Councilmembers Say Better Rent Data Could Help Preserve “Mom-and-Pop,” “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing”

 

Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of "naturally occurring affordable housing"
Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of “naturally occurring affordable housing”

By Erica C. Barnett

Until 2017, elected officials (and reporters) hoping to get a handle on the availability and cost of rental housing in Seattle relied on reports from a private company called Dupre+Scott, whose forecasts used cheeky videos and graphics to illustrate market predictions and trends. Since Dupre+Scott shut down, the city has relied on Census tract-level data to assess housing trends, including residential displacement—a blunt, high-level instrument that does not account for differences between adjacent neighborhoods that may be in the same Census tract.

Earlier this week, City Councilmember Alex Pedersen rolled out legislation that would require landlords to submit detailed information about their rental units—including the size of each unit, the rent they charge, and whether a unit is occupied or vacant—to a research university, such as the University of Washington, twice a year and to certify under the city’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) that they have done so. The university would analyze the information and submit reports to the city, which would use them to “identify displacement risk” and “inform [the city’s] housing policy,” according to a staff report on the bill.

“My interest,” City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

The context for the proposal is the upcoming update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides the framework for all city decisions on land use and zoning. The comp plan, for example, could prescribe the creation of more neighborhood business districts, encourage zoning changes to add density in single-family areas, or require future land-use policies that encourage the use of nonmotorized transportation. Or it could encourage policies that protect existing rental units at the expense of new housing, preserve trees by maintaining Seattle’s ban on development in single-family areas, or require full infrastructure buildout (roads, sewers, transit service) before an area can be developed—a ’90s neighborhood planning concept known as “concurrency.”

Pedersen, who has been a vocal opponent of allowing more density outside existing urban villages, said the city needed more accurate rental information to determine where “naturally occurring affordable housing” exists and might be at risk of demolition if the city allows denser housing in more areas. “If additional land-use changes were pursued without first putting into effect displacement prevention laws,” Pedersen said, the city might end up adopting policies that lead to the demolition of “affordable, below-market rental housing on the Ave [in the University District] and throughout our city.” (Pedersen cited the Pacific Apartments, pictured above, as an example of naturally occurring affordable housing. Although the website for the building didn’t have any current listings, a 450-square-foot studio was listed at $1,200 last year).

“Naturally occurring affordable housing” generally refers to older units that cost less than newer housing nearby. Advocates for laws to protect this type of housing often refer to the “mom-and-pop landlords” who tend to own such older buildings, without regard for the specific challenges faced by renters who live in this kind of housing, which may be less well-maintained than professionally managed buildings.

Thanks to the rental registration ordinance, the city does have some general information about how many rental units are available each year. In 2020, according to the most recent RRIO report, the number of registered units in the city declined by about 14.4 percent, “but the total number of units stayed relatively stable with only a 0.65% decrease.”

“Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”—City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Although the report notes that registrations may have declined for any number of reasons, including landlords not bothering to update their renewals during the pandemic, Councilmember Sara Nelson said the decline in registrations, combined with the relatively small decline in apartments on the market, “indicates to me that it is the small mom-and-pop landlords that are basically taking properties off the market.

“My interest,” Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who said she supported Pedersen’s legislation, pushed back at the idea that landlords were going out of business because of renter protections. “That is a claim by landlords,” she said. “Nobody else is claiming that. The reality is that property values are skyrocketing. Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”

12 thoughts on “Councilmembers Say Better Rent Data Could Help Preserve “Mom-and-Pop,” “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing””

  1. To tell the truth, I think that this legislation rolled out by City Councilmember Alex Pedersen is quite controversial and, from my point of view, it can cause ambiguous reactions. But in my opinion, no matter what, this new legislation is quite justified because it will entail a great deal of improvement, identifying and fixing necessary problems. I think that it is truly important to determine where “naturally occurring affordable housing” exists because it will open new prospects for renters and landlords, benefiting the housing market in general. In my opinion, this type of housing has a really important concept and it is vital to preserve it because naturally occurring affordable housing affects a lot of people’s lives in a positive way, especially of those who live in substandard properties.

    1. You assume this “will open new prospects for renters and landlords”. Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t. Who will have access to this information?
      If the only people who have access to this information are people who want to redevelop the city, and their hirelings, it will make things worse.

  2. What’s the rush? I read the referenced staff memo, and it looks like there is a disconnect between what the city is asking of the landlords, and what it can use.
    They want the data submitted by Aug 31, yet the city doesn’t even know who will analyze the data. It takes time to ramp up – the insitution that will get the project to analyze the data will need to hire staff, and set up the data base, and set up the processing of the incoming data. That is highly unlikely to be done, and in place, by August.

