Landlords are hiking rents all over Washington state, and the primary proposal lawmakers in Olympia mustered to help mitigate the pain faces enormous opposition from landlord groups, Democrats beholden to landlord groups, and, of course, the party of Donald Trump. Other decent bills look dead or only fix crucial but smaller issues. All told, this year looks like a lackluster session for tenants, who face an increasingly challenging economic landscape.
As the Seattle Times reported over the weekend, during the pandemic rents slumped in wealthy cities such as Seattle and Bellevue, but they've since rebounded to pre-pandemic heights, with the median rent for a one-bedroom in town sitting at $1,653. Cities outside Seattle never even caught a break. Compared to 2017, median rents are up 57% in Lacey and 52% in Spokane. And with a statewide vacancy rate of 3.6%, there is no escape for priced-out renters. Meanwhile, the Governor's eviction moratorium lifted in November, and Mayor Bruce Harrell scheduled Seattle's to lift at the end of this month, according to an announcement today.
In a state with this much precarity and rent-gouging, lawmakers should consider anti-gouging legislation of the kind proposed by Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri in recent years. But they're not.
Over the phone, Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds), chair of the State House's housing committee, said time constraints during the 60-day session and a desire to let last year's sweeping (but watered-down) tenant protections "finish their course" cut short conversations about such measures.
Rather than work to pass controversial rent stabilization legislation this session, Peterson proposed a bill to give renters six months' notice before rent hikes of 7.5% or more. Crucially, the bill also gives tenants the ability to quit their leases during that period so they can hop into a cheaper place (if they're lucky enough to find one), so long as they give their landlords 45 days' notice. In the current version of the proposal, late fees would be capped at $75, as well.
"This is a simple, reasonable bill that at least gives people the time they need to make adjustments in their life — to pick up a couple extra shifts at work, to put off car repairs to save up, or to find another place to live," Peterson said.
You won't be surprised to learn that landlord groups think otherwise. During testimony on the bill, they complained about the length of notice, arguing that the current rule requiring 60 days' notice for tenants on fixed-term leases is sufficient because, as we all know, finding a new place to live in a tight housing market while working a handful of jobs should really only take a couple free weekends. They also hate the idea of allowing a tenant to move before the lease allows, even though finding a new place would be even more difficult if renters had to tell prospective landlords they could only take a place in four or five months.
In light of all that, GOP lawmakers worked to weaken the bill to its current state, proposing over 20 amendments to it in committee. (The original bill triggered the notice requirement for rent hikes at 3% or more, and it limited late fees to 1.5% of the tenant’s monthly rent.) A potential floor vote early next week could bring more bad news and likely more amendments from Republicans, which will make passage more painful for Democrats. The Dems won't be united on it either, though. Rep. Mari Leavitt (D-University Place) voted against the bill in committee. Democratic Reps. Dave Paul, Mike Chapman, and Alicia Rule voted against tenant protections last year.
The biggest sticking point, according to Peterson, is the provision to let tenants out of their leases. He said he "thinks there's space" for compromise there, and is happy to chat with landlords to see if they'd be amenable to a higher rent-hike trigger for that measure. But he's pretty firm on keeping the six-month timeline.
Thanks to the Seattle City Council and legislation proposed by Kshama Sawant, landlords in Seattle already must give tenants six months' notice for any rent increase, plus relocation assistance for low-income tenants who move after rent hikes of 10% or more. We don't let them quit the lease to leave, though.
Aside from the six-months' notice bill, state Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-Tacoma) is doing a nice job carrying Senate Bill 5749, which requires landlords to accept checks, and to do so via snail mail or an on-site location. In her testimony, Trudeau said the bill will help older renters, who prefer to write checks and struggle to manage online portals. Washington Low Income Alliance policy director Michele Thomas told the committee that some electronic portals come with fees, “which are unregulated.” She told the story of a tenant forced to pay $14 more per month just to pay rent through a portal. She also said someone hacked a portal used by a tenant in Spokane, which drained her of two months of rent. The bill passed the Senate with unanimous support last week, and it'll see a hearing in the House next week.
Two bills headed to the morgue include HB 2017 and HB 2023. The former would have made it illegal for landlords to categorically deny housing just because of a previous arrest or conviction record, unless that person was on the sex offender registry from a crime committed at 25 or older. The bill's death will only lead to more people facing homelessness and massive housing disparities due to the stigma of conviction in a demonstrably racist criminal punishment system.
The latter bill would allow tenants to sue landlords under the Consumer Protection Act if the landlord isn’t abiding by basic duties, such as doing repairs or respecting a tenant's right to privacy before entering. It would also let tenant groups sue on behalf of aggrieved renters, which would cut down on landlords threatening eviction during eviction moratoria or calling ICE on undocumented immigrants asking for repairs.
But there's always next year, assuming the Democrats hold on to their majorities.