The last legislative session was pretty dismal for tenants in Washington state.
As California, Oregon, and New York passed laws to stabilize skyrocketing rents and to stop landlords from kicking people out of their homes for no reason, similar bills didn’t even get out of committee in Olympia.
Some protections passed, but all were minor, and all were opposed by Republicans and some Democrats. There were some small fixes to last year’s modest eviction reforms, a law allowing people to pay some move-in costs in installments, a five-day grace period for late payment of rent, and a bill that gives more notice to renters being evicted due to construction or remodeling. That’s pretty much it.
Why do major tenant protections face such opposition in a state where 37% of the households rent? One reason might be that landlords and homeowners vastly outnumber renters in the legislature.
Last session, there were three renters in the House and three renters in the Senate. All of the other lawmakers were homeowners, and a little over 40% of the members in each chamber owned multiple pieces of property. Meanwhile, there were at least 15 commercial or residential landlords in the House, and at least 4 landlords in the Senate.
Does Representation Matter?
“I think it matters,” said Rep. Nicole Macri, who sponsors most of the big tenant bills in the House. “Although many lawmakers do try to represent their constituents, all lawmakers are influenced by their personal experiences. That has been my experience, at least, particularly in working on tenant protection policy.”
Macri said “several colleagues, mostly Republicans but also Democrats” discuss views on tenant's rights through specific experiences they’ve had as landlords. When they raise those personal concerns, she has to guide them through the ways the policy would apply to their situation, and then she has to show them how they still have more power and legal resources than their tenants every step of the way.
Macri didn’t mention him, but Rep. Zack Hudgins provides a good example of a lot of the issues and pressures at play here.
On his 2018 disclosure form, which is his most recent complete form (don’t even get me started), Hudgins lists three properties, but he doesn’t disclose whether he rents them out, nor does he say how much he charges in rent.
In an email, Hudgins and consultant Gabriel Quintana, his spouse, confirmed they rent out the three properties Hudgins lists in Seattle and Tukwila.
Their record as landlords is not spotless. According to the Seattle Department of Inspections and Construction, in the last three years Hudgins racked up four violations and five complaints, including a 2017 violation of Seattle's just cause ordinance for “failure to state a just cause reason to terminate tenancy.”
Hudgins said his violation of the eviction ordinance “was a mistake.” He added he was “thankful the city allowed us to come into compliance, and the tenants stayed in the home for a few more years.”
Over the next two years, though, he turned around and joined four other Democrats in voting against 2019’s modest eviction reform package.
Hudgins said he voted against the eviction reform bill because he "felt that the changes to the law would cause landlords to actually start more eviction procedures earlier." While he voted for a fix to that issue this year, he also could have just added that fix to the bill last year and voted for it.
Hudgins added that he has also voted for some minor tenant benefits, and for policies that would give developers tax breaks to build more affordable housing.
In an email, House Republican Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox and Rep. Andy Barkis joined Hudgins in reminding me that many lawmakers have been renters in the past, and so they bring that experience with them, too. Hudgins said he moved out of his last apartment on Beacon Hill in 2002. Rent was $500. Barkis last rented in the late 1980s.
Barkis, who owns a property management company with a portfolio of 1,100 single-family rental units, and who personally rents out three residential properties and a couple commercial properties, said he doesn’t think the massive under-representation of tenants in the legislature has much of an effect on the kinds of housing policies that pass through the statehouse. To support his point he mentioned Sen. Patty Kuderer, a home-owning prosecutor who sponsors the major tenant bills in the Senate.
He does, however, think that his perspective “as someone who knows the business” is very “valuable.” When asked if he thinks the perspective of struggling tenants would also be very valuable, he said, “Yes, but in anything there’s got to be a balance.” And here we are back at square one.
Do Landlords Hold Enormous Influence Over Housing Policy?
Tenant policy is bigger than one or two representatives’ efforts to water down or sink eviction reforms that have passed Democratically controlled legislatures in other states. Part of the problem is structural, and party leaders contribute to that problem by putting landlords in positions of power on housing committees.
