Category: Renters

Landlords Target Renters With Predatory Junk Fees

Photo by Tony Webster on Flickr; CC by 2.0 license

By Katie Wilson

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in The Progressive, and is reprinted here with permission.

Last summer, Seattle renter Jake Thoennes received a written notice from his landlord demanding that he remove the potted plants from his balcony within ten days. That might sound absurd, especially given that Thoennes’ lease permitted planting flowers on balconies. But here’s the kicker: The notice came with a $75 “Notice Fee.” This hefty fee was charged “for preparing and giving the notice” that the plants had to go.

When President Joe Biden announced an offensive against “junk fees” in his State of the Union address, many renters around the United States must have been nodding their heads knowingly. The nation’s 44 million renter households, especially tenants of corporate landlords, are facing an explosion of bogus fees.

Like the hidden charges that appear when you buy a ticket to a sporting event, these fees are not correlated with any tangible service being provided, or with any special effort or cost incurred by businesses. They are predatory fees that landlords charge simply because they can, and today’s rental market appears to be amplifying rather than correcting them.

Rental “junk fees” are arguably more noxious than those attached to consumer purchases. They can cause families to lose their housing and become homeless. They can tank people’s credit scores and imperil their ability to successfully apply for rental housing in the future.

Notice delivery fees like the one imposed by Thoennes’ landlord are becoming more common, according to Devin Glaser, an attorney who represents tenants in legal disputes with their landlords. “More often than not the landlords just surprise people with a fee after delivering a notice,” he said.

But sometimes a new policy is officially announced. “Hello Residents,” the property manager at Sorento Flats Apartments in Seattle began in an email to tenants in December 2022. “Sorento will now be implementing notice fees. This means that any notices given in regards to lease violations and or past due payments will accrue a notice fee. The notice fee is: $50.00 and will be issued per violation.”

In addition to imposing notice delivery fees, landlords are increasingly adding on nonrefundable charges when a tenant signs a lease. Renter Corina Pfeil paid a $300 “administrative fee” and a $162.75 “application fee” when she signed her second-year lease renewal last fall. 

This new fee, the email emphasized, is not the same as a late fee. Rather, “the notice fee will be in addition to the late fee and you will be responsible to pay both fees along with the past due balance. Thank you for your tenancy.”

In addition to imposing notice delivery fees, landlords are increasingly adding on nonrefundable charges when a tenant signs a lease. Renter Corina Pfeil paid a $300 “administrative fee” and a $162.75 “application fee” when she signed her second-year lease renewal last fall.

“They told me the administrative fee was for employee time and whatever it took to process the lease,” said Pfeil, who serves as a city council member in Kenmore. How about the $162.75? “They were never really clear about that.”

Washington Democratic State Representative Nicole Macri, a longtime advocate for stronger renter protections, explains that fees like these can be used in a discriminatory manner: “People looking for rental housing have reported to me that a landlord said something like, ‘Normally I don’t rent to people like you, but if you pay this fee, we can work it out,'” Macri said.

That means the most vulnerable renters—people with imperfect credit scores or criminal histories, as well as low-income and Black and brown families—may be the most likely to get stuck with additional fees.

Lease-signing fees like these are not a universal practice, as my own experience as a Seattle renter highlights. I’ve lived in one building since 2018 and signed five leases in that time. The property is managed by a company that oversees over 6,000 units in the Seattle area and is known neither as an especially good nor an especially bad actor; it gets a measly two stars on Yelp. But never once have I been asked to pay any kind of administrative fee for the privilege of signing a lease. Why should I? I pay a lot of rent to my landlord every single month.

“The property management did not tell me, ‘Oh, by the way, you will have to go month-to-month, you can’t sign a new lease,’” Kirkland renter Lynda Hardwick said. And that meant paying an extra monthly fee of almost $600—on top of rent and the repayment plan.

So does Pfeil. On top of the lease renewal fees, her landlord raised her rent from $1,793 a month to $2,043 a month—an increase of 14 percent. She did have the option not to sign a new fixed-term lease. Instead, she could have let her tenancy convert automatically to a month-to-month lease. But, she said, “if I went month-to-month it would be $817 a month more.” Her rent would have jumped to $2,860, or a total increase of nearly 60 percent.

