lazenby Photo | The BBJ]

Bellingham City Council approved a rental registration and inspection program in December 2014. Details about how the program will work will likely come before City Council at a Feb. 9 work session.

The council has discussed starting a rental registration program as a way to deal with rental properties that don’t meet basic health and safety requirements for more than ten years.

Rick Sepler, the city’s Planning and Community Development director, started working for the city last fall. It’s his job to figure out the details of the rental registration program. Sepler met with the Bellingham Business Journal to discuss how the program will work.

Q: What’s the next step in adopting the rental registration program?

The council has done first and second reading of an ordinance that would adopt rental registration and was unanimous and it’s likely a third reading will follow. However, council has indicated that it doesn’t want to take that final reading until we’re able to give, with a good confidence interval, the full cost.

Q: What’s your estimate for the program’s cost?

It comes down to about $10 per unit for registration, or about $25 per parcel if we decide to do it by parcel. Inspection, which will be done every third year, is going to be about $80 or $90 per unit. And not every unit will need to be inspected on larger properties. For those, we’ll take a sampling of random units. That’s fairly normal. These are all provisions that exist in other jurisdictions with rental registration programs and we’re just emulating them.

Q: What other jurisdictions have you studied that have rental registration programs?

We’ve looked far afield. We’ve been working with Tukwila because they use our future permitting software and we’re trying to learn from their experience on how best to maximize it and reduce cost. We’ve looked at Seattle, which has provided really good public information online, and spoke with both their IT and planning staff. We looked at Carbondale, a college town in Illinois. They had a fairly good handle on the inspection issue. Davis, California is another town we looked at. They tend to be college towns.

Jim Tinner, our building official, has spoken with folks in many jurisdictions to get an idea of roughly how many units would pass the first inspection, and how many issues they find during the inspections. We anticipate 10 to 15 percent of total units wouldn’t pass the first time based on those conversations with other jurisdictions.

Some might say that’s a tiny percentage for such a large program, but we have 14,000 units and 10 percent of that is 1,400 units that are substandard.

Q: How will registration work?

We are looking to see how we can use technology in the registration process. It might be possible for people to go online, see the available times and just select the time they want. We’ll build our schedule off that and try to make transportation to and from inspections a little more efficient for the inspector, to reduce the costs. Those costs are the things we need to have confidence in before council can do the final reading.

Q: Will the inspections be done by city employees?

We’re appraising the costs as if we hired an inspector because we think that might be the greatest economy. If we’re able to find a contractor who does it for less, we would use a contractor.

There is an option for landlords to use a private inspector but because the majority of our units are single units, it’s likely it will be most cost-effective to use the city.

Q: What are some examples of things that would prohibit a property from passing?

Someone living in a room with no means of egress other than the door. Windowless rooms. Rooms without ventilation.

Units would either pass the inspection, or pass with a correction sheet where passing would hinge on making a minor change. If it’s more serious than that, units wouldn’t pass and the inspector would come back to make sure the problem gets fixed.

The ones that don’t pass the first time will be because, quite frankly, folks shouldn’t be living in them.

Q: Do you think rental prices will rise, and has that happened in other jurisdictions you’ve studied?

Any cost, arguably, is passed on. What I can say is when you’re dealing with $10 to $30 per year for registration, and $80 to $90 once every three years for inspection, that might be a reasonable price to pay to insure that everyone in our community is living in a safe place. At least that’s what council feels, and council makes that call. It’s not my call. Council made the decision and I’m implementing the program.

Q: Council talked about having incentives for people who pass, or for some way to put more of the cost on people with units that don’t pass. Is that still a possibility?

We’re trying to work that out.

Q: When will registrations and inspections begin? 

We feel very confident we can get the registration component up and running by August 1. We’re hoping to have the website up in March. We’ll make contact with property owners and inform people about registration and how to do it by May 1. Then we’ll get registration online by July 1 and have it completed by Aug. 1. That is our goal. The earliest start date for inspections likely would be January next year.

We’re committed to doing the best job we can for the community and to implement the council direction in the least expensive manner. This is not a growth area for us.

Q: You became Bellingham’s Community Planning and Development Director last fall after 24 years in Port Townsend, Washington. Do you have any goals for your time in Bellingham?

My agenda is to fully implement what the council and the mayor and the people wish to do. I’m also interested in staff development. My hope is to take a good department and make it into a department of distinction on a nationwide level.

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