Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Landlord Licensing – It Is Time

Another one of the six items (proposed by Jack Weiss) related to home rentals in our fair city is licensing of landlords. To that I would add, licensing of rental units, i.e., single family homes. This idea has been percolating for years, as issues have a tendency to do in these parts. The last iteration was a goat rope* at the Cruise Terminal in November of 2004 which was overrun by the landlords whose sole concern seemed to be not creating another layer of bureaucracy for the city – how thoughtful. Here is Council President John Watts’ closing statement retrieved from the council’s public record of the work session.


Now, here’s what we plan to do:

1. Gather all comments, review them and post them on the City’s website. This also includes the Police Dept statistics by neighborhood.

2. Set up a follow up meeting early next year, say January or February, to summarize our conclusions from this meeting, present our recommended action plan and get additional feed back from this group. If that feedback is positive, we will proceed accordingly. If additional substantial changes seem necessary, we’ll reiterate this process and set up other meetings until we arrive at an action plan we can all agree upon that has a high likelihood of success.

3. Develop and adopt an action plan, likely to contain a number of the elements and methods that have been identified here tonight. Distribute this plan and enlist the help needed from those involved to implement it.

4. Set up an Advisory Committee representative of this group to become an integral part of implementing any action plan agreed to. This Advisory Committee would monitor the program’s performance; be available as a resource in its application; coordinate with the Police Department, WWU, NW Rental Association and others as required; and periodically provide feedback to the City Council.

5. Evaluate the program and determine its success, or whether modifications are necessary after a trial period of one-year.

We sincerely hope this process will work to correct the persistent, annoying problems that are being experienced, but it will likely require active involvement from all stakeholders to achieve this success. The last thing we want to do is come back later with another version of an onerous ordinance to address problems that can be more effectively handled otherwise.

There being no further business, the meeting adjourned at 9:32 PM.
John Watts, Council President”

I searched through the council meeting records for the first quarter of CY 2005 and found no effort to “Set up a follow up meeting early next year, say January or February,..” as Mr. Watts promised. There was one plaintive comment from a citizen during the 28 February meeting comment session:

Robin Rootenberg, 808 Maple Street addressed landlord accountability and ideas that came from her break-out group at the landlord accountability forum last November. Some ideas were:

· A landlord registration database with contact information for property owners.
· The colleges and University hold student tenants accountable for their behavior possibly withholding grades or even degrees, as do some private schools on the East coast.
· The group agreed about the need for enforcement of nuisance laws but recognizes the lack of personnel and funding.
· A solution that holds everyone accountable, possibly a $10 annual property tax on every residential unit.
· A program of incentives, where landlords pay a fee and then receive a rebate on problem-free properties.

She said the future depends on tourism and new residents, and the City can hardly afford to leave the quality of life to a lack of funding. Without enforcement, the City is putting a pretty cheap price on the quality of life in Bellingham and it sends a strong message to the people who live here. She concluded that thousands of cities nationwide require landlords to have a business license. They hold landlords responsible for the quality of property they maintain. She hopes the Council will find a way to fund enforcement so that everyone is accountable and good behavior is rewarded.”

From all appearances, nothing was done in spite of John Watts’ insistence that the council heard “something” that night. The council must have just heard the landlords as I checked council minutes for the two months after Ms. Rootenberg spoke but her plea had to have fallen on deaf ears. The issue seemed to have died, no doubt to the immense relief of the landlords. What will keep the issue alive this time, if at all?

So I am addressing this to those who were council members at the time -Gene Knutson, Barbara Ryan, Terry Bornemann and Louise Bjornson – and to those who are new to the council – Stan Snapp, Jack Weiss and Barry Buchanan. If our citizens are wary of this, the latest approach to the issue of landlord licensing, it is because of painful experience.

I urge you to take on this issue with some sense of purpose. Landlord licensing should include at a minimum:

- An annual fee to license each rental. Fees will pay for program and code enforcement.

- Safety and health inspections of rental units – to include occupancy.

- System of fines for non-compliance.

Minneapolis has had such a program since 1991 with this stated purpose:

The intent of the rental license ordinance is to:

- Promote the health, safety, and welfare of the general public.

- Assure preservation of the existing housing supply.

- Help maintain property values.

- Work toward eliminating substandard and deteriorating rental housing.

- Maintain a living environment that contributes to healthful individual and family living.

We should do the same for the citizens of Bellingham.

* A metaphor for a pointless and unproductive activity

For other of my blog entries on this topic click on the subject line:

We Do Not Know But Do We Want to Know

Interesting Discovery at Western

Landlord or Rental Owner - Game Is the Same

Vignette without Comment

Minneapolis Does It

Following Message from WWU Student


Anonymous said...

Hi Dick,

I was also encouraged by Jack Weiss's proposal to look at landlord licensing.Most buisnesses are licensed and regulated.
Rental property owners are selling a product(housing)to consumers.There is a need for regulatory managment of this product for consumer protection.Overcrowding,
unsafe electrical wiring, inadequate plumbing and heating are all too common in much of the rental property in our single family neighborhoods.Poorly maintained properties are affecting surrounding property values and infringe on the rights of others.
Failure to provide tenant parking has resulted in overcrowding on our city streets. Uncontrolled nuisance behaviors in many of these rental properties has had a negative impact on the quality of life for those living in neighboring homes.
Many of these rental property owners are absentee landlords not residing in Bellingham. Many own multiple properties and are making large incomes off a lucrative and unregulated, unlicensed, buisness venture at the expense of the tenant (consumer), the neighborhoods and the city of Bellingham.
I hope to see more public interest and involvment in this very important issue in the coming months. I appreciate you putting this in your blog for public review. I applaud the city council for paying attention to the need for landlord licensing.We need to help them make this happen with our letters of support and encouragement.

Terry said...

Re: "Help maintain property values."

Guess I have a very unpopular question here, but as a low-income renter with no hope of buying a home, I gotta ask:

Should government be in the self-serving business of taking sides? (Pro0pping up property values produces more tax revenue, which is a great self-serving loop if you can get it.)

Many people NEED affordable housing, few really NEED help maintaing property values. (Nobody is going to be tossed out on the street if their property values are not maintained to their satisfaction, but many people will be homeless if they don't have affordable housing.

If government is going to maintain and promote (increasing) property values, can they at least dedicate some of the increased revenue to affordable housing programs?