Month-to-month fees are not a new phenomenon, but Glaser and other attorneys I spoke with said they appear to be increasing in prevalence and magnitude. In part, this may be a response to regulation. In 2021, the Washington State legislature passed a Just Cause Eviction law, requiring landlords to cite a good reason when evicting a tenant. This law, however, exempts many fixed-term leases, allowing landlords to force a tenant out at the end of a lease for no stated reason. The exemption creates an extra incentive for landlords to keep tenants on fixed-term leases, and charging prohibitive month-to-month fees is one way to do that.

But some landlords seem to be pushing tenants into month-to-month leases with outrageous fees. A landlord will simply let a tenant’s lease expire without offering a new one, and months later the tenant will be informed that thousands of dollars in month-to-month fees have been accumulating on the ledger. This is also illegal, since Washington state law requires sixty days’ written notice of any rent increase, and a number of local jurisdictions have established even higher notice standards.

Lynda Hardwick, a renter in Kirkland, found herself trapped in a different way. After losing a major source of income during the COVID-19 pandemic and falling behind on rent, she worked out a repayment plan with her landlord. When her lease expired last fall, with $1,800 left to pay off, she got a nasty surprise: She couldn’t renew her lease.

“The property management did not tell me [upfront]… ‘Oh, by the way, you will have to go month-to-month, you can’t sign a new lease,’” she said. And that meant paying an extra monthly fee of almost $600—on top of rent and the repayment plan. Continue reading “Landlords Target Renters With Predatory Junk Fees”

Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents

Bellwether Housing's Anchor Flats building in South Lake Union
Bellwether Housing, whose properties include the Anchor Flats apartment building in South Lake Union, is limiting rent increases this year. Image via Bellwether Housing

By Katie Wilson

It’s no secret that rents are rising. Landlords are making up for lost time after pandemic-era rent freezes, and passing inflation-driven cost increases on to tenants. After a brief exodus from urban areas, many renters who left have now returned. Climbing interest rates are forcing potential homebuyers to wait, crowding the rental market.

With all these pressures driving up market-rate rents, it must feel great to live in an affordable, rent-restricted apartment right now. Right?

Maybe not. A quiet wave of large rent hikes is coming. For some, it’s already here. Earlier this month, seniors at a building operated by Mercy Housing in Bellingham hit the streets to protest a 9 percent rent increase that left some residents owing more than 60 percent of their monthly income to their nonprofit landlord—twice as much as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s definition of “affordable” housing.

Every April, HUD releases income and rent limits for certain types of affordable housing, based on area median income. Once upon a time, these limits might rise in King County by 1 or 2 percent a year, but starting in 2017, the annual increase jumped as high as 7 percent. The pandemic briefly slowed this ascent, but the increase announced this April is truly startling: In HUD’s calculation, King County’s median family income rose by 16.3 percent from 2021 to 2022. That means rents at properties governed by HUD’s formulas may also rise by 16.3 percent this year—or even more, if a unit wasn’t already priced at its upper limit.

Of course, the fact that King County’s median household is now pulling in $134,600 instead of $115,700 doesn’t mean that lower-income households suddenly have more money to spend on rent. Seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, working families earning near the minimum wage—they’re not getting raises like that. Therein lies the problem.

Although many types of affordable housing are protected from large rent increases, many buildings financed with federal low income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and tax-exempt bonds are not. The same is true for most units whose rents are restricted through state and local multifamily tax exemptions (MFTE) and programs like incentive zoning and Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program.

When the HUD limits began rising sharply several years ago, the city of Seattle changed the rules for new MFTE units so that maximum rents wouldn’t go up more than 4.5 percent a year. That change has kept rent hikes within reason for more than 200 units so far, but tenants living in older MFTE units—about 5,600—are subject to the escalating HUD limits.

That’s how Fatima ended up with a rent increase of over $600 a month. (We’ve changed the names of renters to protect their privacy).

More than a year ago, Fatima moved into an MFTE unit in North Seattle thanks to a rapid rehousing program run by a domestic violence organization. (Rapid rehousing is a form of temporary rent subsidy that helps low-income renters pay for housing). The rent was $1,500 for a 2-bedroom—significantly less than the going rent for the area, possibly because there weren’t many takers during the pandemic slump

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

Fatima said her landlord assured her that the rent wouldn’t go up drastically. After the rapid rehousing support ended, she was selected for an emergency housing voucher, a federal COVID relief program similar to Section 8 (now known as Housing Choice) that pays for a portion of a tenant’s rent.

