Photo illustration by Joe Rudko/The AS Review

Matt Crowley/The AS Review

On Monday, May 17, homeowners, landlords, real estate associates and renters discussed the possible viability of a rental housing licensing and inspection program in Bellingham, a divisive issue that could have a significant impact on both landlords and student renters.

The event was hosted by Western’s Viking Community Builders, an AS club that seeks to bring “awareness to issues affecting Western students” and support dialogue between students and community members, according to the AS club website. While there was plenty of dialogue, it was clear that any sort of program in Bellingham would be met with resistance.

The discussion consisted of short 10-minute arguments from each of the six panelists, three in support and three against, followed by a Q and A. Mark Gardner, legislative policy analyst for the City of Bellingham, provided some background on the issue before the floor was given to the panelists.

Rental housing inspection programs are essentially alternatives to the complaint-based landlord/tenant system already in place in much of Washington, including Bellingham. Here, where approximately half of all homes are rentals, renters are responsible for reporting any safety or health concerns regarding the property to their landlord. The problem is, most renters are too apathetic or do not know enough about building codes to be able to point out any violations, which leads to substandard housing conditions and safety issues.

“You’re only there for so long,” said Nick Johnson, a Western student and editor-in-chief of the Western Front. Johnson was among the three panelists in favor of a local inspection program.

“You don’t really have any reason to care. You move on,” he said.

Johnson argued that years of renter apathy inevitably lead to substandard living conditions in the future. Renters should not have to deal with safety and health hazards they are not responsible for, Johnson said.

Unreported problems can be headaches for landlords, who end up footing the bill for any violations. Under a new program, mandatory inspections would be carried out every three years to help identify problems before they worsen. Supporters of these programs argue that inspections improve the quality of living as well as protect property values.
Over 100 cities in the U.S. have enacted rental inspection programs, including St. Louis, San Diego and Boston. While no national studies on the effects of these programs have been conducted, regional studies have found an overall improvement in quality of rental properties.

The issue was not seriously addressed in Bellingham until recently, beginning with a research project in 2008. Since then, no potential Bellingham program has been developed despite the passage of State Senate Bill 6459 earlier this year. SB 6459, which was supported by most major landlord organizations in the state, says inspections are allowed a maximum of once every three years.

But inspection programs were only half the story at the panel on Monday. A rental licensing program would require landlords to provide certificates of inspection for their properties regardless of a local inspection program, as well as pay an annual per-unit fee. Most affected here are landlords, who will not only have to deal with annual fees, but the costs of repairs and upgrades stemming from any problems found during inspections.

“Ma and Pa renters will be gone,” said Doug Robertson, a local landlord and attorney. Robertson argued that the financial pressure placed on the owner by a licensing program would be passed down to the renter, resulting in higher prices. Fellow landlord Mel Davidson agreed.

“It will decrease the availability of low-cost housing,” Davidson said. “Make no mistake, that’s what this thing is really all about.”

There lies the major conflict in this issue. While rental inspection programs would help limit the number of properties with health and safety problems, the costs might be too much for some landlords to bear.

According to Robertson, “procedures to fix this already exist” and they do not require the time and money that a rental licensing program would.

Vice President for Governmental Affairs Morgan Holmgren said the AS board of directors is considering a resolution that supports specific elements of a rental licensing ordinance. Holmgren expects it to be considered in either late spring or next fall.

“It’s hard necessarily to say, to know, how a licensing program would affect students, because we haven’t had one in Bellingham and there isn’t a concrete proposal on the table,” Holmgren said. “So we aren’t sure what the final licensing system might look like.

“What we would hopefully see with a licensing ordinance is fewer landlords counting on the fact that student tenants don’t know their rights, don’t know the building codes and don’t follow the codes because they don’t need to,” Holmgren said.

Holmgren added that, despite the fact that most students “probably don’t know what’s being discussed,” it’s important to try to educate them on an issue that is likely to affect them in the near future.