One of council president Tim Burgess' main opponents, Jon Grant, has been calling for a slate of renter protections. Now, Burgess is pushing for them too.
One of council president Tim Burgess's main opponents, Jon Grant, has been calling for a slate of renter protections. Now Burgess is pushing for them, too. City of Seattle

Tim Burgess looks scared.

In his fight for reelection to a citywide city council seat, Burgess is out-fundraising his competition but he's also getting constantly called out—most vocally by one of his opponents, former Tenants Union director Jon Grant—for not being progressive enough. Grant criticizes Burgess as in the pocket of developers and downtown interests and casts himself as an alternative who's spent years fighting on behalf of Seattle renters.

Now, Burgess is on the defensive.

Today, he announced he's introducing two renter protections that mirror what Grant himself has been calling for and had been working with Sally Clark to get passed. (Clark left the council in April to take a new job at the University of Washington, leaving the proposals in limbo.)

Specifically, Burgess's proposals would:

• Require building owners to give renters 90 days of notice for so-called "no fault" evictions, including when the owner or a family member wants to move into the dwelling or when the owner wants to sell the building. Currently, an owner move-in requires just 20 days of notice and a sale requires 60.

• Require owners of some apartment buildings to give the city and the Seattle Housing Authority advance notice when they plan to sell the building. This would only apply to buildings with five or more units in which at least one unit is "affordable." (With "affordable" defined as rented to households with income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. That's $46,100 for one person or $65,800 for a family of four, and whether that's actually a good measure of "affordable" is an argument for another time. But for now, consider: $46,100, which is 80 percent of median income for one person, is almost $15,000 a year more than you'd pull down at a full-time, $15 an hour minimum wage job.) Owners would have to notify the city 15 days before advertising the building for sale. The point of all this is to give the city the first chance to buy a building that's being used as affordable housing before it's sold and turned into expensive condos or something. But, there is no requirement in this proposal for the owner to actually sell to the city, just to notify them.

“The growing lack of affordable housing poses a direct challenge to our vision of an equitable city,” Burgess said in a statement today. “There is no one solution, but the city should play an active role in preserving and promoting affordability. These proposals are the first of many concrete steps we must take.”

These are all good ideas. I wrote earlier this month about giving more notice for no-fault evictions as one of the things Seattle could do to help renters right now, but at the time no one in council offices could tell me whether any council members would pick up the issue from Clark.

But this new initiative is also clear election year pandering from Burgess, who this week failed to secure endorsements from four different legislative district Democrat groups, including the 43rd Legislative District Democrats, where Mayor Ed Murray spoke on his behalf. (At that group's meeting last night, both Grant and rocker John Roderick got more votes than Burgess in the first round of voting, but neither could secure the 60 percent needed to get endorsed, resulting in no endorsement in that race.) Elsewhere, the 46th Legislative District Democrats endorsed Grant, the 32nd dual endorsed Grant and Roderick, and the 37th couldn't reach a consensus on the race. Burgess did pick up the Chamber of Commerce's endorsement this week.

For what it's worth, while they're one of our first bellwethers in these races, district party endorsements are a very, very small sample size of voters. And in the fundraising game, Grant is getting crushed by Burgess and Roderick. Still, Grant says "it is obvious" the tenant protection proposals are a direct response to those endorsements.

"This is clearly becoming a race between Tim Burgess and my values to advance a robust affordable housing agenda," Grant says in a text message. (He couldn't immediately speak by phone because he's in a meeting of the mayor's housing affordability committee.)

Grant also argues Burgess' efforts fall short of what he's been pushing for. Grant supports changing city law to prohibit landlords from evicting tenants because they're selling a building, rather than just requiring them to give more notice. Grant also wants that law requiring building owners to give the city a heads up on sales to be stronger, by requiring owners to give the city the first right of refusal—in other words, the first chance to actually buy buildings instead of just hear that they're about to be on the market.

"If Tim Burgess was serious about tackling the displacement epidemic facing our city," Grant says by e-mail, "I challenge him to restore these critical protections to fully protect tenants, rather than do the least possible."

Burgess' proposals will be introduced next week in the council's affordable housing committee, which was chaired by Clark and is now chaired by temporary council member John Okamoto. It's not an accident that Burgess, who's up for reelection, instead of Okamoto, who's not running, is introducing these proposals.

Meanwhile, council member Kshama Sawant is planning to propose another expanded tenant protection: changing the rules for notifying tenants about rent increases. Today, Seattle landlords have to give 60 days of notice for increases over 10 percent. She wants to increase that to 90 days for increases of 10 to 20 percent and a 180 days (that's six months!) for increases of 20 percent or more. When I asked Burgess last week what he thought about this idea, he said he hadn't yet heard about it but "will look at it closely if it's introduced." If you're trying to figure out how serious Burgess really is about helping renters, watch for his position on that.

While we're talking about moves that sure look like attempts to bolster his progressive image, there's also this: Burgess has announced he's starting "a conversation" on the city council about Washington state's regressive tax system—the most regressive in the country. Burgess invited local economist Dick Conway to a council committee meeting today to talk about the state's tax system and a potential income tax. (Download Conway's study about this here.)

The presentation was a clear reinforcement of what we already know about the way the state unfairly taxes the poor, but offered little in the way of hope for change or specific next steps for the city council. Olympia, mired in partisanship and a special session, isn't going to change this any time soon. And, as Ansel reported here, Burgess has contributed to blocking efforts at local progressive taxation in the past.