Fatima’s housing advocate said the building’s owners assured her the rent wouldn’t go up by much—$100, or maybe $300. When they got the final lease papers, they were shocked: The new rent was more than $2,100 a month, an increase of more than 40 percent.

“We said, hold on, you told us it wouldn’t be that much. They said, you know, it’s based on the market,” said the housing advocate. “That put it over the [rent] limit for her voucher.” 

This week, Fatima’s landlord agreed to lower her rent to fit her voucher limit, allowing her to stay in her home. But not every renter is able to negotiate that kind of agreement.

Seniors on fixed incomes are an especially vulnerable group. King County’s area median income has been rising faster than social security payments for some time now. When the rent rises beyond seniors’ means, “we simply have nowhere else to go,” said Sarah, who lives in a senior housing complex in Seattle.

Sarah’s building was financed through the federal LIHTC program, and up until four years ago, it was run by a nonprofit. “Rent increases were minimal, and management was responsive to tenants’ needs,” she said. Then a national for-profit company bought the building. By that time, many tenants were also voucher holders, seeking out lower-cost units as market-rate rents rose beyond what their vouchers would cover. The corporation quickly showed itself to be all business.

“A tenant association begun under previous ownership was not allowed to use common rooms for meetings,” said Sarah, and a manager threatened to evict a tenant who started a Facebook group for residents. The corporation also tried to require electronic rent payments, until residents pointed out that this is illegal in Seattle.

Now some tenants are facing rent increases of $175 a month, surpassing some residents’ voucher limits. “Because some voucher holders have disabilities involving psychological difficulties, this situation caused much anguish,” said Sarah. “All tenants, including those with vouchers, know that buildings like ours are their only answer—they are shut out of market-rate housing and waiting lists for low-income apartments are years long.”

Not every resident of affordable housing is in trouble. Programs that receive federal operating funds typically limit the amount of rent tenants must pay to 30 percent of the person’s income; this includes many buildings owned and managed by the King County Housing Authority and the Seattle Housing Authority. Housing Choice voucher holders are similarly protected—as long as they live in units with rent low enough that a voucher will pay for them. Many nonprofit housing providers also receive operating funds from other sources that come with limits on rent hikes.

“The city of Seattle is a funder in most of our buildings,” said Michelle House, director of compliance at Community Roots Housing. “This year, Seattle restricted [rent increases] to 4.2 percent. We did follow that guideline for most of our apartments.”

Susan Boyd, CEO of Bellwether Housing, says that rent increases at their properties depend “on the building and which entities regulate the building, if any.” But Bellwether made a decision this year to limit rent hikes to an average of 3 percent.

“Notwithstanding ever-increasing rents in the market and significant inflation in operation costs, this will be the first year since 2019 that we have raised rents at all. We are very careful to ensure that our residents do not get overwhelmed by steep rent increases, regardless of what is happening with the HUD rent levels,” she said.

Continue reading “Big Rent Increases Are Coming For Some Affordable Housing Residents”

Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda

Despite Democratic control in both houses, Washington state’s tax code remains deeply inequitable.

By Leo Brine

Last Thursday marked the end of the 2022 legislative session. Lawmakers only had 60 days to pass legislation, write and pass two supplemental budgets, and pass a transportation spending package. At the outset of the session, Democrats, who have a 57-seat majority in the house and a 29-seat majority in the senate, said they wanted to pass bills to help with housing affordability, homelessness, environmental sustainability, and the economy.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) told PubliCola, “it was not a great year in terms of policy.” Macri pointed out that Democrats killed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) bill to allow denser housing statewide (HB 1782) and Rep. Sharon Shewmake’s (D-42, Bellingham) accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bill (HB 1660), both of which could have helped the state increase its housing stock. Bateman’s bill would have required all Washington cities to include denser housing options, like fourplexes and courtyard apartments, in neighborhoods zoned for single-family housing, while Shewmake’s would have permitted mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages in all types of residential neighborhoods.

When it comes to housing, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle) said “it was not a great year in terms of policy.”

The legislature also killed Rep. Strom Peterson’s (D-21, Lynnwood) tenant protections bill (HB 1904), failing to vote on it by the first legislative deadline.  Michele Thomas from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said it was “one of the biggest losses of the session,” adding, “Democrats in the House shouldn’t have been afraid to vote on that bill.” The bill would have required landlords to give tenants six months’ notice before increasing rent; capped fees for late rent payments at $75; and provided tenants who could not afford a rent increase assistance moving somewhere they could afford. Thomas said the bill was tame and didn’t propose any kind of rent control, typically a third rail for legislators.

