Bellingham, Washington Could Pass Unconstitutional Rental Inspections

The City of Bellingham, Wash. is considering a proposal to license and inspect rental homes. If it passes, Bellingham would be in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In towns and cities with rental inspections, landlords need to be licensed. Yet licenses require on-site inspections and if a tenant or proprietor refuses, these cities can get a so-called “administrative warrant” from a judge to barge in and conduct the inspection. With rental inspections, towns and cities don’t actually need probable cause to search someone’s home. Or as the Institute for Justice described in its recent primer, “Thanks to this rental inspection loophole, criminals actually have more constitutional rights than law-abiding renters.”

In Bellingham, 54% of homes are rentals, according to council member Jack Weiss. So that means out of Bellingham’s 34,000 housing units, there are around 17,000 rentals. Yet there are actually very few complaints about rental properties. Jeff Thomas, Bellingham’s planning director, told city officials that the city gets around 100 complaints a year, with “the vast majority of those complaints…directed at owner-occupied homes, not apartment buildings.” In other words, that’s less than 0.3% of all housing units in Bellingham.

No wonder one building code expert called rental inspections “a program in search of a problem.”
Furthermore, Cal Leenstra, a real estate agent, argued the costs for running rental inspections could become a huge burden: “That’s a pretty small number to set up a new bureaucracy for. … It’s a tenant tax. Most tenants don’t realize that goes to the rent.”

Fortunately, proposed ordinances failed to pass in 2004 and 2011. Bellingham city council members shouldn’t forget the rights protected in the Constitution this time around, either.

Meanwhile, IJ is currently suing Red Wing, Minn. for its warrantless rental inspections and successfully defended privacy and property rights in Park Forest, Ill. and Yuma, Ariz.

— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

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