Pandemic Renter Protections on the Line in State Senate

Image via Nicole Macri’s campaign page.

By Leo Brine

UPDATE: House Bill 1236 passed the House Thursday on a mostly party-line vote of 28-21, without the three Republican amendments. The version that passed was a substitute, or striker, by moderate Democratic Senator Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah).

Senator Patty Kuderer (D-48, Bellevue) told PubliCola that Sen. Mullet’s striker amendment was necessary to get the bill passed and did not damage the overall integrity of the bill. The amendment didn’t alter the list of 16 reasons a landlord could give for evicting a tenant.

The bill, Kuderer said, “will ensure we transition away from the eviction moratorium using an off-ramp and not a cliff.”

ORIGINAL POST:

A bill that would bring an end to no-cause evictions in Washington (HB 1236) had a confusing day on the Senate floor on Monday. Republicans managed to get three amendments added to the bill, stripping away its protections for tenants facing no-cause evictions and exempting small rental properties from the bill entirely, before it was eventually taken off the floor.

An updated version of the bill is heading to a senate floor vote today.

The legislation lists 16 possible causes for a landlord to evict a tenant. “They’re very expansive,” Representative Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), the bill’s primary sponsor, said. “You just need to give a tenant a reason when you ask them to move out.” The causes range from tenants not paying rent, to tenants registering as sex offenders during their tenancy, to the landlord having a “legitimate economic or business reason” for the eviction.

Macri said the bill was informed by various just cause eviction laws and ordinances including the city of Seattle’s, as well as newer ordinances such as Federal Way’s and Auburn’s.

When the bill was introduced on the Senate floor, Republicans introduced three amendments, which all passed the majority-Democratic chamber. Because of the large number of bills the legislature debates at the end of the session, committee chairs and bill sponsors generally caucus with their party members on each amendment, enabling legislators to vote without keeping track of every single amendment. Senator Patty Kuderer (D-48, Bellevue) is the chair of the Senate Housing and Local Government committee and was in charge of informing her colleagues how to vote on the amendments.

“Without just cause [protections], there’s a huge loophole in how pandemic related rent assistance would work. You would just assist landlords in protecting their financial investments”—by paying them back rent—”but it would do nothing to protect housing stability.”—State Rep. Nicole Macri

Senator Marko Liias (D-21, Everett) told PubliCola in a text message that senators discussed all the amendments in caucus, “but with the volume of bills we are debating and the volume of amendments, things can get mixed up.” He said his colleagues would not have voted for the amendments they passed on Monday had they known what they were.

Liias asked for the bill to be taken off the floor, but not before Republicans managed to pass three amendments, including two that were substantive. Senator Chris Gildon (R-25, Puyallup) added an amendment giving landlords the right to evict tenants with “fixed-term leases”—those that do not renew or convert to month-to-month leases after the lease ends— without cause at the end of their lease. Senator Judy Warnick (R-13, Moses Lake) added an amendment that allows landlords to issue no-cause evictions to tenants living in properties with four dwelling units or fewer.

Democrats are trying to forestall a wave of evictions after the state’s eviction moratorium ends on June 30. The House Democrats’ budget proposal includes more than $1 billion for rental assistance to pay back landlords for rent debt that tenants have accrued during the moratorium.

Macri said she has been fighting with Republicans in order to get tenant protection bills passed, but they continue to propose amendments to limit and narrow those protections. She said one reason some lawmakers are not interested in passing comprehensive tenant protection bills is “because many lawmakers have personal experience as small-time landlords.” Lawmakers tend to personalize the policies in the bills because of their landlord experiences, using personal anecdotes to substantiate their opinions that tenant protection bills are harmful,  Macri said.

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Warnick’s amendment to exempt small rental properties from the bill would be devastating to renters outside cities, Macri said, because “basically nobody in rural Washington would have protection.” Outside of major metropolitan areas along the I-5 corridor, she said, rental properties tend to be smaller—more like houses that have been converted to apartments. Even in Seattle, there are more than 26,000 properties with four dwelling units or fewer, according to Edmund Witter at the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, while there are fewer than 5,000 properties with five units or more.

Gildon’s amendment eliminating protections for people on six-month fixed-term leases is a more far-reaching than moderate Democratic Senator Mark Mullet’s (D-5, Issaquah) striker amendment, which would preserve protections for people on fixed-term leases shorter than 12 months. Mullet worked groups representing housing providers and landlords to negotiate a striker amendment (which incorporates multiple amendments into a single proposal) that waters down the effects of the bill in some of the same ways the Republicans’ amendments passed on Monday did.

The striker still exempts landlords from the just-cause protections for the most common form of residential leases—six-to-12-month leases that revert to month-to-month status once the initial lease term is over—allowing them to evict tenants at the end of their lease term without giving a reason as long as they provide 60 days’ notice. After a lease reverted to month-to-month status, landlords would be required to provide a reason for the eviction from among the 16 listed in Macri’s bill.

Macri hopes her colleagues in the Senate roll back the amendments, in her opinion, “they gut the bill.”

“Without just cause [protections], there’s a huge loophole in how pandemic related rent assistance would work,” she said. “You would just assist landlords in protecting their financial investments”—by paying them back rent—”but it would do nothing to protect housing stability.”

Macri is also working to pass Kuderer’s own tenant protection bill (SB 5160) in the House. “These two bills work together,”  Macri said. Kuderer’s bill would require landlords to offer rent repayment plans so tenants are not smothered by their accrued debt after the eviction moratorium ends. The bill also offers landlords reimbursement through the state Landlord Mitigation Program if a tenant abandons their lease or defaults on their repayment plan.

Kuderer’s bill would bar landlords from imposing late fees on tenants who did not pay rent at any time between March 2020 and six months after the end of the eviction moratorium. The bill also creates an Eviction Resolution Pilot Program to mediate rent payment disputes between tenants and landlords and provides legal representation to indigent tenants facing eviction. The bill has been placed on second reading in the House Rules committee and will likely have a floor vote soon.

The Senate Democrats will propose a new striker amendment to the bill when it goes to the chamber floor for a vote Thursday afternoon. The Senate plans to remove the amendments that they mistakenly passed on Monday before they vote on the bill.

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