Democrats did manage to pass some homelessness bills that will provide temporary help to people living on the streets. The house and senate passed Rep. Frank Chopp’s (D-43, Seattle) bill that attempts to connect people under the state’s Apple Health (Medicaid) program with permanent supportive housing (HB 1866). Although the bill initially passed without funding, Democrats secured $60 million for the program in the capital budget. Macri saw the provision as a necessary upgrade. “Being on the budget team, I tried to focus on making sure we had strong investments because we didn’t have the strong policy I wanted to see pass,” she said.

To respond to the ongoing climate crisis, which is only getting worse, Democrats used their transportation package to try and reduce the state’s overall emissions by investing in electrified ferries, expanded transit services and better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Climate Solutions Washington Director Kelly Hall said she was pleased with the investments Democrats made with the transportation package and hopes they will allocate more of the funding from the transportation package toward electrifying heavy-duty machinery, like long-haul trucks and construction vehicles, between now and the 2023 legislative session.

While Hall supports the transportation package, she said the legislature failed to pass bills that would reduce emissions from the state’s gas-heated buildings and from other common polluters people don’t often think of. Hall pointed out Rep. Macri’s bill (HB 1918) would have exempted the purchase of energy efficient lawn equipment from the state’s sales tax and encouraged more people to ditch their gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers for zero-emission models. Gas-powered lawn tools “emit a lot of toxic air pollution right in our communities,” Hall said. Continue reading “Olympia Wrapup: Democratic Majority Falls Short on Core Democratic Agenda”

Lawsuit Against SPD Highlights OPA Concerns with Police K-9s; Inslee Extends Eviction Moratorium

1. A woman who was attacked by a Seattle Police Department dog during a training exercise in January 2020 filed a lawsuit against the city last week. While the attack was accidental, the incident is the latest in a string of missteps by SPD’s K-9 units that have put the risks of using police dogs on display—including a 2018 incident involving the same officer implicated in the new lawsuit.

On a soggy Thursday last January, Valerie Heffernan spent her break under an umbrella in a nondescript Tukwila parking lot. Earlier in the day, SPD officers had set up a training course for K-9 dogs that ran through the same parking lot—unbeknownst to Heffernan.

Around a corner from where she sat, Officer Anthony Ducre led a police dog named Jedi along the track on a long lead, losing sight of the dog when it rounded a corner. There, Jedi found Heffernan and, acting on training, immediately attacked her. When medics arrived, they brought Heffernan to Valley Medical Center to treat a serious bite wound in her thigh.

Ducre’s record as a K-9 officer has raised eyebrows among Seattle’s police oversight in the past and had already prompted changes to the department’s police dog policies.

In 2018, Ducre tried to stop a pair who he suspected of stealing a car. The duo were walking up a driveway—away from Ducre—when he stepped out of his cruiser and ordered them to turn around, threatening to release his dog if they didn’t obey. When the two didn’t respond, Ducre shouted at them to drop to the ground.

By the time they complied seconds later, it was too late: Ducre set his dog loose, and it immediately attacked them as they lay on the pavement.

OPA DirectorMyerberg also took the opportunity to recommend two changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs.

In a subsequent interview with Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigators, Ducre falsely claimed the pair had attempted to “escape” arrest and posed a threat to (nonexistent) bystanders; he also claimed that he had tried to de-escalate the encounter by standing behind the door of his patrol vehicle. In a ruling released in 2019, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg determined that Ducre had, in fact, spent almost the entire 13-second interaction running towards the pair while shouting commands and threatening to release a police dog—the opposite of de-escalation.

Myerberg also questioned whether Ducre had probable cause to conduct the stop in the first place, given the shaky evidence linking the two individuals to the car theft; regardless, Myerberg noted that, according to federal case law, unleashed police dogs are only appropriate weapons when pursuing armed suspects linked to a violent crime—not suspected car thieves.

Ducre received a two-day suspension for failing to de-escalate and using force inappropriately. Myerberg also took the opportunity to recommend changes to SPD’s policies on the use of police dogs: among others, that “a fleeing subject does not, by itself, provide a justification to use a canine.”

