Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission Revisits Rental Licensing

On 19 January, the Mayor's Neighborhood Advisory Commission revisited the rental licensing and inspection issue when the topic was brought forward by the representative of the York Neighborhood, Kirsti Charlton, as an additional agenda item. The Mayor was present for the discussion. The council last brought up the issue on 17 March last year, recommending to the Mayor that “a rental housing licensing and inspection ordinance be drawn up for review and discussion in 2010 in a public process." This recommendation was approved by an overwhelming vote by neighborhood representatives that implies some support for the concept of rental licensing and inspection.

Kirsti introduced the topic by citing the recent fire on Grant St. that almost killed 4 WWU students. (Click here and here to read about the fire) She had a special relationship to the event as she lives in the home next to the now-burned out rental. Kirsti also had an excellent relationship with the tenants. Had the fire not been discovered at its onset, it is likely her home would have been caught in the conflagration.

Anne Mackie, the York Neighborhood Association President spoke about the fire and her relief that instead of having a candlelight vigil for 4 victims, we were having a discussion of licensing and inspection, which, in the future could prevent such fires. Surely a teachable moment without a major catastrophe. Anne called upon the commission members to write letters to the City Council to again call upon them to move on a licensing and inspection program.

The Zonemaven provided information to the representatives present regarding the statistics of inspections in some of those cities that had already introduced inspections of rental units. To wit: There is the definitive experience of cities that have already adopted rental licensing and inspections in the face of exactly the same opposition as we are seeing in Bellingham. Ultimately, each of these cities was proven correct in its resolve to move ahead to protect the safety and health of the renters. We already know that the city of Pasco, WA found that 15% of the units inspected under their program had serious life/safety issues. 10% had mold problems. A full 85% had problems of varying degrees. The city of Gresham, OR performed over 1600 inspections in 2009 and issued, as a result, over 4,000 citations. Lexington, KY performed inspections of units near the University of Kentucky and found that 50% had life/safety issues. Sacramento, CA began an inspection program during which one third of the units inspected had serious safety and health issues. The question for doubting council members is why do you believe that the condition of rental housing here in Bellingham does not mirror that which is found in cities that have the statistics to show that time and time again the condition of rentals in our cities is problematic?

Dave Hopkinson, a resident of the York Neighborhood and himself a rental property owner gave remarks about the rationale for inspections by saying that "we take for granted that when we make a reservation at a hotel, there will be fire alarms, fire extinguishers, as wells as little maps that say "Egress is Here" and "Don't use the elevators in case of fire", and a lighted sign on the corridor that says "Exit" and there will have been an inspection that will be dated on the little tags that are attached to the fire extinguishers. Secondly, that when we eat in a restaurant, it is not necessary to go into the kitchen and look for evidence of cleanliness and absence of vermin, etc. However, for every rental, nothing can be taken for granted, except the good will - or lack of it - on the part of the rental-owner. And even that may not be enough, given the technical difficulty of health and safety inspection (and our collective power of denial)."

The MNAC decided to take up a discussion of rental licensing and inspection at its next meeting. They asked for additional information about the concept. Many had not read, nor were they aware, of the reports and studies that had been prepared for the council on the issue in years past. Of special note in this regard is the study on rental licensing prepared for the council in October 2008. You can read this document by clicking here.

The Zonemaven has written about the dangers of uninspected rentals. Several years ago the Zonemaven wrote a piece on fires in house rentals (Click here to read the piece.) The blog entry ended with this:

Well, what is known about rentals of single family homes here in Bellingham?

Have landlords added or modified bedrooms? We do not know.
Do all bedrooms have fire exits? We do not know.
Do these rentals have smoke detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have carbon monoxide detectors? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate wiring? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate plumbing? We do not know.
Do these rentals have adequate heating? We do not know.
Do these rentals have mold or mildew problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have insect infestations? We do not know.
Do these rentals have gas leaks? We do not know.
Do these rentals have structural problems? We do not know.
Do these rentals have other safety or health issues? We do not know.
Is there overcrowding in these rentals? We do not know.
Are necessary repairs made by landlords? We do not know.
Is there price gouging by landlords? We do not know.

