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You are here: Home) Government) Council) Meeting Materials) October 27, 2010

RECORD OF PROCEEDING OF CITY COUNCIL

CITY OF BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON

Wednesday, October 27, 2010, 10:30 AM
Book: 64, Page: 1

Planning and Community Development Committee Meeting
Council Chambers



Called To Order The meeting was called to order by Committee Chair, Terry Bornemann

Roll Call
Present:
Excused:
PURPOSE
Information only

DISCUSSION
Opening Presentation and Q&A. Staff (MARK GARDNER) reviewed a range of program options. These options include one or more of the following elements: tenant education; anti-retaliation language added to the City code; stepped up enforcement of existing codes; licensing; and inspections. There were a few questions of staff to open the meeting, including what money is needed for start-up costs. Gardner noted that we know the cost elements but without some choices as to program design and intensity, the specifics have not been estimated. There will be costs for adapting City databases to handle licensing. Some existing systems may be used but the costs are not yet known. Discussion occurred on how to identify rentals. Gardner reported that there are some database methods of identifying many units but ultimately it is up to the owner. There could be penalties for non-compliance.

Committee discussion followed.

SETH FLEETWOOD. He is not sold on the idea of licensing yet. There are concerns that some units are uninhabitable and that tenants may be afraid. There is a remedy in law for this. Option #3 including strengthening the existing complaint-based system may make sense. There are nuisance issues as well as rundown building issues. It would be important to know the nature and extent of the problem. Right now we have anecdotes. Can we do education and tenants rights as well as strengthening the existing complaint-based system?

MICHAEL LILLIQUIST. There are three measures short of licensing: education, anti-retaliation measures, and strengthened enforcement. We need to identify the problem so we can then identify solutions that fit the problem. If greater enforcement is a solution, the question is how do we pay for this. Without licensing we don't know where the rental houses are, so we may not know where to direct those efforts.

SETH FLEETWOOD. Yes, resources are the question. What would it take to add an education component and an anti-retaliation component? What are existing capacities and what would be needed in terms of funding, staff etc.?

MICHAEL LILLIQUIST. Yes, we need resources. There are start-up and operational costs.

SETH FLEETWOOD. The question is whether a license is needed to get enough resources.

MICHAEL LILLIQUIST. We are in budget season. Licensing may be a resources solution. Let’s find a way to pay for it.

SETH FLEETWOOD. Agrees.

TERRY BORNEMANN. He has been in favor of licensing. Rentals are one of the few businesses not requiring a license. The economic times are influencing his current position. Budget and staff issues loom large. He has a hard time saying move forward now with a licensing and inspection program. Supports education, anti-retaliation, and strengthening enforcement. This was a bigger issue a few years ago. Staff has done a good job of reducing complaints.

JACK WEISS. Owns rentals and has run a property management company. It is a business and should be treated as such. A cat groomer has to buy a license. We need to treat everyone equally. His son was renting a house in the Lettered Streets that was not taken care of. There were huge gaps in the siding and cold air coming in. His partner has duplexes that have been taken good care of. The attic has mold that she didn’t know about. An inspection program would reveal such issues. There is sound reasoning behind licensing and inspection. This would create parity between rentals and other businesses, such as cat groomers.

TERRY BORNEMANN. What would start-up costs be? Do we need more information on running a program. Gardner noted that some initial estimates have been completed. This could be refined with the cooperation of other City departments.

MICHAEL LILLIQUIST. We can do more but it still comes down to resources. What about a business license for all rental businesses?

JACK WEISS. What are the thresholds for requiring a business license? Schedule E is a statement to the IRS and usually indicates a business.

SETH FLEETWOOD. Does Jack support licensing because of underlying problems with rentals or because of the issue of equity with other businesses?

