Thursday, December 11, 2014

City Council Moving Rapidly on Rental Registration and Inspections

After a hearing on a draft registration-only rental ordinance and a work session on the same on 17 November, the City Council asked the city staff to prepare cost information and other data that would support an inspection component to a city ordinance on rental health and safety.  Then on 24 November, the council made and passed several motions to amend the draft "registration only" proposal that had been proposed by Roxanne Murphy and approved earlier for further consideration by the full council.  The first motion read "that all rental units subject to inspection be inspected once every three years provided that an exception be made for units that pass inspection or first re-inspection, whereby the inspection frequency shall be every five years."   Staff was instructed to return to the council with an amended draft ordinance on 15 December.  In addition, the council voted to eliminate the sunset provision (1 January 2019) in the draft before them and to add that "the rental unit associated with properties containing a detached accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or carriage house be required to be inspected as provided for in the ordinance."

These are sea changes in the approach the council had been taking with respect to rental registration and inspection.  Greatly boosting the chances for the passage of a registration and inspection ordinance was the announcement by Terry Bornemann that he would now support inspection of rental units. 

The only problematic portion of the ordinance is that regarding inspectors.  Washington state law allows landlords to choose a private inspector.  This stemmed from the Washington Supreme Courtdecision on the rental inspection ordinance (Chapter 5.78)  that Pasco, WA passed in the late 1990s. Our city attorney stated at the 14 November city council meeting that Bellingham may not be able to mandate that a landlord turn over to the city the private inspector's inspection report even though RCW 59.18.125 6.e states: "If a rental property owner chooses to hire a qualified inspector other than a municipal housing code enforcement officer, and a selected unit of the rental property fails the initial inspection, both the results of the initial inspection and any certificate of inspection must be provided to the local municipality."   The city attorney argues that language in the Pasco Supreme Court decision overrides that portion of the RCW.

While this is being resolved, the reliance on private inspectors raises the specter of the privatization or semi-privatization of what should be an inherently governmental function, that of health and safety of its citizens.  It is not yet clear if the City Council intends to emphasize private over municipal inspectors.  The council will hear more on the draft ordinance and receive a report from the Bellingham Planning Department at its 15 December meeting.

[Note:  This blog entry also appeared today on the site of NWCitizen.]


Anonymous said...

Retal control inspectors

Yes yes OF COURSE privately hired inspectors will do a better manipulative job in favoring rental interests in "tweaking" their reports a little
But I am baffled how such "loopholes" will, in any way, serve the public interest or support the basic integrity of the intented effort to control the mess that now exists under "no control" edicts

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Conoboy, I’ve read your blog for some time and have been quite torn about this issue. Why? I rent, and I value my privacy. If I have issues with my unit I deal with my landlord and if I had to, I’d go to the city using already existing laws. I check and inspect anyplace I might rent before renting. If it is in bad shape I leave. Per proposed city language and the RCW 59.180.150 I must allow an inspector to “enter my castle”. My landlord has stated that access to my unit by me is strictly between me and the inspector, and they will not interfere. Is this really necessary? If there is no reason for me to complain and I am happy with my situation why should I allow the city to violate my 4th amendment right? Via RCW 59.180.150 I can refuse entry, which will only force the city to obtain a warrant to “enter my castle.” This process is not cheap and further burdens an already busy court. Was/is this cost of generating warrants taken into account in the cost of the program? Also, I work and I cannot afford the time to simply be around waiting for an inspector to show up “between the hours of 10 and 2.” Lastly, my landlord has stated that they will pass the cost of this inspection program to me via a rent increase. I already have just enough to get by. Taking food out of my mouth is the last thing I need. While there may be a small minority of people with issues the majority of us are just fine. Like so many similar causes, a very vocal minority show up and bleat on about an issue that affects so few. These vocal few will affect so many of us that want no part of this. Curious to hear your comments. Signed, a tenant that wants to be left alone.

Zonemaven said...

These inspections are hardly an invasion of privacy. The actual inspection will take about 30-60 minutes once every three years at the maximum. The courts have ruled on this issue in Washington State. Inspectors will not be poking into your personal items.

I appreciate that you have the ability yourself to inspect a property before you move in or to determine if it remains safe while you are in it. Unfortunately, others are not sufficiently trained to spot health and safety problems. If you have been reading my blog you already know this.

Landlords have regularly been raising rents for decades but for no other reason than that they can, given the tight rental market. The annualized costs of these inspections will not be prohibitive if spread among all landlords. Don't forget, the landlord is not obliged to pass on the cost of inspections. Why not ask your landlord if he would be willing to absorb the cost for your benefit?

Oh, and your comment sounds just like so many I get from the landlords themselves. Could this be a coincidence? Thanks for writing.