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Stymied on right to counsel legislation, Sawant opens up new fronts in fight for Seattle tenants rights over ‘just cause’ loopholes and credit checks

Sawant’s fight for renters has ramped up as Seattle expands its reopening — and as the recall effort against the councilmember awaits the state Supreme Court (Image: Kshama Solidarity Campaign)

With her tenant right-to-counsel legislation delayed at the Seattle City Council pending legal questions, Councilmember Kshama Sawant announced Tuesday a slew of new measures she hopes to pass to aid renters.

The centerpiece would look to strengthen the city’s just cause eviction ordinance, which requires landlords to give a reason for kicking a tenant out. Sawant argues that it has stopped a lot of evictions since its passage in 1980, but needs to be strengthened to further protect renters.

The loophole with the current law, Sawant says, is that landlords do not have to renew a six-month or year long lease, effectively evicting tenants. The current just-cause protections shield renters from no-cause evictions in the middle of their lease, but not when it expires.

“The legislation that my office wants to bring forward will contain no loopholes, no exceptions,” Sawant said during a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the council’s Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee. “Every tenant should be covered by just-cause protections.”


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In Olympia, Capitol Hill’s Rep. Nicole Macri is the primary sponsor of a bill that would make it harder for landlords to evict tenants. The proposal, which passed the House on a largely party-line vote this month, would require landlords to specify a reason —  such as failure to pay rent, sexual harassment, or breaking the law — for evicting tenants living under certain leases.

The problem with this bill, according to Sawant, is a recently-added amendment that says “a landlord may terminate the tenancy without cause at the end of an initial lease term between three to 12 months upon at least 60 days’ prior written notice.” Effectively, this means landlords can evict tenants without cause in this case. If they do not provide that 60-day notice, then the lease becomes month-to-month and any eviction would require a specific reason.

“A step forward from the status quo, but contains seriously significant and troubling loopholes,” Sawant said.

The bill passed through a state Senate committee last week and is currently in the Rules Committee.

Sawant’s proposal would attempt to close this loophole by following the example of a law passed in Federal Way in 2019, which requires landlords offer tenants lease extensions two or three months before the end of a lease.

“Essentially, you never get to that end of a lease situation without good cause,” Sawant staffer Ted Virdone said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the City Council opted last week to hold off on Sawant’s “right to counsel” bill last week citing concerns about legal issues around the proposal. The council voted 6 to 3 to move a vote on the bill to the March 29th session. Council members Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales joined Sawant in opposing the delay. Sawant was vocal in her frustration, accusing Council President Lorena González and opponents of trying to weaken the bill.

The legislation would entitle anyone facing eviction to an attorney at no cost, but could face a lawsuit since it gives everyone this right regardless of income. Washington’s state constitution prohibits cities from giving money to people “except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm.”

Similar legislation at the state level would require that courts appoint counsel for tenants earning income under 200% of the federal poverty level, which comes out to under $35,000 for a family of two and about $53,000 for a family of four.

The blitz of pro-renter legislative efforts comes as Seattle leans into an expanding reopening after months of COVID-19 lockdown and as Sawant awaits action from the State Supreme Court as it mulls the councilmember’s possible recall.

Sawant also announced Tuesday plans to introduce legislation prohibiting landlords from using credit checks in rental applications, which she calls the “new form of redlining.”

The Seattle Renters’ Commission penned a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the council last month calling for the passage of such a ban, noting that studies consistently show “African American and Latino communities have lower credit scores as a group than whites.”

“We would be doing a disservice to communities of color if we do not acknowledge the systemic issues around economic opportunity and equal and fair pay for people of color,” the commission wrote in its letter. “We all acknowledge that communities of color have less income than white Americans.”

Sawant said in a Tuesday press release she will be working with the renters’ commission in the coming weeks to develop this legislation.

The District 3 council member cited other priorities, including:

  • Prohibit onerous, undemocratic, or abusive lease terms,
  • Allow rental history screenings to be transferable from one application to the next,
  • Extend relocation assistance to people ‘economically evicted’ by rent increases,
  • Protect renters from default evictions,
  • And ultimately, pass rent control.

“All tenants deserve basic rights, and the only way renters have won crucial victories in the last seven years is by their own grassroots fights, and by organizing alongside our socialist Council office,” Sawant said in her press release.

Two years ago, Sawant began a major push for a rent control measure tied to inflation but found few allies at City Hall and in Olympia.


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61stMama
61stMama
19 days ago

Just wondering why there are no small landlords included in the dialogue or reporting on this significant policy topic. None interviewed for this (or other) articles. None invited to speak at city council or represented by councilmembers on the “Renters’ Rights” committee. None on the “Renters’ Rights” commission that feeds legislative ideas to council. No outreach or analysis done using the RRIO database that has contact info for every landlord in the city (despite a UW researcher reporting to the city a few years ago that 40% of local landlords were selling or thinking of selling).