But while investigating the first incident, Ducre’s sparked yet another OPA investigation after he released a police dog to attack another car theft suspect, who was hiding in a bush.

In that investigation, Ducre claimed that using his dog against a hidden suspect—who, he argued, could have been armed—was consistent with his training. Myerberg agreed, concluding that the K-9 unit’s commanders were to blame for training officers to use police dogs inappropriately, so Ducre could not be held responsible.

“It appears to OPA that the K-9 unit’s chain of command consistently falls back on the defense that their officers’ actions were consistent with the training provided to the unit,” he wrote. “However, if the unit is providing training that is inconsistent with law or that is resulting in out of policy uses of force, this is a significant problem.”

While SPD later adjusted its K-9 policies, a 2020 audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the department’s policy revisions included notable flaws, including ambiguity about whether officers can use police dogs at protests.

But Heffernan’s lawsuit points to additional problems in the training program for the police dogs themselves. According to the OIG audit, SPD doesn’t have a reliable, secure off-leash training area for police dogs; instead, handlers use ad hoc agreements with property owners to find places to train dogs.

Since 2015, the OPA has investigated 10 allegations of excessive force by K-9 officers involving dog bites, six of which led to discipline, re-training, or policy revision.

2. Governor Jay Inslee has extended the state’s eviction moratorium, originally set to expire at the end of this month, to September 30, giving tenants more time to get back on their feet following the pandemic and allowing counties to get eviction protections in place.

The governor’s extension prohibits landlords from evicting a tenant for rent that went unpaid between February 29, 2020 and July 31, 2021. Under the extension, landlords will not be allowed to evict tenants until a rental assistance program and an eviction resolution program is in place.

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running.”—Governor Jay Inslee

Starting August 1, renters will need to start paying their full rents again unless they have previously negotiated a payment plan with their landlord or are in the process of getting rental assistance. Landlords will be able to evict tenants for non-payment beginning August 1, but will first need to offer a repayment plan.

To prevent a wave of evictions and a sharp increase in homelessness, the legislature passed several housing bills over the last session to ease Washington out of the original moratorium, including providing rental assistance to landlords and tenants and guarantying legal representation to a tenant in eviction court (SB 5160).

“We’re putting a bridge into place until these funds are actually available and until protections are actually up and running,” Inslee said at a press conference on Thursday.

The governor’s decision comes after President Biden announced he would be extending the federal eviction moratorium another 30-days and after the city of Seattle declared it would extend its eviction moratorium to September 30.

Over the course of the pandemic, tenants have accrued more than $1.1 billion in rent debt. The state has not outlined plans to cancel rent debt, only to distribute rental assistance. So if a tenant is unable to go back to paying their full rent on top of paying back their rent debt, they may end up evicted as soon as their county gets rental assistance and begins resolution programs. Roughly 220,000 Washington households predict they won’t be able to make rent his month, according to Census data.

It’s Time for a Biden-Era Mandatory Housing Affordability Plan

by Josh Feit

The report is out. Mandatory Housing Affordability: Fail.

With such solid results, how can I say that?

It’s true, the numbers are impressive. MHA dollars accounted for 45 percent of the city’s affordable housing spending in 2020, or $52.3 million. (MHA actually brought in $68.3 million total last year, and the city will carry over the additional $16 million in MHA money for 2021 affordable housing projects.)

And while the longtime Seattle Housing Levy’s $56.7 million accounted for more of 2020’s affordable housing spending, 48 percent, MHA actually created 110 more rent-restricted units than the venerated levy—698 funded by MHA versus 588 funded by the levy.

In short, this brand-new inclusionary housing mechanism, which came online in 2019 after five years of old-school neighborhood lawsuits and challenges, more than matched the levy, a 40-year-old property tax program that cost homeowners a median of $122 a year in 2016.

MHA is an affordable housing mandate that upzoned a sliver of Seattle’s exclusive single-family areas while requiring developers to either pay a fee, which goes into an affordable housing fund, or build a percentage of affordable units on site. MHA applies to every new multifamily or commercial building in the city. And it costs you nothing. Oh, and the $52.3 million for 698 units doesn’t even include the 104 on-site affordable housing units that MHA created; the city does not track on-site units as affordable housing dollars.

So, with such glowing stats, why “fail?”

