Morning Jolt

Senate Republican Urges State Attorney General to "Take Action" Against Seattle on Rent Control

Vancouver state senator Don Benton condemns Seattle for thinking "they have the authority to supersede state law."

By Josh Feit November 15, 2016

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1. Outgoing Vancouver Republican state senator Don Benton (R-17, Vancouver), a bit of an arch conservative firebrand (he’s a controversial Trump supporter), used his final committee meeting yesterday afternoon to trash Seattle and Vancouver. (Benton is retiring in January and will be replaced by state representative Lynda Wilson, R-17, Vancouver, who handily beat her Democratic challenger this month in what was supposed to be a tough fight for control of the senate, 55.1 to 45.83.)

Chairing his final meeting of the financial institutions committee, Benton played the weird role that Republicans, who supposedly believe in local control, often find themselves in when they don’t like progressive policies that are on the books in cities.  

“We currently have two local jurisdictions, the city of Seattle and the city of Vancouver, that have illegally preempted state law on rent control,” he told Deputy Solicitor General Jeff Even, who Benton had called in to brief the senate’s financial institutions committee on the state’s power to preempt local laws, “so we’re waiting for the AG or somebody to take action against these municipalities because we don’t think they have the unilateral authority to violate the state’s law on rent control.”

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Benton didn’t name any names, but posited that a city may have “a rogue city attorney that’s telling them they can make their own laws” and can preempt state laws. “What does the state do, when the state, in its best wisdom decided that this is a law that should apply to all citizens regardless of where they live and you have a locally elected official that thinks that they have the authority somehow to supersede state law? What do we do about it? What is the enforcement mechanism? How do we stop that? How do we protect those citizens in that municipality, the way we’ve protected all the others?”

Even said state agencies could bring a suit against the municipality “because a state interest may cause an agency to want to step in;” he brought up a 2014 example when Wahkiakum County prohibited the use of biosolids on agricultural land and the state Department of Ecology sued and won because state law allowed it.

 Even added that when preemption isn’t about a state program, private parties might challenge a local rule. Even cited the example of a gun owner who sued and won in court against a Seattle law the prohibited carrying a gun on city property, which preempted state laws governing gun ownership.  

Specifically re rent control, Even said the AG’s office would have to do an analysis of the law to see if there actually was a conflict and whether or not there was a state interest in taking the cities to court or whether private parties (landlords and tenants) could address it.

Seattle has a couple of laws on the books that could be interpreted as “rent control.” There’s a longstanding Seattle ordinance mandating 60-days notice for large rent increases and a recent law prohibiting rent increase on faulty property. Kshama Sawant has an ordinance that’s cued up to move out of committee this month capping move in fees as well.

City council member Lisa Herbold, a longtime tenants' rights advocate and nemesis of the landlord lobby, guesses that landlords haven't challenged the 60-day rule (which could certainly open a can of worms for landlords if they lost) because it might be "an unsympathetic case" for landlords to argue that they need "to maintain [their] right to give excessive increases with minimum notice." Former city council member and Herbold's longtime mentor Nick Licata passed the 60-day rule over a decade ago.

2. Speaking of Herbold, the Seattle Times has a story about the standoff between Herbold and Mayor Ed Murray over affordable housing. Herbold (and four other council members) want to use $29 million in city bonding authority to help build affordable housing. Murray, citing the $290 million affordable housing levy he helped pass, along with his program to make developers pay into an affordable housing fund or build on site on every new development, argues that the city needs to preserve its bonding authority for other needs, including social services (what if the feds pull funding thanks to Murray's "Sanctuary City" stance) and the pending North Precinct police station.

One interesting dynamic the Times didn't mention, though is that one of Herbold's co-sponsors on her bonding proposal, Sawant, didn't join the rest of her colleagues in saying that the bonding plan would "not pit Seattle’s housing needs against other citywide priorities, such as public safety needs."

While the $29 million would use some of the bonding capacity that's being considered for the North Precinct police station, it certainly reserves much of it; the North Precinct plan has called for $149 million in city bonding. However, Sawant has an affordable housing plan of her own that uses all $149 million for housing. She is adamantly against the North Precinct plan.

Sawant did not respond for a request to comment on her reticence over her colleagues' proposal.

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