In the House, tenant protections and housing bills usually run through two committees: Civil Rights & Judiciary and Housing. Landlords (Christine Kilduff and Cyndi Ryu, respectively) chaired both of those committees last session.
In Civil Rights & Judiciary, at least 4 out of 15 members were landlords, 13 were homeowners, and only 2—Republican Skyler Rude and Democrat Roger Goodman—rented.
Four of the 9 members on the Housing committee were landlords, and none rented, though Vice Chair Melanie Morgan used to be homeless.
The Senate runs its tenant protections and housing bills through the Housing Stability & Affordability Committee. That seven-member committee includes six homeowners, two of whom are landlords (Sen. Warnick and ranking member Sen. Zeiger), and one renter, Sen. Das.
Rep. Macri said tenant protections are “a lot harder” to get through the House than through the Senate. These committee assignments provide a good clue as to why that might be the case. Members of these committees can add or threaten to add several amendments to any bill, which slows down the process and endangers other legislative priorities for the majority party.
To take one example, Macri said Rep. Jeremie Dufault, a landlord and assistant ranking minority member on the Civil Rights & Judiciary committee, hung "like 16 amendments" on the just cause bill in committee, and then led the charge to add 43 amendments to the bill on the House floor. "I’ll say that I worked a lot with the landlords association on negotiating the just cause bill, but it really was the Republican amendments that killed it," Macri said. "Oftentimes key stakeholder groups will inform Republican strategy for putting amendments on bills, but the 43 amendments here were not done in coordination with other lobbyists. It was Dufault."
Aside from party power stuff, the overall structure of the statehouse itself doesn't do renters any favors. While trying to spin me on his tenant policy credentials, Rep. Hudgins argued that the part-time nature of the legislature makes it nearly impossible for many renters—especially low-income renters—to hold office. That’s because doing so would require them to be away from their day jobs for two to four months every year. Right now, lawyers, doctors, farmers, and comfortably retired corporate stooges are really the only kinds of people who can do that. Switching to a full-time legislature could lead to a more representative body, but that would mean paying our representatives more.
On top of that major problem, Rep. Macri said that Washington lawmakers are emotionally and culturally attached to the idea that a landlord's ownership of a piece of property outweighs any humanistic need for housing. “It’s this ethos of, ‘I own it, it’s mine, I should get the say on what happens with it, and I shouldn’t have any restrictions on that,’” she said.
Macri said she tries to compare rental housing to health insurance as a way to help other lawmakers see her view of housing as a public good, but that didn’t get the major bills over the finish line last year.
Though her success on tenant protections has been mixed, thanks in large part to all the structural disadvantages working against her, Macri said she does “feel a shifting” in the legislature.
“It’s difficult to predict what lessons we’ll take from this horrific crisis we’re in,” she said of the pandemic that's triggered a global economic collapse and untold personal tragedies, “But one thing I’m seeing very early on is just how vulnerable people are to losing everything in such a short period of time. I think there is an understanding building, but I don’t know yet.”
Okay, So Who's a Landlord in the Legislature?
For reasons we’ll get into later, Washington’s disclosure forms make it difficult to determine who earns rental income. I generated the following list by reviewing all financial disclosure forms submitted in 2019. For all lawmakers who own multiple pieces of property, I reviewed disclosure forms for every year they were in office. I also emailed all lawmakers with multiple properties to ask whether they’d ever been a landlord of any kind, though not all of them responded by deadline. I'll update if I hear back from them. This is all to say I may have missed a few landlords, but here’s what I know for certain:
• Renters in the House: 3/98
Among the Democrats, Reps. Lauren Davis and Roger Goodman rent, though Goodman only recently. Rep. Skyler Rude is the only renter on the Republican side.
• Renters in the Senate: 3/49
The only renters in the Senate are Democratic Sens. Mona Das, Marko Liias, and Emily Randall.
• Commercial or residential landlords in the House: 15/98
Republicans: Reps. Vicki Kraft, Chris Gildon, Jeremie Dufault, Andrew Barkis, and Jenny Graham.
