By Erica C. Barnett
When City Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposed legislation that would require landlords to report basic information about their rental units, such as the size of each unit they own and how much it rents for, twice a year, his intent wasn’t to make it harder for small landlords to stay in business.
In fact, one of the goals of the proposal was to provide data to demonstrate the value of protecting so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing”—private, nonsubsidized apartments that rent below market rate—against development, through limits on density in areas that might otherwise be redeveloped into high-rise apartments.
So it was somewhat surprising when, earlier this month, Pedersen’s frequent ally Sara Nelson accused him of trying to impose onerous regulations that would “burden small landlords” who are “really struggling to deal with the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses.” Comparing housing to consumer goods, Nelson said the legislation would force landlords to divulge “proprietary” information that other types of businesses don’t have to disclose.
“We don’t ask other small business owners for this kind of detailed information,” Nelson said during a May 20 meeting of the council’s renter’s rights committee. “For example, we don’t ask all produce vendors to submit the kinds of vegetables they sell and the prices they charge.” (Actually, we do, and on a much larger scale.)
Pedersen, seeming a bit startled by the analogy, pointed out that “the current prices of products are publicly available, whereas we don’t know what the current contract rents are for an apartment project.”
“The problem here is that the price of housing is not known,” added committee chair Kshama Sawant, who supports Pedersen’s legislation. “I don’t understand how it is a burden to disclose the amount of rent you charge—it seems to be the most basic form of information that landlords should be required to share.”
In response, Nelson said people can find out what rents landlords are charging, “kind of, when you’re looking for units,” and that if the city wants to know more about rents they should hire a contractor to do a study. Then she said supporters of the legislation should be honest and acknowledge that “this information is going to be used for other political purposes, such as rent control.”
Sawant, a socialist, supports rent control; Pedersen, a former aide to onetime City Council member Tim Burgess, does not.
Prior to 2017, the private firm Dupre + Scott issued detailed, informative reports about rents and rental trends, but since they closed, the city has had to rely on high-level Census information to keep tabs on rental data, including residential displacement rates. (In contrast, housing purchase prices are monitored by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service, which regularly issues detailed, neighborhood-level reports.)
As we reported in March, Pedersen has argued that knowing more about the rents landlords charge for various apartment sizes will help inform the 2024 update of Seattle’s comprehensive plan, the document that governs rules around land use and development in the city. “We really want to do more to prevent displacement, prevent economic displacement of existing residents, and we need to understand where this below market housing exists,” Pedersen said
The committee voted 3-2 to move the legislation forward to the full council, which will take it up on Tuesday; Council President Debora Juarez joined Nelson in voting “no,”