ON FRIDAY September 3, lawyers for the landlords at Eileen Court filed a motion to dismiss city charges that they illegally jacked up rent last spring, retaliating after tenants at the Capitol Hill apartment building contested untimely eviction notices.

Although Municipal Court Judge Jean Riutschel did not dismiss the case, the landlord's argument -- which will get a full hearing when the matter goes to trial on October 11 -- is a worrisome wake up call for tenants' rights activists. The landlords' argument is simple: State law trumps city law. And state law explicitly protects a landlord's right to regulate rent. In short, rent control is illegal. Finicky city regulations, the lawyers for Eileen Court argue, are nothing less than rent control.

The city has tried to protect tenants by passing pro-renter ordinances like Tenant Relocation Assistance, which regulates evictions and provides financial aid for low-income tenants, and the Just Cause Eviction provision, which dictates that landlords have to have legitimate reasons for forcing people out. (This isn't the case statewide.)

By calling the landlord at Eileen Court to task for violating the city's tenant protections, activists may have opened a Pandora's box of courtroom retaliation. Reyn Yates, the Eileen Court landlord, is striking back in a case that could fell the city's pro-renter efforts.

If the city can't make the charges stick, activists worry, landlords will have carte blanche to use rent as a weapon. They won't have to pay a red cent to help relocate low-income tenants, or heed any rule the city makes to protect renters in Seattle and Washington state.

If the case goes the landlord's way, says Tenants Union organizer Scott Winn, "it's going to give the tenants in the City of Seattle and the judicial system [the message that] retaliation doesn't matter, that landlords can retaliate in the City of Seattle and the judicial system doesn't care."

For Eileen Court landlord Reyn Yates, however, the case is simply about his rights as a property owner. The state, he says, protects his right to regulate rent, period. The basis for Yates' arguement is RCW section 35.21.830, which prohibits rent control. Meanwhile, Yates complains that city rules like the relocation ordinance gives special treatment to month-to-month tenants. The tenant, he complains, only has to give a month's notice to move, while the landlord must go through a four- to six-month process that could include partially subsidizing the tenant's move. In effect, he argues, the landlord is giving the tenant a four- to six-month de facto lease.

Yates feels persecuted for trying to run his business. "I'm not fighting any issue. The Tenants Union has chosen this case."

Tenants advocates, however, say there's a concerted effort by landlords to test city guidelines. "The bigger picture is that we see this happening with greater and greater frequency," says Lisa Herbold, former Tenants Union staffer and current aide to City Council Member Nick Licata.

Herbold is right. Just last week tenants at the Biltmore Apartments, also on Capitol Hill, held a press conference to protest "retaliatory" rent increases. And, according to data compiled by the Tenants Union, residents from Northeast Seattle to Eastlake have reported unexpected and dramatic rent hikes within the last year.

Last year, in fact, the Tenants Union responded to 10,000 calls from tenants with various concerns. Meanwhile, Department of Construction and Land Use (DCLU) spokesman Alan Justad says it's not unusual for the city to order landlords to rescind illegal eviction notices. DCLU directs about 80 landlords to step back annually.

While pro-renter activists are nervous about Yates' defense, Mike Finkle, a lawyer in the City Attorney's office, says the city wouldn't take the case if they felt they couldn't convict. He says the City Attorney's office rejected four similar cases in the last five years.

This is the first case filed under the ordinance since 1995.

For Eileen Court resident Lee Lumsden, the case is a big deal. Of the tenants Yates originally targeted for eviction, Lumsden, thanks to his Section 8 housing voucher, is the only one remaining. "This has dominated our lives since March," Lumsden says. Complaining that he's had to totally rearrange his life, he asks, "And for what? For asserting my rights."

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