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.]