Seattle City Council approves Sawant plan to fund lawyers for tenants facing eviction

The Seattle City Council unanimously approved “right to counsel” legislation Monday that will entitle residential tenants facing eviction to an attorney at no cost.

The vote on this legislation, sponsored by District 3 Councilmember Kshama Sawant, was originally scheduled for two weeks ago, but was delayed via council vote to sort out possible legal concerns. The original bill could have faced a lawsuit since it looked to give everyone the right to legal counsel regardless of income. Washington’s state constitution prohibits cities from giving money to people “except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm.”

Sawant hailed the “historic renter and socialist movement’s ‘Right to Counsel’ victory” in a press release from City Hall after Monday’s vote.

“Today’s historic vote in the City Council to approve our movement’s Right to Counsel legislation from my office is a huge step forward for renters rights in our city,” Sawant said in the press release. “No longer will renters have to fear going to eviction court without the legal aid that they desperately need and justly deserve.”

She thanked several groups for helping push for the legislation including Socialist Alternative, Be:Seattle, the Tenants Union of Washington, UAW 4121, and the ACLU despite “calls from Democrats on the City Council to water down our bill.”

Sawant also filled the public comment session prior to Monday’s full council meeting with speaker after speaker in support of the legislation.

To satisfy concerns about possible legal challenges, the council overcame objections from Sawant and added an amendment to exclude tenants who are not “indigent.” Legislation from 2017 defines “indigent” as a person who is “unable to pay the anticipated cost of counsel… because the person’s available funds are insufficient for the retention of counsel.”

“I believe that this language is going to minimize legal risks of having this law survive the legal challenge, which again I believe is almost going to certainly happen, while also providing access to a right to counsel to those who need it,” said Council President Lorena González, the sponsor of the amendment.

Sawant was the only council member to vote against the González amendment, arguing that it makes tenants “jump through some kind of hoop before they qualify.” Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

‘The most precarious situation that we’ve ever seen’ — Seattle considers right to counsel and extending COVID-19 crisis eviction moratorium through 2021 — UPDATE

Items left outside after a past Capitol Hill eviction (Image: CHS)

The Seattle City Council is set to vote Monday on “right to counsel” legislation that would entitle anyone facing eviction to an attorney at no cost.

Under the bill, sponsored by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections would contract with a group of local attorneys and would be required to educate tenants about the new right to counsel in various languages. Similarly, landlords would be required to let their tenants know in eviction notices that they have this right.

Tenants would not have to accept counsel, but the measure would require that they be offered an attorney at no cost.

The councilmember and others are also calling for extension of the city’s eviction moratorium through 2021.

UPDATE 2:55 PM: Monday brought a mixed bag for Seattle tenants rights advocates with Mayor Jenny Durkan announcing the city’s ban on evictions will be extended through June while the City Council opted to hold off on Sawant’s “right to counsel” bill 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. 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.

Meanwhile, Durkan said “while there is hope on the horizon, the work of recovery is just beginning,” in extending the moratorium. “Seattle residents and businesses continue to feel the economic impact of this pandemic, and we will not successfully recover if we do not include the recovery needs of low-income communities and small businesses,” Durkan said. “Extending the eviction moratorium provides housing stability for our neighbors as new federal funding arrives.”

Original report: Sawant, “eviction defense experts,” and renter advocates were part of a Monday morning press conference where the District 3 rep’s office says they will explain “why the Seattle City Council should strike a double blow at evictions today, and vote for the Right to Counsel legislation without loopholes” and the moratorium extension resolution.

With Seattle and the state’s moratorium on all evictions during the COVID-19 crisis slated to end this month, Sawant is championing a resolution calling on the city to extend the prohibition through the end of the year. 50 community groups and tenants rights organizations have also called on Durkan to extend the restrictions. In February, a King County Superior Court judge upheld the city’s ban.

To provide eviction defense services, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections has contracted with the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project since 2019. Edmund Witter, the project’s senior managing attorney, said they handle about 2,500 eviction cases per year across King County and the legal assistance usually costs between $300 and $500. Continue reading

Seattle adds more protections for renters including roommate rights, payment options

Though most of the Seattle City Council’s focus this week will be on pounding down additions — and a few subtractions? — to the mayor’s proposed $6.5 billion 2020 budget, Monday’s full council session finished up some key legislation to help Seattle renters.

Monday, the council passed five new bills increasing tenant rights and adding new requirements for landlords: Continue reading

City Council: Seattle renters get more time to pay owed rent

Seattle Public School kids aren’t the only ones back in session this week. The Seattle City Council returned from its summer break Tuesday with votes approving legislation to help out bikers and renters.

In one set of votes at Tuesday afternoon’s full council session, members approved a suite of updates to provide renters with more protections including a vote updating the City of Seattle’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance to “harmonize the City’s regulations with amendments to the Washington State Residential Landlord-Tenant Act. Under the changes approved Tuesday, Seattle renters will see the time given tenants to respond to a notice to pay or vacate increased from three to 14 days and tenants need to be notified of all rent increases at least 60 days in advance. Continue reading

New Seattle tenant protections would give renters earlier notification on sales, more time to make ends meet

Some residents at the Central District’s Chateau Apartments said they found about the building’s sale when organizers from Council member Kshama Sawant’s office showed up at their doors

Legislation to shift notification requirements for the sale of low-income housing will be on the agenda Thursday for a Seattle City Council committee while the mayor is rolling out changes she says will protect tenants from eviction and “help keep Seattle residents in their homes.”

