Thousands of local landlords do not believe the Seattle City Council should be attempting to make housing more affordable.
That’s one insight from a new survey released from the University of Washington and the Seattle Office of City Auditor. The online survey asked 4,236 property owners and managers about their practices, Seattle’s landlord/tenant laws, and their feelings about the city council. In a surprise to no one, they are pissed. And, despite landlord lobbyists' insistence that landlords are “really nice people” who are “just like us,” the landlords who participated in the survey showed little appetite for city council efforts to help renters.
The survey gave respondents a list of potential goals and asked them which of those goals the city council should have as it establishes housing policies. The goals included things that would favor tenants, like increasing the supply of rental units and providing affordable housing, and things that would favor landlords, like making it easier for them to terminate leases and “reducing risks to landlords associated with providing affordable housing units.”
The vast majority of landlord respondents (89 percent) chose none of the goals. Not one of the goals had support from more than 1 percent of respondents.
The UW researchers also conducted small focus groups with a total of 46 landlords, tenants, and tenant representatives. Landlords said they feel “shut out” of council deliberations about rental regulations and demonized by the council.
Since 2015, the city council has banned housing discrimination based on source of income and special move-in deals based on a renter's employer, barred rent increases at substandard housing units, required landlords to offer payment plans for move-in fees, required landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant (known as “first in time”), and barred landlords from refusing tenants because of most criminal records. Landlord groups have sued over the laws regarding criminal records, first qualified applicants, and move-in fees.
Some landlords said they already practiced some things the council wants—like offering payment plans for move-in costs—but don’t want to be forced to.
“For years, I have let people pay for their security deposit and last month’s rent over a period of four months," one landlord said. "Because I know. I was a renter... I am more than willing to do that, but I don’t want somebody telling me I have to do that."
Another questioned the idea that people who are increasingly unable to afford Seattle should be able to live in the city.
“At some point, the question gets down to, at the basic level, who has a right to live in the city?” a landlord in the focus group said. “If you don’t make the money, why do you have the right to live in the city? … People don’t have rights to a certain thing. You lived in Seattle, but you can’t afford [it] anymore. Is that a right you have? I don’t think so.”
And at least two placed the blame on an unnamed city council member who sure sounds like Kshama Sawant:
“We basically have been shut out of the discussion and we’ve been told, specifically by a certain councilwoman, that she doesn’t care,” one landlord said. “So we have, basically, taxation without representation.”
“Our not-so-favorite councilwoman has made it very clear that she isn’t elected by us, she gets all the red t-shirt [voters] going for rent control,” another said. “Do they not have any sense as to what is involved with rent control? And what will end up with the buildings? … There’s only so tight you can squeeze and I will tear down my triplex and do what the guy across the street did in the same size lot and build thirty-five pods."
Tenants and tenant advocates, meanwhile, described trouble finding housing, discrimination in the rental process, and gentrification.
“I've seen this shift in the way that the people that have lived in those communities for a long time are kind of slowly pushed out and they’re pushed out in these kinds of unique ways, like the rent continually goes up until you can’t afford them, ownership changes, they no longer want to lease to you,” said one tenant who uses a housing voucher. “They can start to remake the community and the neighborhood in their likeness. You know, which is little cafés go up, the pet stores go up, the little chic boutiques go up. And especially the rent goes up.”
The focus groups largely reiterate what advocates on both sides of the landlord/tenant divide have already been saying. But the larger survey represents the first broad assessment of landlords’ attitudes and practices since the council passed a slate of rental regulations.
Here are a few other takeaways from the survey:
• Unsurprisingly, landlords are not crazy about the city council’s recently passed ordinances. Most believe the first-in-time rule and move-in fee payment plans will be ineffective. About 60 percent claim the first-in-time law will limit their ability to rent to applicants “with few economic resources.” Landlords were slightly less negative about the effectiveness of the law requiring them to rent to people with criminal records. But 80 percent said that law places an “unreasonable burden” on landlords and 75 percent claimed it will endanger other residents in their building.
• Some landlords say they may stop renting in Seattle because of the city ordinances. About 40 percent responded in the survey that they have sold or plan to sell property due to the new rules.
• Most of the survey respondents owned or managed just one building and about a third owned or managed between two and five buildings. About a third of respondents said their rental property was their primary source of income while others reported it was supplementary or retirement income.
• Asked about the units they rent, landlords’ most common response focused on two-bedroom apartments. For those apartments, 60 percent rented between $1,500 and $2,500 a month. Three percent had rents below $1000.
• About 36 percent of landlords said they had raised rent in the past year, with rent increases most common among buildings with more than five units and by landlords managing large numbers of buildings. That data “suggests an impact on a sizable share of the individual tenants in the Seattle area,” the researchers wrote. Landlords also raised rent across zip codes, “suggesting a wide geographic reach of large rent increases.”
• Among landlords’ reasons for rent increases, higher property taxes and increased costs of repairs were the most common. Thirty percent of landlords cited the housing market and 22 percent blamed city ordinances.
Read the researchers’ full report and more detailed appendices here. The researchers will present the report to a city council committee meeting at 2 pm.