Seattle faces a major renting crisis: Communities of color and low-income families are getting pushed out of Seattle because of the high cost of housing. Seattle rent is the fastest growing in the country, with an average cost of over $2,000. And rent is only one obstacle renters face to accessing housing.
Most landlords require tenants to pay a security deposit, first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and nonrefundable fees before moving into a rental. Based on Seattle’s average rent, the upfront costs can be $6,000 to $8,000 or more. According to Washington CAN!’s recent report, Seattle's Renting Crisis: A Report and Policy Recommendations, 87 percent of survey respondents reported these high upfront costs were a barrier to accessing housing.
Housing instability and economic insecurity are real problems for low-income families in Seattle. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, almost half of people surveyed could not pay for a $400 emergency without selling something or borrowing money. These barriers to accessing housing coupled with economic insecurity are undoubtedly forcing families to leave our city or, in many instances, forcing them onto the streets.
The Seattle City Council is considering move-in fee reform legislation to address one of the upfront barriers to accessing housing. This legislation allows tenants to break up move-in costs into a payment plan informed by the length of the lease. For example, tenants on a one-year lease would have up to six months to pay down nonrefundable fees, security deposit, and last month’s rent.
This legislation is fair to both tenants and landlords. Landlords will still get first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and a security deposit. Tenants will simply have more time to pay the costs of moving, providing much needed flexibility to working-class people. Also, landlords will still be entitled to all the same rights and remedies should a tenant cause damage to a unit or break their lease.
Over the past several years, landlord power has gone unchecked in city hall. Until this year, Seattle had some of the weakest tenant protections in the country. Now, we are on the forefront of empowering renters. Landlord organizations are pushing back against tenant protections and arguing they have not been heard in regards to this legislation. This argument is extremely disingenuous.
From July to the end of September, the Rental Housing Association spent $13,692.72 and the Washington Multi-Family Housing Association spent $4,650 lobbying city council members on the move-in fee reform legislation. Collectively —in three months—they’ve spent more on lobbying the city council then the average Social Security recipient receives in a year. They’ve made their positions against the move-in fee reform legislation clear.
The reality is that renters—who make up more than half of our great city—cannot wait any longer for move-in fee reform. Upfront costs have a disproportionate impact on low-income families, communities of color, the LGBT community, seniors, people with disabilities, and those paying with alternative sources of income such as Social Security.
It is critical to pass this legislation today without exemptions in order to maximize the number of tenants it would help. If we want to reduce the number of people who are unsheltered and give tenants a chance to actually be able to move into a rental, we need to pass this legislation today. What makes Seattle great is the mix of diverse people that live here, work, and play here. Our city cannot wait any longer for action on the insurmountable upfront costs tenants face.
Mary Le Nguyen is the Executive Director of Washington Community Action Network, a statewide grassroots organization with over 20,000 members in the city of Seattle.