Small landlords are the least likely to evict and the most likely to offer naturally affordable housing with flexible lease terms. How is that faring under the “blitz” of pro-tenant legislation? NOT WELL.

It would make a good article that could inform voters and renters and the city at large of big impacts city council is having on our small, independent local rental housing — relentlessly diminishing and discouraging it during an era when there is significant demand for stable and accessible housing.

Deep-pocketed investors will benefit.

jseattle
Admin
19 days ago
Reply to  61stMama

Landlords wanna talk? Drop us a line at CHS@capitolhillseattle.com or give me a call at 206-399-5959

61stMama
61stMama
19 days ago
Reply to  jseattle

I’ll try to help spread the word. I’m from Ballard and made a public statement at yesterday’s Renters’ Rights council committee meeting at about the 11:38 minute mark.

Glenn
Glenn
18 days ago
Reply to  jseattle

Landlord here. Left you a message. Always happy to chat about these issues. Awaiting your call.

jseattle
Admin
18 days ago
Reply to  Glenn

Got your VM. On my list :)

Randy from POWHat
Randy from POWHat
19 days ago
Reply to  61stMama

That is correct, no small landlords allowed in this conversation. They’ve tried to speak up and been hung up on by city councilmembers. The result is a collusion between city council and big landlords to squeeze out small landlords. I don’t think that having only large multi-state or multi-national landlords in Seattle will at all benefit tenants.

Carl Ryan
Carl Ryan
19 days ago
Reply to  61stMama

Small landlord are abused by the city council and treated like all businesses, the enemy of the people. Seattle is the fastest shrinking city in the state for a reason, the vast incompetence of our “leaders”. Nothing will change till they are pushed out of office. You will be lied to by these council members, specifically ones like Lisa Herbold who runs for election on one thing – increasing police funding – then gets elected and uses racist policies to fire police offers and reduce their budget.

Nope
Nope
19 days ago

A first step would be to actually allow evictions for non payment if the renter is earning say 3 times rent, as it stands I don’t think many people want to rent out property.

newyorkisrainin
newyorkisrainin
19 days ago

Being able to take a rental unit off the market for whatever reason (move a parent or child into a mother-in-law unit for example) and giving a tenant at least 60 days notice from the expiration of their lease term seems completely reasonable.

Despite the proposed reasoning the bill, unamended will likely only further an increase in corporate landlord holdings & property management companies, alongside increased rental costs, while not actually doing much to support low-income & low-wealth renters themselves.

I wish our council was as invested in the creation of social and public housing and the necessary regional collaboration to funding and siting such housing as they seem to be in working around the edges of our housing affordability problem and shifting responsibility to the private realm of producing what should be public goods.

FreeMarkets
FreeMarkets
19 days ago

They do what gets headlines, and what gets people riled up (supporters _and_ opponents), not what solves problems. If the problems were solved, they’re afraid we might not need them anymore.

district13tribute
district13tribute
19 days ago

The natural consequence of these actions is to push more and more risk onto landlords making real estate a less attractive investment. As noted this will drive smaller landlords who can not afford the risk from the market and create more pain for renters in the short term. Councilmember Sawant openly advocates for publicly owned housing so this also furthers her goals by creating a demand that the market can no longer satisfy. I would expect she will continue to create more and more legislation of this type while she inevitably starts noting the lack of supply at the lower end of the market and then suggests new taxes to fill that demand. It will take years for her to reach that goal so expect lots of housing instability in the meantime.

I’d wonder if we could see landlords start requiring rental insurance much the way banks require mortgage insurance to mitigate risks in the near future.

R U Serious?
R U Serious?
19 days ago

So by virtue of renting to someone for any length of time at all you become legally required to renew their lease indefinitely? That’s like passing a law that says you are not allowed to help someone without triggering a requirement to pay all their bills for the rest of their life and then wondering why no one helps each other anymore.

mad science
mad science
19 days ago

I’m a small LL with 3 units in city limits. I’ve written council against pretty much everything CM Sawant proposes, but virtually never get even an acknowledgement; the only CM whose office SOMEtimes responds is CM Herbold’s; generally with a form response.

I had more units in city than I do now, I am growing as a LL overall, but am executing on a ‘managed retreat’ from Seattle due mainly to all these regulations. The last property I sold is due to become a hole in the ground, then townhouses any time now. My remaining seattle property the developer vultures have been circling for years. I’ve only recently started actually taking their phone calls.

One common pattern in all these ordinances current and proposed is they seem to be designed as much to harm the LL as they are to help the Tenant.

