At the Bellingham City Council meeting on May 24 council members discussed the possibility of adopting a rental licensing ordinance that could subject rental properties to health and safety inspections.
With rental units comprising more than half of all properties in the Sehome neighborhood, the issue on rental licensing is a contentious one.
Licensing proponents visit Sehome neighborhood
At the May 25 neighborhood association meeting, Sehome neighbors heard from David Hopkinson of the York neighborhood on the benefits rental licensing.
“Licensing of rental properties has been established in cities all over the country,” Hopkinson said. “And where it’s been established, the quality of rental units has greatly increased.”
Hopkinson presented a 30-minute presentation on the benefits of rental licensing. Some of these benefits included increasing quality of life for renters, keeping landlords accountable for their properties and protecting the value of houses across the city.
“Most cities are complaint driven,” Hopkinson said. “This means nothing changes until someone complains, and even then sometimes no changes are made. The [Center for Disease Control] determined complaint driven correction is insufficient.”
Hopkinson said that the short-term goal of rental licensing is to increase safety in rental units and the long-term goal is to stop slums from forming in areas where rental units are substandard.
Neighborhood association president Charles Dyer said the association would not take a stance until an ordinance was formally proposed to the city.
“Personally, I am for it,” Dyer said. “I think safety issues in Sehome are worse than say in the Roosevelt neighborhood where the rentals are long term. There a renter can say, ‘hey fix this or I’m moving out,’ and the landlord will fix it right away. But in Sehome the landlord can always find a new tenant and often they don’t fix the problem before the new tenant moves in.”
Landlords fear costs of licensing
Landlord Jane Byrd (name changed for this story) said she and her husband own nearly 50 units in Bellingham, 37 of these are in the Sehome neighborhood.
Byrd said her biggest concern about the licensing issue is the city enforcing the three unrelated persons rule. The three unrelated persons ordinance is a standing Bellingham law that states that no more than three unrelated people can live in a unit together.
“The city council is trying to push this licensing issue as a health and safety issue, but I agree with the mayor who said this is a pet project of those who are focused on the three unrelated persons rule,” Byrd said. “Of our 49 units, half are one, two, and three bedroom units and the other half are four, five and six bedroom units. So of course we’re going to rent to more than three people.”
Byrd said she’s concerned that landlords are not getting involved in the public discussion of rental licensing because they’re afraid of being targeted for renting to more than unrelated people.
“They’ve also proposed a three strikes rule. So noise, garbage, what have you—they can take away your license and force you to keep the property vacant for up to six months,” Byrd said. “In these economic times we can’t afford to keep our properties vacant.”
Byrd said she is also concerned that inspections will force her and her husband to spend thousands of dollars to remodel some of the older properties. She said she’d like to know what kinds of standards are being proposed for said inspections.
“No one wants their tenants at risk and no one wants something bad to happen in their units,” Byrd said. “And I certainly agree with some of the health and safety regulations they’re proposing, but some of it is ludicrous, we already do that stuff.”
What do renters think about rental licensing?
Western Washington University junior Emily Markham rents a house in the Sehome neighborhood and said she’d like to know her rental unit has been inspected for safety concerns.
Markham said she understood why landlords might be concerned about having to be accountable for their property and concerns about the three unrelated persons rule.
“I feel like you could get around that three people thing,” Markham said. “That law is just unrealistic for this town and it’s unfair to landlords.”
Just up the street from Markham, Emily Schmuhl is also a junior at Western.
Schmuhl who lives in a house with five other girls said she’d never heard of the rental licensing proposal or the three unrelated persons ordinance.
“That rule is crazy,” Schmuhl said. “Of course we want rental places to be safe, but ours is great.”