    Why does it have to be done very six months? This would seem to add a lot of cost to the project. By the way, how much will this cost?

    Who will have access to the data?

    Waht kind of oversight of this information will be in place?

    Who will monitor the monitors?

    In light the trillion-dollar investment funds buying up property in Seattle, it would seen to be prudent to know who will have access to this information, and how will the public be assured that it will not be used in a way that further threatens affordable housing – i.e. a way to cherry-pick units for tear-down/redevelopment, resulting less low-income housing.

  3. This is Sawant’s chickens coming home to roost.

    Her ideological rental laws (which were permitted to pass absent the signature of a cowardly short-timer Mayor) came after her decibel tsunami of speeches that all landlords are evil, and tenants must be granted the legal right to stop paying their rent, without documenting need or repercussions. Sawant’s ‘solution’ is to deny even fair-minded landlords any recourse, and now she claims no responsibility for the fallout.

    Since Sawant seems unclear about the housing dynamics at work in Seattle, let’s be clear: landlords ARE getting out the business which she and the City Council have made completely untenable. Sawant’s observation that “Nobody else is claiming that.” is really an admission of the negative effects of her bias in lopsided lawmaking.

    The City wails and wrings its hands over the lack of units and the low-income or homeless problems, yet approves gargantuan new multi-unit construction projects that are wholly out-of-keeping with the scale and design style of the neighborhoods and does nothing to address the needs of the low-income or homeless.

    Every Seattle homeowner, whether or not they are a landlord, should view Pederson’s bill with great suspicion, given that he makes his aims quite clear: “To mitigate displacement impacts on “marginalized communities, including communities of color and low-income communities, particularly in neighborhoods identified as at high risk of displacement….”

    This translates into the distinct possibility that the City intends to carve up neighborhoods where rental laws are applied unevenly; if the City deems your block as “marginalized”, or perhaps is “at high risk of displacement”, you may be not only compelled to rent your unit, but also at a severely below-market value. Undervalued communities will, by law, remain depressed, while rich communities are protected.

    The City Council seems to be operating from within a vacuum, and Pederson’s additional requirements of Seattle homeowners will only exacerbate Seattle’s rental problems. Given the Seattle City Councils history of passing rental laws that are more like ideology-driven and campaign-minded magical thinking, rather than forward thinking, balanced, and consequence-aware legislation, Seattleites should keep a short leash and sharp eye on this group.

  4. What’s the matter? Afraid the data will show we have enough apartments? That single family homes are in higher demand than apartments? That the percentage of missing middle housing present now and already planned for future is adequate?

  5. i am a small landlord in the city. i can tell you landlords like me are absolutely selling because of increased renter’s rights and intrusive regulations like RRIO.

    on the issue of Alex Pederson’s proposal, is it legal for government to force the details of private contracts to be made available to government? i can’t see how that isn’t a violation of something.

  6. What does “naturally occurring affordable housing” mean? Caves? Uprooted trees one can live under?

    This whole situation — land portioned to the few and rented to the many — is man-made, not “naturally occurring.” There is no affordable housing without affordable land and if land values are too high to permit affordable developments, that value needs to be taxed, to lower the cost and fund services for those who can’t even afford whatever gets built.

    But that will never happen until the state’s Uniformity Clause is tossed out. Until then, we’ll see the 84 sq miles of Seattle become more expensive: you can’t add 250,000 people to a collection of car-dependent suburbs and expect housing prices to stay reasonable.

  7. Want old apartments (aka “naturally occurring affordable housing”) not to be torn down for new apartments? Maybe make it legal to build new apartments anywhere in the city.

    The building pictured above would look like a pretty terrible candidate for redevelopment in comparison to many of the single-family homes within a few blocks of there, if only it were legal to put apartment buildings where the single-family homes now stand. Acting concerned about existing apartments while supporting the existing gerrymandered zoning (“urban village strategy”) is performance art at its finest.

    1. This comment is an absolute crock – thousands if not tens of thousands of unsubsidized affordable apartments (which is EXACTLY what Pederson is referring to) have been torn down citywide over the last ten years and have been replaced with units that rent for far more than the previous tenants could have afforded. Opening up single family zones to what are effectively duplexes and triplexes has similarly resulted in housing that costs far more than the structures that preceded it.

      Builders aren’t building for “affordability” – they’re building to appeal to the top end of the rental and/or purchase market. It is patently dishonest to try and claim otherwise.

      Reaganomics by any other name is still Reaganomics.

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