It doesn’t have to be that way. For example this push to provide every tenant facing eviction with legal representation – suggesting the goal is simply to combat every eviction regardless of its merits, and force the process to be more expensive, risky, acrimonious, and time consuming for everybody involved. Since as has been frequenty reported many if not most evictions are for a relatively small amount of money, say 1 months rent or less, what about instead using that budget to simply pay off the tenant’s debt? If there are 1000 evictions in Seattle in a normal year for $1000 in back rent (not sure the actual numbers, but these aren’t that far off) then a $1M annual budget could prevent 1000 evictions a year without going to court, which should save more costs right there. Which one of these solutions will cause more acrimony, more distrust, and more frustrated LL’s exiting the business?

Similar issue on proposal to ban using credit score for applications. I used to self manage my units and never used credit score. I looked for proof of income, prior landlord reference, eviction history, rent payment history, and criminal background, and a credit check product offered by RHA at the time which didn’t incorporate credit score. If the applicant had some bumps in their history or I could not verify something such as the prior LL wasn’t reachable which was a common problem, I required an increased deposit and/or last months rent up front as an alternate mechanism, or I required a co-signer. I provided qualification criteria and evaluated application in the order received as a best practice, but I had the flexibility to say no if an unexpected but relevant circumstance came up, as happened a few times, like an applicant showing up to a unit viewing totally drunk (happened more than once). During this time I rented to multiple households with little to no credit or imperfect backgrounds, and overall it went fine. I did also reject some applications on grounds that are no longer legal to use, but I still feel those were the right decisions. In those latter situations, credit score probably would also have disqualified them.

I hired property management when first-in-time and the ban on criminal screening ban went into effect. That’s when we (me and PM) agreed to start using credit score, initially with a minimum of 620. Fast forward through required payment plans for deposits and last months rent and other move in cost regulations, rules making it impossible to control roommate situations in a meaningful manner and now we are asking minimum 700 credit score.

Sure, credit score is a single number summing up everything about somebody’s financial behavior/history so its never going to be perfect, but its one of the best remaining neutral metrics available. Criminal history cannot be checked. Deposit and Last months cannot be used to any useful effect. There are noises statewide and locally about blocking the use of payment history or eviction during pandemic from being used in screening. What the heck is left? OK there is income verification, but it doesn’t tell you if somebody actually pays their bills. Prior LL references in a perfect would would carry a lot of weight, but they can be biased either toward or against the tenant, for example a LL wanting to have their tenant move out may give a positive reference even if the tenant is terrible, and similarly a bad reference might be given for a good tenant, if that LL is trying to make the tenant stay longer. Or, there may not be a prior LL, if somebody previously owned, is just moving away from home, or was a roommate not listed on a rental agreement.

So how about instead of blocking one of the only remaining effective, neutral (same algorithm is used regardless of skin color, gender, creed, etc) third party reference sources, start a public guarantorship (co-signer – remember how I mentioned using those) program either directly through the city or through nonprofit / service organizations where applicants who may have bad or no credit or other issues, but otherwise sufficient income can have those organizations guarantee the tenancy. If there is really minimal correlation between credit score and rental risk as some of our CM’s have suggested, then this program should be very cheap to run, again on the order of maybe a few million a year to guarantee 1000’s of tenancies. This program would support tenants AND landlords, instead of just forcing landlords to carry yet more risk, which ultimately will impact pricing or availability.

Or, how about offering low cost or free tenancy insurance to all LL’s (paired with matching renters insurance to the tenant) who will rent to somebody with a credit score less than X, or with income and rent amount below certain levels? With a risk pool spread over 100’s or 1000’s of tenancies the premiums should be pretty manageable.

There are lots of ideas here. They don’t all have to be punitive to the LL to benefit the Tenant.

Glenn
Glenn
18 days ago
Reply to  mad science

As you correctly surmise, many of Council’s action are motivated as much by a desire to punish landlords as they are to assist tenants. There is a clear and discernible bias in everything they do. Which explains why they ignore workable approaches that would benefit tenants while assisting landlords.

Problem is, many on Council don’t support the concept of ownership of private property for profit. They simply don’t like the model that allows people to buy property, rent it out, and make money as a result. The concept is offensive to them.

So, instead of identifying issues, researching workable solutions while talking to all interested parties ( tenants AND landlords), and implementing sound balanced policies, they pursue a vendetta. And that’s what the last five years have been. An ideologically driven vendetta to punish landlords. And all because they really dont like the idea of owning private property and renting it out for profit.

RWK
RWK
18 days ago

People have low credit scores for a reason. When a landlord is seeking a new tenant, he/she should have the reasonable expectation that the rent will be paid on time. Therefore, credit checks are necessary.