Over the last few weeks, Council Members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata have drawn attention to a building in southeast Seattle where tenants were living with rats, roaches, and broken heat and still getting rent increases. The city has laws mandating certain standards for rental units and since this building came into the spotlight city inspectors have found more than 200 violations there. The building's owner, Carl Haglund, has promised to fix those problems.
But that's not enough to address this problem, according to Sawant and Licata. The two city council members have repeatedly said there should have been a way to stop those rent increases in the first place considering what disastrous shape the building was in.
Today, they announced legislation to try to prevent similar situations. They're proposing a bill to ban rent increases at buildings that are "unfit for human habitation."
"This really is a Carl Haglund law," Sawant said.
The bill would make it illegal for landlords to increase rent on any unit that suffers from any of the problems listed in this code defining what it means for somewhere to be "unfit for human habitation or other use." Those conditions include things like crumbling ceilings, broken or missing doors, broken heat, and insect or rodent infestations.
The draft of the legislation Sawant and Licata gave out today says that a tenant who gets a rent increase can give their landlord a list of any defects included in that code and the landlord must fix those before raising the rent. If the landlord disagrees, he or she can request a review from the city's planning department to determine whether the building really violates the code.
Licata and Sawant were joined at today's announcement by representatives from the Tenants Union and tenants from the building at 6511 Rainier Avenue South. Tenants called on Haglund to fix the problems with the building, uphold his promise not to raise rents until the fixes are completed, and to pay relocation assistance to help tenants move.
"People need a new location," said Sahro Farah, who lives in the building with her five children. "This location—[there is] no safety." (See a video of Farah's living conditions here.)
One big thing to know about this bill: Yes, it is a new renter protection, but it's also a chance to invite a lawsuit that could call the whole state rent control ban into question. If landlord interests file a lawsuit challenging this bill and lose, that could be a quicker route to lifting the ban on rent control than waiting on the state legislature.
Lawyer Knoll Lowney (the same attorney representing tenants in the Triad case that was in the news earlier today) was on hand at this morning's announcement to support the idea, calling it "legal and constitutional."
"This does not include any rent controls," Lowney said.
Nevertheless, expect a fight from landlord and developer interests as this is considered by the council and, if it passes, a potential lawsuit.
Sawant said today that the city's legal department reviewed the bill and "are saying substantively it's OK," but developer lobbyist Roger Valdez said he believes the law "probably" violates the state's ban on rent control.
If landlord and developer groups argue in favor of allowing landlords to raise rents even on buildings in terrible shape, Licata told me today, "They're going to make it easier to overturn the [rent control] ban in Washington or amend it" by showing how it is "abused."
"It opens a door they should be very reluctant to open," Licata added later. "They’ll be entering a battlefield that we have defined and anyone familiar with military tactics knows you want to choose the battlefield, not your opponent."
Licata said he met with Mayor Ed Murray about the bill today, but left without any firm answer one way or the other. When asked for comment, the mayor's office sent a statement from Murray saying he supports "the concept of helping to protect tenants from landlords who do not take care of their properties. The practice of raising rents on substandard units is particularly unacceptable and something we must address." But the statement stops short of fully embracing the idea, saying Murray has directed his staff to work with Sawant and Licata to "refine their proposed language to make sure it is administrable, achieves our mutual goals, and does not result in any unintended consequences."
Valdez argues, as he has done since Sawant started talking about this in relation to the Haglund building, that landlords have to be able to raise rents on decrepit buildings in order to pay for the necessary repairs. He believes this bill would be "micromanaging" the housing industry in a way that would perpetuate a "vicious circle" of buildings in disrepair.
"I don't have any problem with habitability... I believe government has a role to regulate basic standards," Valdez told me earlier this month. "But I also believe if you tie the hands of people to be able to meet that standard and then claim they’re evil, then that’s outrageous."
Sawant and Licata—along with Council Member Mike O'Brien, who wasn't at the announcement of the bill, but says he's generally supportive—don't buy it.
"Is there any honest person who thinks Carl Haglund is facing any lack of money?" Sawant said when I asked her today about Valdez's argument. "I fully expect spokespeople from the real estate lobby to portray slumlords like they are somehow barely hanging on to a decent standard of living. Our sympathies and our solidarity should be with the tenants who are at the receiving end of slumlords, not the slumlords. There is no ambiguity."
After problems at his Rainier Avenue South building surfaced, Haglund promised to give tenants there free rent in October and not raise rents until he'd made repairs.
Today, a representative from the Tenants Union said that the tenants had already paid their October rent and hadn't received a refund. Haglund said by e-mail that all 11 tenants at the building have paid October rent, which he'll apply toward November rent. If they move, he said they'll receive a refund.
In response to the left's newest proposal, Haglund deflected. The building in question passed a rental inspection in July. That a building in poor shape could pass inspection, Haglund said, is evidence that the city's rental inspection program is "broken."
"Lacata and sawant [sic] need to take responsibility for a program that is not just broke but has catastrophically failed at the outset," Haglund wrote. (He signed off his e-mail with: "give me a break.")
The city's Department of Planning and Development has told council members that only two units in the building were inspected previously. Because the process for forcing landlords to fix units in disrepair is complaint-based, DPD didn't mandate Haglund fix the building until the problems in the other apartments were recently reported by tenants.
Due to limited manpower at City Hall, this new law would be complaint-based too, Sawant said.
That, she said, "is why when I emphasize the need for tenants to be organized, it's not rhetoric. It's absolutely necessary."