Right now, city leaders and tenant advocates are arguing over how to best address the lack of affordable housing in Seattle. Institute rent control? Sell city bonds to build affordable housing? Charge developers linkage fees? These are huge policy decisions that will likely require long, ugly fights over the next few months or years. Meanwhile, rent is still going up. Here are three small things the city could be doing to make life a little better for renters. Like, now.
Fix the just cause eviction rules.
Currently, tenants on month-to-month lease agreements are protected by the city's Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, which requires landlords to have one of 18 valid reasons to evict them. Tenants on fixed-term leases are similarly protected by the terms of their lease, which usually specify that they can't be evicted unless they do something like fail to pay rent. If a fixed-term lease ends without automatically rolling over to a month-to-month agreement, however, tenants are no longer protected by either the terms of their lease or the just cause rules, meaning a landlord can evict them for no reason. Jonathan Grant, the former director of the Tenants Union and a member of the mayor's Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory Committee, calls this a "backdoor way to discriminate against people."
One proposed fix is to make all leases automatically transition to month-to-month when they end, meaning that even after a lease term ends, a landlord would have to have one of the reasons listed in the just cause law to evict.
Close the tenant relocation assistance loophole.
If a landlord evicts a tenant in order to demolish or renovate a building, he or she is required to help with moving costs—$3,255, split between the city and the landlord—for anyone making less than half of the area's median income. But there's a sneaky way landlords can get around this: by first jacking up rents so high that tenants are forced to leave on their own. The landlord gets an empty building, and the tenant gets what is often called "economically evicted."
Because of the state's ban on rent control, the city can't place limits on rent increases, but it can deter landlords from making such a maneuver. A proposal by city council member Nick Licata, his legislative aide Lisa Herbold (who's running for city council), and Grant (who's also running for city council) would allow a tenant who suspects a large rent increase is an attempt to get him or her to move to notify the city's Department of Planning and Development. DPD would then determine whether the rent increase is "reasonable" and ask the landlord to sign a certificate promising he or she isn't raising rents in order to get tenants to move out. (Landlords really hate this part of the idea, by the way, saying allowing the city to determine reasonableness looks too much like rent control.)
Landlords who sign the pledge and then apply for permits to do significant rehab work could be fined $1,000 a day. Tenants may end up displaced anyway, but the threat of fines is meant to deter landlords from trying to get around the rule in the first place.
Make landlords give tenants more notice in "no-fault" evictions.
Landlords can legally evict tenants on month-to-month lease agreements for various reasons, including ones that have nothing to do with the tenants—for example, if the landlord or a relative of the landlord wants to move into the dwelling. In that case, a landlord can give a tenant just 20 days' notice. Lengthening that window to 60 or 90 days would give tenants more time to find alternative housing.
Former city council member Sally Clark was working on creating a 90-day notice requirement for these types of evictions before she left the council last month. Now that idea is stuck in limbo, waiting for someone to revive it. If someone does, the proposal could be strengthened even further: by adding the sale of the building—another, more common "no-fault" eviction—to those that get a longer heads-up.
Of the three aforementioned proposals, the first one—already in motion from Licata's office—is causing the most heartburn among landlord advocates, who say it's preempted by state law. Mayor Ed Murray says he's "there with [Licata] conceptually," but won't commit to actually supporting the idea. That leaves the decision with the city council—allow useful policy fixes to get bogged down in a drawn-out fight over big policies like rent control, or act now on behalf of renters.