JACK WEISS. The problems are not large but there are slumlords and some own quite a bit of property. They are the issue. Also, we ask restaurants to have a license. There is a cost for doing that. Most are good and a few are not so we need licensing and inspection. There needs to be a safety net for the public to ensure that people’s homes have hot water and basic necessities, and are safe from fires, and people won’t get sick because of the living conditions.

MICHAEL LILLIQUIST. Robust enforcement – what would it take?

SETH FLEETWOOD. There was some effort by the City 5-10 years ago to address “slumlords.”

TERRY BORNEMANN. The problem was in the Lettered Streets -- rundown buildings, garbage, etc.

JOAN HOISINGTON. A licensing ordinance was prepared. There was a big hearing at the marina. There were also properties near Whatcom Middle School where we took enforcement action for extreme nuisance properties. There is civil warrant authority but mostly the issue is complaint-driven. It is not proactive.

MICHAEL LILLIQUIST. What would a proactive program to enforce against outlier properties take, and cost?

SETH FLEETWOOD. We need to have standing. Gardner noted that the legislature has now granted civil warrant authority for inspections of blighted properties, with probable cause.

JOAN HOISINGTON. We have obtained search warrants with probable cause. Inspection and licensing is your proactive solution. The Police Department tries to get compliance. The City does try to educate landlords. We can get search warrants in some instances. There has a to be probable cause.

TERRY BORNEMANN. We do not receive numerous complaints on substandard housing. Licensing is a way of knowing who owns a property. Substandard housing is not a very frequent complaint. Gardner noted that there are some minimal data on complaints received by the Planning Department, and reviewed that data through early 2010.

SETH FLEETWOOD. What would we need to know regarding tenant rights, education, and anti-retaliation? Gardner noted that this research could be done and brought back to Council.

JOAN HOISINGTON. What would the content of education be? We need to avoid setting up expectations among tenants that the City cannot meet. We’re not going to be able to represent tenants.

TERRY BORNEMANN. The Opportunity Council used to have a program on tenant education, this may still be in existence.

MICHAEL LILLIQUIST. Proposed two elements for the committee to direct staff.

The Committee supported this request of staff.

General discussion of enforcement issues.

JIM TINNER. Auburn had a licensing program. It was effective on multifamily but not single family homes, which were too hard to track and license. It did solve some multifamily problems. One large problem complex was shut down and sold. Bellingham’s system is complaint-driven. The building code now has civil penalties. Fines start at $250, with every day a separate violation.

CHRISTINE BURKHART. We are complaint-driven. Code enforcement only gets a small segment of overall complaints. Mothers of students call. Often they want to know how to get out of a lease. Many issues are not lodged as a complaint. The actual problem is greater than the number of complaints. Education is key. An article in the Western Front noting standards and requirements and providing numbers to call would be a start. Buildings need windows that open, you shouldn’t get a shock when turning on the water, etc. People need to know they need to write a letter and start a complaint. The Campus Community Coalition at Western worked with her on one ad but there were no specifics on what the standards were. Only a few complaints resulted from that.

SETH FLEETWOOD I want to keep in mind the big picture I am struggling with. What threshold is there for how large a problem is before we are justified in having government take a more proactive approach in solving it?

TERRY BORNEMANN. The question is valid. We have had more complaints in the past. Are the problems great enough that we should pull resources away from other areas?

CHRISTINE BURKHART. It is hard to know the extent of the problem. We need proof for a warrant, and that often requires testimony from the tenant.

Gardner noted that there is now a database in planning that can track some issues occurring in rental properties. We could track the problem over time and check both trends and magnitude.

Return date – early next year (first quarter).

ADJOURNMENT
The meeting was adjourned at 11:47 AM.






Terry Bornemann, Chair
ATTEST: Mark Gardner, Policy Analyst
This is a digital copy of an original document located at Bellingham's City Hall. The City of Bellingham specifically disclaims any responsibility or liability for the contents of this document. The City of Bellingham does not verify the correctness, accuracy, or validity of the information appearing in this document.

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