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Seattle City Council approves nation’s first Renters’ Commission

Council member Tim Burgess

Council member Tim Burgess

Applause followed the City Council’s unanimous approval of an ordinance creating a Seattle Renters’ Commission on Monday.

“This was truly a grassroots effort that started up on Capitol Hill and will now benefit the entire city of Seattle,” Council member and prime sponsor Tim Burgess said.

“We just want to give renters a formal voice here at City Hall,” he said. “… Renters need landlords and landlords need renters, so if this commission can help bridge that relationship then that will be a positive move for our city.”

Zachary DeWolf of the Capitol Hill Community Council has been a leader in the push for the creation of the commission.

“After 91 years of the same old, tired, harmful, and unjust argument treating us renters as second to homeowners, today’s vote and hopeful victory fully affirms your life, our lives as renters and our voice matters,” DeWolf said. “Today is a big win for equity and inclusion, and I continue to be proud to live in this great city.”

Zachary DeWolf

Zachary DeWolf

About 54% of households in the city are occupied by renters, Burgess said, and the commission will provide them with a way to advise the mayor and council about not only renter protection laws but also topics like transportation, public health and safety, parks and open space and education.

“In my district (5) alone we now have 49% renters and 51% homeowners, and I believe that those people should have a voice,” bill co-sponsor Debora Juarez said. “It’s important that renters are recognized and are engaged in the city process and certainly in the decisions.”

Michael Bracy and Alex Brennan both of the Capitol Hill Renter Initiative testified in favor of the ordinance to create the commission.

Bracy has lived and rented in Seattle for almost 18 years, and his rent has nearly tripled since he first moved to Capitol Hill.

“Issues around rental properties and the concerns of their inhabitants inform and affect many of the greatest challenges in front of the council,” Bracy said. “… Renters in Seattle are first-hand witnesses to and participants in the day-to-day struggles and triumphs that make our city unique.”

Brennan said the Renters’ Commission can help to increase renters involvement.

“At a time when so many renters are struggling to afford to live in Seattle, this is a critical step toward a more inclusive future,” Brennan said.

Part of the commission’s work will be to provide feedback on bills before the council and those already on the books like the Source of Income Discrimination and Move In Fees legislation, Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, Rental Housing Registration and Inspection Program, the Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance, the Rental Agreement Regulation Ordinance, and the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda.

The 15-member commission will have six mayor-appointed members, six council-appointed members, two commission-appointed members, and one young adult member from the YMCA’s Get Engaged Program. The ordinance calls varied representation to include “historically underrepresented groups such as low-income renters, LGBTQ renters, immigrant renters, renters with felony records, those paying rent with assistance, and renters who have experienced homelessness.” The ordinance also requests effort be made to include members representing different geographic areas.

The Department of Neighborhoods will staff the commission.

The application and appointment process is expected to take place from April through Mayr or June with the first commission meeting early this summer.

SEPA threshold legislation
Now that the council has approved a Renters’ Commission, its next housing-related legislation under consideration aims to increase the number of units that trigger an environmental review, which would speed up the development of smaller developments.

In 2008 the number of units in urban centers and station areas was 30, Downtown was 80 and commercial was 12,000 square feet. In 2012 it was increased to 200 units in urban centers and station areas, 250 in Downtown, and 30,000 square feet for commercial space. Those numbers dropped in 2015, now the council is considering a proposal to bring the numbers back up to 2012 levels.

According to a presentation set to be discussed Tuesday in front of the Planning Land Use and Zoning committee, benefits include reduced costs, less time spent on permit review, increased predictability with fewer risks such as an appeal, and resources can be used to review other permits.

The committee Tuesday morning is also discussing the final touches for planned upzoning in downtown and South Lake Union that is expected to “sail through” the council.

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15 thoughts on “Seattle City Council approves nation’s first Renters’ Commission

  1. Perhaps they can influence a change in zoning so we can build in scale that meets demand instead of these 30 unit boutique apartment developments that are out of reach for those who want to live in dense areas of the city.

  2. As was pointed out by a landlord spokesman in today’s Seattle Times, “it’s disingenuous to say renters’ voices aren’t being heard when several pro-renter laws have passed in recent years.”

    I think this passed because renters have a hope that somehow this will magically lead to lower rents…..not going to happen, because market forces will prevail. I also think that this was mainly a political move for Council members to get more renter votes in upcoming elections.

  3. I would add that the same Seattle Times article mentioned the similar law in place in Vancouver B.C. since 2014. Their biggest problem is retaining members of the commission…about half left the city or didn’t reapply at the midway point in their term. Wonder if the same thing will happen here?

    • The other nugget of information was that landlords were not welcome on the committee even as non voting participants. All Seattle is doing is driving away people who want to rent and manage property into places like airbnb

  4. As a homeowner, what special access do I have to city hall that a renter does not? Did I miss the secret red phone with a direct line to city hall hidden away in my house?

    If renters have historically chosen to not use the avenues available to any citizen to interact with city govt why is the answer simply not to just educate them (and hell, all citizens of Seattle) what their right are and what tools are at their disposal?

