Councilmembers Dave Upthegrove, Girmay Zahilay, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles sponsored the bill.
Councilmembers Dave Upthegrove, Girmay Zahilay, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles sponsored the bill. King County Council

On Tuesday the King County Council voted 6-3 to pass a bunch of new protections for the 25,000 renters who live in the county's unincorporated areas, which include neighborhoods such as Skyway, parts of White Center, Vashon Island, East Renton, and other townships and census designated places out east.

As I wrote yesterday, Republicans and Rod Dembowski, one of the six liberal members of the technically nonpartisan body, made noises suggesting they might significantly water down the legislation, which was meant to shore up good but watered down protections that state lawmakers passed earlier this year, but at the end of the day they really only made a few tweaks.

Here's a list of the major protections included in the ordinance, which was sponsored by Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Girmay Zahilay, and Dave Upthegrove.

• Requires landlords to give one of several "just" reasons for evicting a tenant or refusing to renew a lease. The county's version of the just cause list includes all of the state's reasons and adds "knowingly allowing a vicious animal" among them, but it closes the state's arcane fixed-term loopholes.

• Requires landlords to give 30 days' written notice before evicting or refusing to renew a lease "unless a longer notice period is required by state law."

• Offers public defenders to tenants facing eviction.

• Caps late fees at 1.5% of monthly rent.

• Caps move-in fees at one month's rent and allows tenants to pay in installments.

• Allows a landlord to "request, but not require" social security numbers from tenants, which will help prevent housing discrimination levied against undocumented immigrants.

• Requires landlords "to give 3 to 4 months' notice for rent increases greater than 3%." so a tenant has enough time to find another place to live.

• Allows tenants to sue landlords for breaking the law and establishes damages at "3 times monthly rent or double damages, plus costs and attorneys' fees."

The tweak in question involves language around whether landlords can refuse to rent to a tenant based on the results of a background check or a credit check.

An earlier version of the bill prevented landlords from requiring prospective tenants to give a social security number. That provision, lawmakers hoped, would help reduce any housing discrimination against renters who don't have social security numbers, i.e. undocumented immigrants and foreign nationals.

After a maniacal misinformation campaign orchestrated by the Rental Housing Association led many landlords to believe the legislation aimed to prevent landlords from running background and credit checks at all, the bill's sponsors added language to "clarify that there are other ways to obtain credit history and background checks." Here's that language:

A landlord may utilize information including, but not limited to, previous names, addresses, personal references and work history to screen prospective tenants. A landlord shall maintain the right to take adverse action because of inaccurate, unfavorable or unavailable screening results.

Support The Stranger

While reviewing that language, Dembowski raised a scenario where a landlord did everything they could with the personal information they legally can require tenants to fork over—e.g. running names, addresses, and work history through Experian or Equifax to get a credit score—but then ultimately not returning any results through that process. To make sure a landlord could still refuse to house a tenant for that reason, Dembowski proposed adding the word "unavailable," so that landlords could refuse to rent to someone "because of inaccurate, unfavorable or unavailable screening results." Bill sponsors Kohl-Welles and Zahilay accepted that request, and the meeting moved on.

That change seems difficult to enforce, in that it sets up a scenario where a landlord could just say they went through that screening process and came up with nothing, but ultimately it's a minor adjustment in a major piece of legislation that helps right the power imbalance between people who profit from selling access to a house and people who need a roof over their heads.

The bill passed thanks to pressure from tenant advocates working with the Stay Housed Stay Healthy campaign, and no thanks to landlord groups who whipped up members to inundate the council with phone calls and emails claiming to be concerned about a bunch of stuff that wasn't even in the bill, even in the face of a wave of evictions that could have hit today had Inslee not extended the statewide moratorium until Sept. 30.