Is there a system of inspections of rental homes in Bellingham? We do know. None.
Are landlords of rental homes licensed by the city? We do know. None.

Will it take a death or serious injury to spur the city to action?

Do we want to know?


dan said...


I would like to thank you for coming to the last MNAC meeting expressing your desire for a rental licencing program within Bellingham.

When MNAC discussed the issue last year, we had a pretty heated discussion. Some neighborhoods were in strong support of the measure, but many were wary of voting to support such a program without seeing what this program would look like.

At the end of this discussion last year, a new motion was put forward, requesting that a "mock-up" of this program be put to paper...something tangible that MNAC could discuss further.

Over the past year we have not been presented with such a mock-up, describing the nuts & bolts of such a program but have been repeatedly pointed to studies of other municipalities.

These studies have been extremely helpful and I would speculate that most MNAC representatives are in support of rental licencing. That said, many will not pledge their support until there is an example of how this type of program will be applied to Bellingham. Who will this program be applied to? How will these rentals be inspected? Will the program be financially self-sufficient, being paid for exclusively through licence fees?......ect.

Again, I speculate, most MNAC representatives are behind you in your support of rental licencing. We voted last year to support the 'concept'. To move the conversation forward, please take the time to pull together the facts and figures showing how rental licencing would be applied specifically to Bellingham.


Dan Welch
MNAC Representative, Birchwood Neighborhood

Zonemaven said...

The motion by last year's MNAC was more along the line of "that it should be discussed in a public forum." One can surmise that most of those 11 who voted for the measure, were sympathetic in some way to the idea of licensing and inspection.

The problem to date is that the council as a body has not come forward to say that they want a licensing program. All they have been doing is discussing it and nibbling about the edges while asking staff to give them more info. All well and good but there is a time the rubber must meet the road.

Some on the council want "licensing-lite" which will grant a landlord a license but let her do a self-inspection. This is no more that what we have now except that we will have a list of rental properties, too.

We are asking the neighborhoods and MNAC, among others, for a support of the concept of licensing and inspection. For me that means that our residents recognize that there is a problem. Some still think we have a just couple of bad landlords and that is it. Go after the bad ones and we are good to go. The problem is that there are bad ones and there are ignorant ones, i.e., those who do not even know they have a problem just as tenants don't know.

It is not up to me to provide a mock-up to the city but to convince them that the 17,000 rentals in this city are like those anywhere else and that there are severe problems within them. Some on the council refuse to believe this. They are in denial or have succumbed to the rhetoric of the "rental industry".

I can say that I want to see the following in the law:

1. An inspection program run by the city that is funded by the landlords as a group through licensing rentals as a business.
2. Inspections at least every 3 years as allowed by law.
3. Hefty fines for scofflaw landlords.
4. Exclusion of "landlords' who rent out a room in their own home.
5. Inclusion of ADUs, carriage houses,duplexes, triplexes and all apartment buildings unless they fall under an inspection regime by HUD or some other entity.
6. Language that would help landlords get insurance reductions for being certified by the city inspector.
7. Language that could help landlords deal with the inevitable bad renter. This is a two way street.
8. If any self-certification is considered, that it be proposed only for the several years between actual inspections.
9. Less frequent inspections for rentals that consistently score high in the inspection ratings.

Some are also opposed to licensing as they believe it is a backdoor attempt to enforce the codes against illegal rooming houses. I have stated in earlier blog posts that this should not be the case as one is a safety/health issue and the other is a zoning/density issue. Language to that effect in the ordinance can dispel any fears in that regard You can read further on this topic at:

I think if you read the papers that Linda Stewart will be providing you on the topic, some of this will be more clear. At a minimum you should read:
1.Mark Gardner’s study that does suggest some parameters.
2.Exec Summary of his study
3.Associated Students Resolution on Licensing - the students know that the rentals are bad.
4.Gardner memo on fiscal impact of licensing - this will answer questions on sustainability, etc. under various conditions.
5.WA State bill on rental licensing passed in 2010

If you do not receive all of these documents, let me know.

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Zonemaven said...

You are welcome.