Wednesday at City Hall, Seattle City Council members and frequent collaborators Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant announced legislation that would prevent landlords from raising rents by 10% or more on units that have unaddressed housing code violations. While far from a broad application, the move could represent Seattle’s first step around statewide limits on rent control following a resolution to challenge the ban.
“[The legislation] will prohibit landlords from forcing any rent increase while a unit suffers from any conditions that lead to unsafe or unhealthy living conditions. The landlord must remedy such defects before implementing any rent increase,” Licata said, flanked by tenants of the Columbia City property, a representative of the Tenants Union, and Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute.
“The city has a responsibility to make every legal avenue possible to defend tenants’ rights,” Sawant said.
Sawant also called out a Capitol Hill building as an example where, council staff tells CHS, it “appears the landlord is avoiding paying tenant relocation assistance by raising rents significantly to force tenants out, and then carrying out major renovations.” CHS is investigating the claim and will have more information on the situation soon.
The ordinance comes as a response to the controversy surrounding a Columbia City apartment complex, where rents were raised by the property’s new landlord on tenants who were living with cockroaches, mold, fault appliances, and other substandard conditions. According to the Department of Planning and Development, the property suffered from over 200 housing code violations.
Mayor Ed Murray appears ready to support the effort according to a statement released by his office Wednesday afternoon:
I fully support the concept of helping to protect tenants from landlords who do not take care of their properties. The practice of raising rents on substandard units is particularly unacceptable and something we must address. I have directed my staff to work with Councilmembers Sawant and Licata to refine their proposed language to make sure it is administrable, achieves our mutual goals, and does not result in any unintended consequences.
The council members framed the ordinance as building on previous tenant protections enacted in Seattle, mainly the requirements that landlords provide relocation assistance to tenants if they plan to redevelop a property (this legislation was passed by the city council in 1990) and the more recently amended city mandate requiring landlords to give tenants notice of eviction — due to redevelopment — 90 days prior.
But tenant rights advocates have long decried the practice of landlords raising rents and forcing out residents to avoid paying relocation assistance in the aging legislation. Sawant and Licata stressed that this ordinance would close that loophole.
“They [landlords] don’t bring units into a habitable condition because their goal is not to create a habitable space, it’s to get the tenants out so they can redevelop,” said local attorney Knoll Lowney, who helped draft the proposed ordinance. “By requiring landlords to repair [units], before implementing a rent increase, this law will close that loophole.”
“We have argued that Seattle really needs a strong tenants’ bill of rights which would be a collection of ordinances, each closing a loophole or providing an avenue to challenge an abuse,” said Sawant.
The legislation would also allow landlords to appeal to the city if they feel the ordinance’s application is unfair.
Though the legislation would conditionally restrict changes in rent, Sawant insisted that the proposed ordinance is not a form of rent control, and that the City Attorney has reviewed the ordinance and given it the legal thumbs-up. A final draft of the legislation will be available by Friday, according to Sawant. Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute compared the proposal to a similar ordinance in Philadelphia.
“If council members want to speak out against the basic interest of tenants, they do so at their own risk.”
Developer lobbyist Roger Valdez is against the proposal.
“What the council members have proposed is a vicious circle in which the council members kick in the door and put in what essentially amounts to rent control,” Valdez told CHS. “This is political micromanagement, and bad micromanagement of an industry which is generally very response to the needs of tenants … sometimes you have bad actors who let places [properties] fall apart. But the upside of that for tenants is that they get cheap rent.”
Valdez said that he thinks the city should create a program to subsidize landlords who want to conduct maintenance in order to keep rents low for tenants.
Sawant said that she thinks the legislation will have strong support on the council. “If council members want to speak out against the basic interest of tenants, they do so at their own risk.”