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Bellingham councilor wants to get tough with landlords

Martens proposes 'aggressive' penalties for failed rental inspections

Bellingham City Council member Kristina Michele Martens speaks at a student rally in March. Martens presented an ordinance to fellow council members on Oct. 30 that would establish strict penalties for landlords who fail rental inspections.
Bellingham City Council member Kristina Michele Martens speaks at a student rally in March. Martens presented an ordinance to fellow council members on Oct. 30 that would establish strict penalties for landlords who fail rental inspections. (Trenton Almgren-Davis/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Given the choice between carrot or stick, tenant advocacy groups and a Bellingham City Council member are picking up a legal club they hope will bring landlords into compliance with the city’s rules.

Council member Kristina Michele Martens and the group Tenants Revolt teamed up to draft an ordinance that would strip landlords of their city-issued rental registration certificate if they fail an inspection, and would require them to relocate tenants at their own expense.

Tenants of 1210 Ellis St., managed by Lakeway Realty, called on council members on Monday, Oct. 30, to adopt the ordinance.

“We talk a lot about incentives, and carrot vs. stick,” 1210 Ellis resident Aidan Hersh said. “There’s a huge double standard between how we treat businesses and how we treat individuals.”

“There has to be actual legislation that has teeth,” Hersh added.

Martens’ ordinance, which city officials said will require a legal review, will come back before the council, likely in late November or December.

Earlier in the Oct. 30 meeting, the council passed new rules for its eight-year-old rental registration program, increasing the fines for late inspections and creating a more definite trigger for code enforcement.

City leaders acknowledged this was more carrot than stick.

“We’ve identified a significant flaw, which is that basically there was no incentives built in there for landlords quickly to come into compliance,” council member Michael Lilliquist said. “And so now the incentive structure has been built into it” with the increased penalties.

The rental house at 1210 Ellis St., in the York neighborhood, has been out of compliance with city guidelines since mid-2022, Tenants Revolt founder Rebecca Quirke said. The property failed four inspections last year, Martens said, and still got its rental registration certificate for 2023.

This troubled rental property helped motivate Tenants Revolt to work with Martens on the proposed ordinance. 

“We needed something really aggressive and really strong because it’s so far out of line, as it stands today,” Quirke said.

In an email, Lakeway Realty said it was “trying diligently to change our reputation” and has replaced its property manager and some office staff.

“Unfortunately, historically service/work order requests have been ‘skipped over,’” Lakeway Realty wrote. “We are trying to change this.”

The company added that it has made progress on bringing 1210 Ellis St. into compliance.

“Yes, we still have work to do,” it said.

Significant fines are already written into city code for rental violations, starting at $200 per day for each violation. But they are rarely if ever enforced, city Planning Director Blake Lyon told Cascadia Daily News in June.

City officials are especially reluctant to revoke a rental registration certificate because that would displace tenants, Lyon told the city council on Oct. 30.

The ordinance Martens presented to her fellow council members that day resolves that problem by making landlords pay their tenants’ move-in expenses if they lose their certificate. It also says that managing a property that is “not fit for human habitation” is “an act of criminal negligence” that carries a $10,000 fine.

At first glance, a city attorney balked at Martens’ proposal.

“It raises a whole host of issues at a variety of levels — state, federal, local,” attorney Alan Marriner said at the Oct. 30 meeting, without elaborating.

Lakeway Realty said it was still reviewing the proposed ordinance and could not comment on it.

“I can say in my opinion as a person that yes, homes should pass inspection,” the company’s email said.

Martens said she heard the legal team’s concerns but hoped the city staff and the council can find a way to stand up for renters — something the rental registration program has failed to do, in her view.

“We are eight years behind the ball, as far as I can tell, even with having this rental registration (program) in effect,” Martens said. “It has done really nothing to make sure that 54 percent of our community, who have to be renters, are actually protected.”

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