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Seattle Proposes New Rental Rules to Address Housing Crisis

The city has proposed bills that would require landlords to notify tenants of rent increases 180 days in advance and provide relocation assistance for low-income renters. Some worry this could devastate small landlords.

(TNS) — Seattle landlords who raise rents could soon be required to give tenants six months' notice and pay moving assistance amounting to three months' rent in certain cases under proposals the Seattle City Council is poised to vote on Monday, September 27.

The bills, proposed by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, are the latest in a series of tenant-friendly laws advanced by the council over the objections of many landlords.

Supporters say the proposals will help renters who face "economic eviction" when they can't afford a rent hike and have to move.

"There's a housing crisis we were trying to solve before COVID. It's now becoming exacerbated," said Paula Sardinas, president of the Washington Build Back Black Coalition, which backs city and state renter protections.

Landlords have balked at the proposals, which they say make operations more difficult for those with just a few rentals.

"We're taking care of our tenants," said landlord Ed Doyne. "Everything the City Council has done has only made that harder and incentivized us to just get out of the market."

What The Bills Say

The first bill would require landlords to notify tenants about rent increases 180 days ahead of time. The current requirement is 60 days.

The proposal appears to be among the strictest rules in the country, aside from straightforward rent-control laws in cities such as San Francisco and New York City. Some U.S. cities require several months' notice for rent hikes, such as Portland's rule setting a 90-day notice period for increases of 5 percent or more. In Canada, Quebec requires three to six months' notice for leases of at least one year.

The second bill would require landlords to pay relocation assistance equal to three months of rent for low-income tenants who depart after rent increases of 10 percent or more.

For example, a landlord raising the rent on an apartment from $1,600 to $1,760 would have to pay $4,800 in relocation assistance. The city would collect the money and give it to the tenant.

Seattle landlords currently are required to pay relocation assistance only for low-income tenants who depart to make way for renovations, and the cost is split between the city and the landlord.

Both new bills were advanced Tuesday by the council's renters rights committee, chaired by Sawant. The full council will vote Monday.

Sawant said the bills are needed because rents in Seattle, which dipped last year after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, have rebounded and are climbing again.

Across the Greater Seattle area, including Tacoma and Bellevue, an estimated 86,000 renters are behind on their monthly payments, according to a census survey this month.

People of color are disproportionately affected: Nearly 47 percent of Black renters in the survey said they were not caught up on payments, compared to 6 percent of white renters. In 2018, a review of King County evictions found that about half of renters who faced eviction owed one month's worth and renters facing eviction were disproportionately women and people of color.

During the committee's public comment session, about 20 people spoke in support of the bills and several spoke against them.

Rent increases can sometimes plunge tenants into homelessness, said tenant Liam Easton-Calabria.

Eric Baker, who said he rents out one property, said the bills could hamstring small landlords trying to cover their own cost increases.

The first bill wouldn't involve any significant new spending by the city. To manage the requirements of the second bill, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections would need to spend about $1.3 million on information technology and outreach initially and about $188,000 on staff annually, according to a fiscal note.

"A Shock"

About a year after moving to Seattle from Washington, D.C., tenants Elizabeth Black and Aaron Milner got notice this fall that if they renewed their lease, the rent for their one-bedroom apartment in Ballard would increase by $550 a month, or roughly 25 percent.

"When we pulled open that email, it was truly a shock," Black said in an interview.

When the couple tried to negotiate with their apartment leasing office, "they essentially told us — I'm going to paraphrase — 'We can get someone into your apartment paying even more than we quoted you for the new lease next week if we wanted to,'" she said.

Black and Milner said they support the council proposals, especially for renters who have families or lower incomes and are more vulnerable than they are. Still, the proposals would only do so much, Milner said.

"At the end of the day there is no world in which we could have been able to afford this rent increase, even with notice," said Milner. "In the future, I'm just worried this is going to happen again wherever we move next."

Doyne, who owns several single-family houses and duplexes, said large landlords may be able to pay for relocation assistance, but "we just don't operate that way."

"We don't have that kind of income."

He and his wife Lorraine Weeks planned to use the rentals for their retirement, selling properties periodically for income, but may now sell them off faster than they planned, he said.

Occasional rent increases help them cover climbing property taxes, utility bills and maintenance costs, Doyne said.

"The guy who does the landscaping doesn't give me 180 days' notice he's going to increase his costs. ... The plumber doesn't tell me 180 days in advance that he's going to increase what he charges," Doyne said.

For Kari Koszdin, who owns three Seattle triplexes, giving extra notice "is not so bad" compared to other recent council efforts. Before the pandemic, rent increases for existing tenants at her triplexes were typically around 5 percent, she said.

But Koszdin opposes the council's relocation-assistance proposal.

"They're trying to get rent control, basically," she said. "They're going to try and penalize you for raising the rent and the person might totally be able to afford to pay the rent."

Sawant has long backed rent control, which is currently outlawed in Washington. She recently introduced legislation that would impose caps on rent increases in Seattle, designed to take effect if the state repealed the ban.

Council Tweaks Bills

On Tuesday, councilmembers debated whether to exempt small landlords from the notice requirement. As advanced by Sawant's committee, the rule would apply to all residential landlords and tenants.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen sponsored an amendment that would have excluded landlords with four or fewer properties.

Sawant described the amendment as a loophole that would exclude many tenants and that large landlords would exploit by dividing their properties among multiple companies. The amendment was rejected.

The committee voted 4-0 to advance the first bill, with Pedersen abstaining.

The council did narrow the second bill. As adjusted Tuesday, it would apply only to departing tenants at or below 80 percent of the area's median income, or about $65,000 for a single person.

As proposed by Sawant, the bill would have applied to all tenants. But Pedersen sponsored an amendment narrowing the scope to tenants who he described as "most in need."

Councilmember Tammy Morales objected, making the argument that even people with moderate incomes are struggling with housing costs in Seattle.

The committee voted 4-0 to advance the second bill, with Councilmember Debora Juarez abstaining.

(c)2021 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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