Landlords in Bellingham will see their registration fees double, as part of a revamp of an 8-year-old rental inspection program meant to ensure safe living conditions for tenants.
Bellingham City Council voted 7–0 Monday, Oct. 30 to change the annual registration fees, while also increasing penalties for missed or failed inspections.
The current fee schedule gives landlords a free pass for the first failed inspection but charges them $50 for all subsequent re-inspections. That will change to $100 for the first failed inspection, $200 for the second and $500 for the third. The fees for missed appointments will also increase incrementally under the new system.
Council must still approve the new fees with a final vote, expected at a meeting sometime in November. The new fees would then take effect 15 days after that, which means that property managers who pay for their 2024 registrations early enough can still come in under the old annual rate: $10 per unit for 20 units or less, and $8 per for buildings with more than 20 apartments.
After the changes take effect, owners of 20 units or less will pay $20 per unit, with larger buildings costing $16 per unit in annual registration fees.
Before Monday evening’s vote, council member Michael Lilliquist said city officials have learned some lessons about the rental inspection program since launching it in 2015.
“We’ve identified a significant flaw, which is that basically there was no incentives built in there for landlords quickly to come into compliance,” he said. “And so now the incentive structure has been built into it” with the escalating penalties.
In an interview, city Planning Director Blake Lyon emphasized that the higher fees are not intended to make money for the city, but rather to encourage the compliance Lilliquist referred to.
But the added revenue will be useful, too. The planning department is asking the council to approve two new positions in the rental inspection program, including a dedicated inspector who can fast-track re-inspections.
Currently, inspections are divvied up among five building inspectors, who devote about 20% of their time to assessing rental units. Their primary job is to review new construction in the city.
“We wanted somebody specifically dedicated to this issue,” Lyon said. “For those who fail inspection, let the dedicated rental inspector [see those cases through].”
While council members unanimously supported the increased fees, several emphasized that more change was needed in the rental inspection program. They spoke of instituting audits of rental inspections, to make sure they were being conducted correctly.
In a Monday afternoon committee meeting, council member Dan Hammill noted that inspections by outside firms, hired by the landlords, had a much lower failure rate than those conducted by city employees.
“I think that we are failing our tenants when it comes to allowing for private inspectors to be hired,” Hammill said. “It’s egregious to have the low failure rate for the private inspectors, compared to our city inspectors.”
Census figures from 2022 indicate 55% of Bellingham homes are rented.