Rental inspections start next month

​​By Kate Galambos and Daniel Roth
For The Bellingham Business Journal

Rental inspectors are set to start visiting rental properties at the beginning of June, under the City of Bellingham’s new rental inspection program. The inspection fees were approved by the City Council last March.

The southernmost areas of Bellingham, such as the Fairhaven, Sehome, Happy Valley and Downtown neighborhoods, will be the first areas to be inspected.

“The whole idea behind the program is that rentals are a safe and healthy place to live and the only way to ensure that is happening is to actually go in and do an inspection,” said Emma Burnfield, the City of Bellingham rental registration specialist.

Inspection of each unit costs $100, due to the city after the inspection occurs. The city will have between four and six inspectors at any given time, though no inspector will be devoted to the program full time, Burnfield said. 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 majority of the city’s rental properties were already registered as of last year’s Aug. 1 deadline. Inspections are scheduled by the city and property owners are informed of the date and time window at the start of each inspection quarter, which are likely to be three to four month periods. Property owners are required to inform tenants of an inspection at least 48 hours in advance, according to the 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; plumbing & sanitation; heat, water, and water facilities; ventilation systems; defective or hazardous electrical wiring and/or service; safe and functional exits; smoke & carbon monoxide detectors.”

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.” The city will not be inspecting for lead paint or asbestos, because “they are generally not life safety concerns.”

“I think it is important because this is how we are going to get the quality control and making sure people are meeting these basic life safety standards,” Burnfield said.

However, if an issue is found in one of the units, all units will be inspected. Follow-up inspections will be conducted to confirm that the problem is fixed. The first follow-up is free, but each inspection after is subject to a $50 fee. The city also notes there is “limited flexibility when it comes to re-scheduling” inspections, and will charge $25 for missed appointments.

If the issues are serious enough for the property to be deemed as uninhabitable then the city will look at moving tenants out, Burnfield said.

Some landlords are unhappy with the terms of the new program. Tim Seth, executive officer of the Washington Landlord Association, views the program as a “dark cloud” over the rental industry in Bellingham. Seth said that the program will favor large rental companies over small, private rental owners.

“It will promote people selling their affordable stuff out to developers that will modernize them and then raise the rents so they can pay for their additional construction costs,” Seth said. “It will be a hit on affordable housing. A student can’t rent a garage anymore, or an attic. All these affordable housing options will go out the window.”

Seth also said some landlords viewed the random inspections as an invasion of tenant’s privacy rights. Landlords would be more comfortable with the program if the city had probable cause to enter, rather than inspecting each rental property, regardless of if a complaint has been made. Landlords would be willing to reach a compromise with the city to make changes to the program, he said.

Regardless, the city stands by its decision to inspect all rental properties, whether they have problems or not.

Still, Burnfield recognizes that the program is still new, and could be altered as time goes on.

The program is still in its infancy could look a lot different after a few inspection cycles. There is room for growth and change, Burnfield said.

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