Renters may see cost hikes with two Bremerton proposals

Two Bremerton City Council proposals to create new regulations for landlords are aimed at cleaning up dilapidated rental properties.

But landlords, some of whom are organizing against the proposed rule changes, say they may lead to increased rents for tenants.

One proposal is to require rental owners to purchase business licenses for each property — currently city law requires one license per owner. Council President Nick Wofford, who is proposing both measures, said this would put landlords on an equal level with business owners who need a $65 annual business license for each property.

"They're doing business in the city, so they should pay the same licensing as anybody else," Wofford said of the property owners.

The second measure would require a state-certified inspection of all rental properties once every three years at the owners' expense. Wofford said the rule would ensure that all residences in Bremerton are safe for tenants, specifically those in low-income areas. Compliance with inspections is required to keep a business license and those who don't have their properties inspected will be fined up to $5,000.

"Just because you're low-income doesn't mean you have to live in a slum," Wofford said.

Landlords say they have enough expenses without the additional cost of more licensing and mandated inspections.

Bert Gegner, vice president of the Puget Rental Owners Association and the owner of eight properties in the city, opposes the concept of treating landlords as businesses and he doesn't see how extra fees would translate into benefits for his tenants.

Since the city started requiring landlord licensing in 2002, the annual licensing fee has increased from $55 to $65.

"You just can't tax somebody without getting some perceived benefit from it," Gegner said, adding that the requirements could force him to raise rents. "I think that's pretty onerous and I think that's unnecessary. It could be a bad situation for both the tenant and the landlord."

After all, he said, several of his properties go to low-income residents with federal Section 8 housing vouchers, properties which must be inspected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The money from the 1,000 landlord licenses currently issued go to the city's general fund, Wofford said, but money made from the additional licenses that would be required would help pay for more visible improvements in the city. The first $300,000 additional dollars would go into the parks capital improvement fund to maintain the city's fountains, downtown flowers and parks. The rest of the money would go to sidewalk improvements.

Wofford said the city does not know exactly how many rental properties are in Bremerton, but he predicts that if the licensing proposal passes, the 1,000 licenses would jump to 7,000.

He acknowledged that the new rules, if approved, may cause owners to raise rents on tenants, but said that well-maintained and up-to-code properties would translate into ultimate savings on repairs and heating.

"It's the landlord's responsibility to provide a safe environment for tenants," he said.

Don Kellie, manager of Dendrite, LLC, which operates six properties from Illahee to Port Orchard, said because of increased costs he plans to gradually transfer garbage and water expenses to his tenants in the coming months. He doesn't manage properties in Bremerton, but said that if the city passes the proposed regulations, he is afraid they will spread to the county - and he can't afford it.

"If the landlords can't make their bills with all these licenses and all these fees that they have to pay, then they have to raise the rents to take care of their expenses," he said, adding that it is becoming harder for him to accommodate low-income residents. He also accepts Section 8 housing vouchers.

Jerry VanFossen, a Bremerton landlord, said he feels the city's proposals are making rental owners an arbitrary target, adding that they should not suffer any more scrutiny than homeowners.

"It's unfair and discriminatory to tenants and it's unfair and discriminatory to landlords," he said.

Mayor Patty Lent said Wofford's concerns about aging homes and neighborhoods could be addressed differently. She wants the measures to be put off until after a June 14 landlord symposium hosted by the city that will aim to encourage neighborhood improvements and discuss the benefits of code enforcement.

"It wouldn't be the direction I would like to go," Lent said.

City Councilman Roy Runyon said it makes sense to require each rental property to be licensed because it will help the city track the location of rentals. The requirement would also protect landlords, he said, because if they have one problem property, it would allow them to retain their licenses on all other properties.

Landlords, including VanFossen, don't see the proposals as protection, but as intrusion.

"Once the city starts playing games like that, they just basically do what they want," he said.

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