By Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Bruce Harrell has vetoed legislation that would have required landlords to report basic information about the units they own, including how much they charge for apartments of various sizes, to a research university. The bill, which the city council passed 5-4 last week, had support from council members across the ideological spectrum, including Alex Pedersen (who proposed the bill as a step toward preserving “mom and pop”-owned rentals) and Kshama Sawant (who argued that rent transparency would support more renter-friendly policies.)
In vetoing the legislation, Harrell argued that the bill would violate landlords’ rights by revealing “proprietary” information about their rental units. Citing a constituent letter from the head of the University of Washington’s Washington Center for Real Estate Research, Harrell said any data the research university collected would be “unreliable” because landlords would choose to (illegally) opt out or provide inaccurate data on purpose, since providing accurate data might put their business interests at risk.
For years, the city (and public) did have access to accurate, frequently updated rent data through reports produced by a private company called Dupre+Scott. Since 2017, the city has had to rely on high-level Census information to keep tabs on rents and residential displacement rates. Harrell’s veto letter asks “private industry” to step up and voluntarily produce the kind of data Dupre+Scott provided—something that private industry has declined to do in the five years since Dupre+Scott shut down.
The legislation Harrell vetoed would not have enabled the public to see what rents specific landlords were charging. Instead, it would have improved transparency and access to general information that could have helped renters make informed housing decisions, leveling the information playing field between renters and house buyers, who have instant access to listing and sale prices through data collected by the Northwest multiple Listing Service.
Harrell also said in his veto letter that the legislation would have cost the city too much money—between $2 million and $5 million—at a time when the city is asking every department to come up with potential cuts. “I cannot support moving forward with an expensive new program that is unlikely to achieve its stated aims and has no clear source of funding to pay for it,” Harrell wrote.
“Rejecting this law seems to be a victory for landlords unwilling to share data and a loss for those seeking data to make informed decisions on preserving and expanding affordable housing in our city.” —City Councilmember Alex Pedersen
Contradicting that claim, Harrell also said it would be irresponsible to spend millions collecting data on rents when that money “could otherwise directly serve people suffering in the ongoing homelessness crisis.”
In a statement this afternoon, the bill’s primary sponsor Pedersen said he is “deeply disappointed our solution to collect housing data helpful for preventing displacement of economically vulnerable people was not signed into law. Similar laws to collect rental housing data are already in place throughout the nation, so the veto means Seattle is still behind the times.”
“Rejecting this law seems to be a victory for landlords unwilling to share data and a loss for those seeking data to make informed decisions on preserving and expanding affordable housing in our city,” Pedersen continued.
Nelson, the most vocal council opponent of the legislation, said asking for rent data would “burden small landlords” who are “really struggling to deal with the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses.” Renters have plenty of information already, she continued, because they can already get a sense of area rents, “kind of, when you’re looking for units”—implying that posts on Craigslist are an adequate substitute for knowing what the average rent is in a neighborhood.
Assuming Harrell’s veto stands (likely, since overturning a veto requires six council votes), tenants will have to continue to sign contracts without accurate information about area rents, and the city will have to continue to make policy that impacts renters without knowing what kind of rents landlords are actually charging in various neighborhoods.