Democrats: Reps. Joe Fitzgibbon, Amy Walen, Noel Frame, Frank Chopp, Cindy Ryu, Zack Hudgins, Mia Gregerson, Christine Kilduff, Eileen Cody (who rents an attached dwelling unit), and Beth Doglio (with her sister “several years ago”).
• Commercial or residential landlords in the Senate: 4/49
Republicans: Sens. Minority Leader Mark Schoesler (his properties are out of state), Hans Zeiger, Bradley Hawkins, Judith Warnick.
• House lawmakers who own multiple pieces of property: 40/98
• Senate lawmakers who own multiple pieces of property: 20/49
• Homeowners in the House: 95/98
• Homeowners in the Senate: 46/49
So, at a minimum, there are 6 renters and 19 landlords in the legislature.
Some Caveats and Outstanding Questions
Sen. Hawkins said he and his family moved back into a place they were renting through a property management company at the end of last year, and they don’t currently own a rental or receive rental income. Though Sen. Zeiger isn’t currently a landlord, either, he said he rented out part of a home he lived in until 2016. According to disclosure forms, he brought in between $4,000 and $20,000 per year in rental income between 2014-2016.
Sen. Warnick owns Warnick Enterprises, which she describes on disclosure forms as a “building rental” company. But it’s hard to say what sorts of buildings she rents out, especially when she doesn’t reply to a request for comment.
Rep. Drew MacEwen is a real estate investor, a financial investor, a developer, a restaurant owner, and a houseboat salesman who owns at least two pieces of property in the state aside from his Mason County residence. Does that guy rent out those other properties? He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, so it's hard to say.
Sen. Lynda Wilson owns a townhome in addition to her residence in Vancouver, plus two pieces of commercial real estate. Does she earn rental income off of any of that? Again, hard to say, especially when she didn’t respond to request for comment.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Mark Mullet owns a couple pieces of commercial property, but I can’t tell if he rents them out to other businesses or if he only uses them for his pizza place and his ice cream shops. He also didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Why Is It So Hard to Tell If Our Representatives Are Also Our Landlords?
Because no two lawmakers fill out disclosure forms the same way, and the forms themselves are impenetrable nightmares.
For instance, some lawmakers, such as Reps Frank Chopp and Noel Frame, spell out the amount of rental income they receive. Others, such as Rep. Zack Hudgins, bury it as a function of the difference between mortgage debt and their general income.
Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Mia Gregerson and Sen. Zeiger, specifically called out rental income for several years but then just stopped calling out that rental income in later years despite the fact that they still owned rental properties.
From 2007 to 2014, Gregerson hand-wrote her rental income from two rental properties in SeaTac. In 2016, she appears to go digital when filling out the forms, and the rental income details disappeared. Over the phone, Gregerson said that year also coincided with her selling old rentals, replacing them with new ones, and moving family members or in-laws into them. Now she says the rent in her current units pay for the mortgages, but she’s not making much if any profit on them.
Gregerson, who has a progressive record on eviction protections, attributes this inconsistency to “how confusing the F-1 [financial disclosure form] is to fill out.” She said “collapsing” input fields make it difficult to “see the whole picture,” and she hopes the Public Disclosure Commission’s proposed new platform will make the process easier.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers (such as Rep. MacEwen, Rep. Morgan Irwin, and Sen. Mullet) own multiple pieces of property that could be rentals, but those lawmakers didn’t respond to requests for comment, so I left them out of the count.
Kim Bradford, communications director at the PDC, said lawmakers who own rental property “are not required to list their occupation as landlord,” as the occupation field only comes into play when filers are reporting employment income.
Without access to more detailed financial information currently unavailable to the PDC, the agency can’t confirm the landlord status of these lawmakers. “There could be situations in which someone owns rental property but has no reportable income, once you factor in mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance, repairs, etc.,” Bradford said.
The PDC could add a landlord declaration box on future disclosure forms if the legislature passes a law granting the agency the flexibility to make such changes. It may not surprise you to learn that a bill granting that flexibility died last session, but Bradford said the commission is “currently evaluating” whether it can use existing rule-making authority “to make some improvements in that area.” A report on their conclusion will arrive next month.