Seattle's Rental Climate Has Changed, Even If Prices Haven’t
It's easy to look around and think little is different for renters in Seattle. Prices are sky-high again after an early pandemic dive, and as Seattle's mayoral candidates just stressed, a housing crisis is on full display in the form of tents pitched across the city.
But the laws that dictate the relationship between tenants and landlords have shifted significantly in the city over the past several months. Even if the local eviction moratorium ends on January 15 (which is an open question, given past extensions), Seattle City Council has approved legislation that will have a lasting effect on the rental market in Seattle. Specifically, new laws:
- require landlords to offer tenants lease renewals before their existing agreements expire, eliminating a just-cause loophole;
- prevent evictions (with a few exceptions) during the school year for children and students, their guardians, and any school employees;
- allow tenants to use financial hardship as an eviction defense for unpaid rent during the pandemic;
- raise the notice landlords must give tenants for rent increases from two months to six;
- and mandate payment of relocation assistance (three months' worth) to tenants making 80 percent of the area's median income after a rent increase of 10 percent or more.
These policies have buoyed renters, irked landlords, and largely passed without Jenny Durkan's signature.
Case in point: the most recent bills to become law. Before they were approved on September 27, the rental notice bump and relocation assistance requirement inspired a very healthy amount of public comment during city council's meeting. Renters (virtually) lined up and shared their struggles and exasperation with the current rental environment. One mentioned moving three times in three years ("completely normal in Seattle"), another almost annually for a decade. "I've had numerous conversations in the street with people who are facing rent increases of hundreds or thousands of dollars and have no idea how they're going to pay," said Blythe Serrano, a renters' rights activist. "So many working class people, myself included, don't have enough money in the bank to shoulder the cost of moving right now, which usually includes first and last month’s rent, a security deposit, renting a U-Haul, and more."
Kate Rubin, the executive director of advocacy group Be:Seattle, stressed that anti-displacement measures can have broad social implications. "We recognize the direct connection between housing justice and racial justice," Rubin said.
At the same time, mom-and-pop landlords called in to decry the use of "corporate" in describing their status and the proposed policies. One cited the city's rental housing study in 2018, noting that the majority of the city's property owners are small businesses. Others shared anecdotes. "We are a small working family raising a child with disabilities that requires costly therapies. We rented out a legal apartment in our home to be able to barely afford to live in this city," said Ashley Thirkill. "We have always rented lower than market and formed relationships with our renters because we basically live together. Many small landlords, especially those that live on the property, do this.”
In a letter explaining why she wasn't signing the legislation, Durkan made similar points, mentioning the burden of increased property taxes on mom-and-pops and speculating that it could actually limit the number of affordable rental units if these small owners bail. "Council could and should have used this period, when there is no risk of eviction, to assist small property owners and preserve the availability of important affordable housing," the mayor wrote. "Instead, it chose to layer on more economic hardship."
Council member Kshama Sawant, the chair of the Sustainability and Renters' Rights committee and architect of the bills, said the relocation assistance cost wouldn't burden independent property owners because "small landlords are not the ones increasing rents by high rates." Still, for Jim Henderson, a lobbyist for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, a landlord advocate, "this creates a de facto rent control."
That language won't deter Sawant. At the council meeting, she mentioned that her office has drafted rent control legislation, which broadly aims to cap yearly rental increases at inflation levels. It wouldn't be a revolutionary policy; New York City and San Francisco have already adopted forms of rent control.
Sawant hopes to bring it to a vote in December. One complication: She's up for recall that month.