The legislation, sponsored by citywide council member Teresa Mosqueda, would modify a 2015 measure that required owners of multifamily rental housing with five or more housing units — at least one of which rents affordably to a household at or below 80% area median income (AMI) — to provide written notice of the owner’s intent to sell the property to the city’s Office of Housing and the Seattle Housing Authority at least 60 days prior to being listed or advertised. This change looked to give these two bodies time to examine buying the property to keep its rental units affordable.

“In Seattle’s current real estate market, tenants and affordable housing providers often struggle to compete,” Mosqueda said in an emailed statement. “Many buyers come with cash in hand and buy up properties within days of being listed, and buildings are often sold without ever being listed at all—leaving few opportunities for lower-income buyers to get a foot in the door.” Continue reading

Court upholds Seattle’s pro-renter cap on move-in fees

Kshama Sawant-driven cap on move-in fees that can be charged to renters in Seattle has been upheld by a King County Superior Court judge.

The Seattle City Council approved legislation capping fees in fall 2016 but the new law has been tied up in court by a lawsuit brought be the pro-landlord Rental Housing Association of Washington group.

Under the measure from the District 3 representative, landlords can only charge tenants the first full month’s rent upon move-in and need to allow tenants to pay the security deposit, non-refundable move-in fees, and last month’s rent in installments.

The legislation was driven by research conducted by the Washington Community Action Network, an advocacy organization working on housing justice, conducted a survey study on Seattle’s housing crisis. Researchers found almost 90% of respondents said that the biggest barrier to moving into more affordable housing was the prohibitively expensive up-front fees a landlord can charge a new tenant.

It’s not clear what’s next for the cap law. The landlord advocacy group hasn’t said yet if it plans to appeal the ruling.


Renters dealt a blow as judge rules against Seattle’s ‘First-Come, First-Served Screening Practice’ law

One of the key elements in a legislative package of renter protections passed in Seattle in the summer of 2016 has been struck down in King County Superior Court.

The “first-in-time,” “First-Come, First-Served Screening Practice” legislation required landlords to, as it was described in the Seattle City Council’s press release that summer, “review applications one at a time, on a first-come, first-served basis” in order to prevent “housing providers from giving applicants with alternative sources of income a lower priority.”

Tuesday, a judge sided with a suit brought by the Rental Housing Association and a group of land owners agreeing that the law infringed on property and speech rights.

The City of Seattle is expected to appeal the ruling.

It will have more legal work on its hands defending other legislative efforts to give tenants greater protections in Seattle’s rough and tumble — and hugely profitable — rental market. A move-in fee cap championed by District 3 rep Kshama Sawant also faced nearly immediate legal challenge. And a recent decision to temporarily ban the use of rent bidding services in the city is also entangled in the “first-in-time” decision.

Rent bidding services not a Capitol Hill problem… yet

Like most things newfangled, the problem seems to be first hitting the young renters of Seattle’s University District. But judging by other cities in the West Coast archipelago of tech economy driven urban boomtowns, the early effects of the new revenue models are probably already rippling through Capitol Hill’s rental market.

Thursday morning, Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda’s Housing, Health, Energy, and Workers’ Rights Committee will be discussing a new trend threatening to add to the city’s affordability crisis: landlords using online services for “rent bidding.”

According to the session set to be presented Thursday, the ASUW Student Senate is calling for a moratorium on “Rent Bidding Services.” One report on the Rentberry service quoted the company’s founder taking credit for raising rents 5% above listing prices in the already ultra-expensive San Francisco and San Jose markets.

CHS could find only one Rentberry listing on Capitol Hill — a “cozy Capitol Hill home” listed at a starting rent of $7,500 per month. How does the service work? Here’s the marketing pitch:

Tired of secretive bids? Rentberry is the only platform that provides a transparent rental auction with the ability to submit custom offers. See the current highest proposal and the number of people who applied for the property, so you can make an informed decision.

What could the city council do about the new services? Check out Seattle’s plans to regulate the Airbnb-driven short-term rental market here. Meanwhile, this 12th Ave building stands alone thanks to a very special exception in the rules.

The full presentation document from Thursday’s planned briefing on rent bidding services is below. Continue reading

Capitol Hill renters group to send ‘housing justice’ Valentines to elected officials

The Capitol Hill Renters Initiative, the community group formed to help give renters a voice in the city’s political and development processes, wants to spread some love this Valentine’s Day to local elected officials and community organizations about “housing justice and related issues.”

Capitol Hill Renters Initiative – General Meeting

The group’s February meeting naturally falls on Valentine’s Day so it plans to spend a portion of the night eating chocolate and making Valentines using postcards from neighborhood artist — and renter — Myra Lara. Lara is also a member of the CHRI leadership committee.

If you’re interested in getting involved, next week’s meeting should be a fun way to check out the group. They’ll also be be talking safe consumption sites. Bring some ideas for creative poetry — “Mike O’Brien, how do i love thee? Let me count the ways…” — and a pen. You can also borrow some inspiration from CHS.

CHS Comics | Capitol Hill Valentines