Raising Rent in Bellingham? You May have to Pay your Tenants to Move

On November 10, 2023, voters in Bellingham passed Initiative 2023-02 (“Initiative 2”) with 61.98% of tallied votes.  Initiative 2 requires landlords to cover relocation expenses for tenants if they raise rent by eight percent or more in a 12-month period.

While this is not the first time Bellingham has attempted to enforce renter protections (voters narrowly rejected a similar citizen initiative on the ballot in 2021), it is the first time Bellingham voters have elected to place the financial burden of moving on landlords in certain situations.  Opponents call Initiative 2 “rent control” and say it ignores the key reason for housing unaffordability, while those in favor view the measure as a “beacon of hope” for the future.  Landlords with properties in Bellingham should be familiar with these new laws.  Below is a general summary of the initiative.

What is Initiative 2?

Initiative 2 set to become a Bellingham City Ordinance in early January, requires landlords to provide tenants with notice of the following 120 days prior to the rental increase effective date (or the time period in the rental agreement, whichever is longer):

  • The amount of the increase;
  • The total amount of new rent or housing costs;
  • The effective date;
  • A rationale for the increase;
  • The total amount of relocation assistance available under this ordinance to tenants; and
  • The rights of the tenants under the ordinance. These rights include:
    • A state of the right of the tenant to request economic displacement relocation assistance within 45 days of receipt of the increase notice;
    • A statement that the if the tenant receives timely relocation assistance as provided for under the Ordinance, the tenant shall have five months from the date of receipt of relocation assistance to relocate; and
    • A statement that at the conclusion of the relocation period, if the tenant remains in the dwelling unit, the tenant shall be obligated to pay the increased rent in accordance with the increase for the duration of the tenant’s occupancy and to repay the relocation assistance.

If the tenant requests relocation assistance within that 45-day window, then the landlord must pay relocation assistance to the tenant in an amount equivalent to the larger of:

  1. A sum equaling three times the current fair market rent for Bellingham as defined by HUD Office Policy Development and Research for an apartment of the same size; or
  2. Three times the tenant’s existing monthly rent.

This payment must be made by the landlord within 30 days of the date of receipt of the request for relocation assistance.

The landlord must also submit all notices requesting payment of relocation assistance to the City of Bellingham and “all payments of relocation assistance within 30 days of making the payments” (presumably, the language is intended to mean “receipt” or documentation of such payments, as the payment is made directly to the tenant).  Tenants then have five months to move.  If the tenant fails to move within that time, the tenant must pay the increased rent and return the rental relocation assistance to the landlord.  The initiative fails to identify enforcement mechanisms or fines against tenants who fail to return paid relocation assistance.

Are there any Exceptions?

There are limited exceptions to the relocation assistance requirement.  However, the ordinance does not apply to properties at which both landlord and tenant live, so long as the property has four or fewer dwelling units; to tenants that have lived in the dwelling unit for less than 6 months; and/or transitional housing.

How will Bellingham Enforce this New Law?

Initiative 2 states that failing to comply is a civil infraction and punishable by a fine.  Such fines range from $500.00 to $1,000.00, depending on the number of offenses.  Additionally, the landlord will be liable to the tenant for an amount equal to double the amount of relocation assistance, any actual damages, and attorney fees and costs, if applicable.  The City may also seek enforcement through injunctive relief, and the tenant shall have defenses to eviction due to the landlord’s noncompliance.

Looking to the Future:

Moving forward, landlords should carefully consider rent increases in Bellingham to ensure compliance with these new laws.  Please contact Colleen Penny or any of the firm’s landlord tenant attorneys if you have questions.

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