    • This absolutely changes nothing. Just a bunch of hand waving to create a segregated comment box for renters. The grandstanding might help with a few dumb voters though.

  5. “This was truly a grassroots effort that started up on Capitol Hill and will now benefit the entire city of Seattle.”

    No, not really. Maybe 54% of Seattle. Maybe.
    The other 46% bears the lion’s share of paying for it– just like everything else in Seattle.

  6. Here are just a couple of reasons for escalating rents in Seattle.
    Property taxes: Our property taxes went from the low $20k to over $80k in 3 years on our small 23 unit building.
    Arduous building permit process: The permitting process in Seattle is long (1.5 to 2 years) and is plagued with delays and uncertainty. Some projects have taken over 7 years to complete.
    If the Council is truly interested in lowering rents, they should address the high cost of developing and operating a multifamily business in Seattle. At best, the new commission will simply add another cost of doing business that will be passed along to tenants. At worst, it deters developers from building more apartment buildings in Seattle. So we end up like San Francisco and New York City.

    • Hey. I don’t disagree. Politically, however, lowering permitting/development fees will anger the majority of people at city hall hissing and booing about “developer handouts”. I’ve gone through the permitting process and hell, it’s expensive, takes forever, understaffed, lots of paperwork. I’m sure there’s a way to create a process that promotes accessibility and ease without compromising safety. I hope the renter’s commission talks about this too!!

    • @Rod: I live in a well to do area, so my property taxes have gone up as well, but only 40% in the last 3 years, which matches the exploding housing market and associated property values during that time.

      But you are saying your taxes almost quadrupled in that same time period? Was a literal gold mine discovered on your property during that time? I just can’t figure out what would cause a property tax to quadruple in a 3 year period.

  7. So tired of hearing the landlords whining about how easy renters have it because renters have a few rights that are inconvenient for them. They wouldn’t even have this business without renters, we are their customers that they make their money off of but act as though we take advantage of them and are just an irritation. Yes, there are horrible renters but we shouldn’t all be treated badly because of them. Landlords have plenty of laws in their favor as well, some that are costly and a few that are skewed unfairly against renters.

    Ultimately we need to be on the same page, that both renters and landlords need to respect that these properties are people’s homes, we all need to follow the rules. Landlords need more of a customer service mentality and care for the property as if they were living there themselves and that people want a safe, clean place to live and renters need to respect that it’s someone’s business and income and that they need their property taken care of and the neighbors respected.

    Unfortunately people just don’t always naturally do the right thing. I’ve had a few good landlords that take initiative to take care of the property and respect the renters without a fuss. But I suspect the landlords that complain the most are the one’s that would rather disregard any protections for renters at all (I’m talking to you Northwest Apartments Management). Because of them we need more representation and a voice when laws are considered for landlords and tenants.

    • “Landlords have plenty of laws in their favor as well, some that are costly and a few that are skewed unfairly against renters.”

      You are so wrong on that! And I can tell that you have never been a homeowner/landlord yourself. In the City of Seattle itself, there are many laws and resources that favor the tenants.

      If you are a landlord, and end up having a tenant that you must evict, it can be a very expensive and time consuming process. When I’ve had bad tenants, I’ve ended up losing money in the process because of what I as a property manager have to eat up. This is why I never want to go back to managing rentals on my own, and would rather just have a property management do all of that. But that’s also expensive too. This whole passing of this ordinance will only make it more expensive to property owners through more taxation to facilitate a 15 council committee using the City of Seattle resources. As a result those additional expenses will be passed along to the renters. This is going to have unintended consequences that many people (renters) can’t see.

  8. This commission is likely a distraction and denial of reality; that rents follow demand plain and simple. Wishing and hope and regulations will not alter this equation. We are now seeing softening of rents based upon all the apartments coming to market. Yes people are frustrated but being a landlord is a business and it is the job of a landlord to maximize their return on an asset just as if they were building any other business. And just as renters look for the best job within their field and consider pay important in their selection, along with location, benefits, culture and the like. The parallels in buildings would include design, location, size etc. Being a landlord is not an act of charity and those who wish to give someone a break are doing so because they wish to, not because they must or have some sort of moral obligation. I find it interesting that the same people who regularly act in their own economic self-interest and would think nothing about paying lower rent even if it left another landlord in a world of pain, expect landlords to not raise rents to the market and other acts of self-interest.
    But what I am saying is so obvious to all, but they will still deny it. People think that just because they come to Seattle, to Capitol Hill or even if born here, that they have a right to housing of their preference, with zero roommates, on their terms, hot location and price they can afford – and would attempt to regulate this in their favor. Their enemies are not landlords and developers, without whom housing would not be an option – but the guy or gal next to them who is competing for the same limited commodity. Increase supply or reduce demand is the only way to address price.

    • The reason rents are high is that property prices are high, as are property tax. Look at multifamily (go on Redfin etc) you will see the avg return is pathetic – 5% if you are lucky. You then get to manage a bunch of units, repairs, collect rents etc etc.

      I have a single rental and it occasionally is a pain to just get the monthly rent. God help you if you have 20 of the things..