I mean it the same way Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package was a failure and Democrats are now applauding Biden for going big on his $4.1 trillion infrastructure plan. In other words, if we’re getting a nearly-$70 million-a-year bang for our buck on affordable housing dollars from the polite MHA upzones the council passed in 2019, it’s time to do a Biden and go bigger.

If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing.

MHA only upzoned 6 percent of the city’s single-family zones, which make up around 65 percent of the city’s developable land. Under MHA, the city also did some earlier upzones between 2017 and 2019 in parts of six  neighborhoods where some density was already allowed, such as downtown, the University District, South Lake Union, and 23rd Avenue in the Central District

Back when the council passed the final pieces of MHA two years ago, the city’s two at-large council members, Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, were already playing Elizabeth Warren to the mayor’s Larry Summers. Caving to pressure from the slow-growth Seattle Times, former mayor Ed Murray scrapped his initial MHA upzone proposal, which would have raised the ceiling on height regulations in single family zones at large.

“For some, this housing affordability legislation goes too far,” González said from the council dais when the council passed MHA in March 2019, “for others it does not go far enough.” It was clear which side González was on. “So, let’s chat a little bit about that dynamic,” she said. “Contrary to the name of the Select Committee on Citywide MHA, this legislation is not even close to citywide. This legislation impacts a total of only 6 percent of existing areas currently and strictly zoned as single family home zones. That means even with the passage of MHA legislation, approximately 60 percent of the city of Seattle is still under the cloud of exclusionary zoning laws.” She went on to give a history lesson of racist housing covenants in Seattle.

Councilmember Mosqueda sounded the same note. “I’m sad that we’re not actually having a conversation about citywide changes,” she said. “I think that’s the next conversation to have. Larger changes that create a more inclusive Seattle. Again, this is just an effort to look at 6 percent of the single family zoning in our city.”

González is running for mayor this year, and Mosqueda is backing her. Here’s hoping González is actually committed to doing something about “the cloud of exclusionary zoning.” Not only because it will help create a more inclusive city, but according to the numbers, it would be good affordable housing policy.

Think about it. If a bumper-bowling upzone was able to create a fund comparable to the Housing Levy without raising any taxes, imagine what a grown-up upzone would do for affordable housing. While we created 1,300 units last year, we should be building a total of 244,000 net new affordable homes by 2040, according to the King County’s Regional Affordable Housing Task Force, or about 12,000 a year.

Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

Upzoning the rest of the city—the part that remains exclusively single-family—would certainly help. Another important stat, one that’s not in the report: $10 million of all MHA proceeds to date have come from developments within the sliver of city land that used to be zoned exclusively single-family.

This is noteworthy. Here’s why. There are three main streams of MHA money: first, payments from developments in selected multifamily hubs that became subject to MHA in 2017, including parts of 23rd Ave. in the Central District, the University District, and Uptown; next, payments from developments in all multifamily zones, from the new MHA legislation that took effect in 2019; and also payments from developments in the upzoned sliver of former single-family zones.

Over the four years between 2016 and 2020, the hub upzones, which went into effect earlier, have generated about 60 percent of the money from MHA, most of that in 2020. But since 2019, when MHA dollars started flowing in from the multifamily areas and the former single-family areas, nearly a third of the additional money from those new revenue sources—$10 million of $36 million remaining total—has been from development in the sliver that used to be single-family.

That outsized stat indicates just how attractive these formerly verboten zones, which sit on the edges of existing urban centers and urban villages, are for new housing. If we actually upzoned all of the city’s exclusive single-family areas, instead of just six percent, we’d have a better chance at generating the money to build the affordable housing stock this city needs.

While the upzoned former single-family zones did generate $10 million for affordable housing, there is another MHA fail. None of the on-site MHA housing was built in those areas. That needs to change. Opening up the entire city to multifamily housing, as opposed to the begrudging 6 percent allotted in MHA, would create more options for on-site multifamily development in these zones themselves. Hopefully, the next conversation about upzones will address how to actually put multifamily housing in amenity-rich SFZs.

The name of this column is Maybe Metropolis. My verdict on MHA?  Emphasis remains on “maybe” until we do mandatory housing affordability right and make it actually citywide.

Olympia Fizz: More Calls for Inslee to Reject Weakened ADU Bill; State Rejects Eyman’s Anti-Capital Gains Tax Efforts

1. A pro-renter outcry against watered-down state legislation emerged this week when two dozen organizations and businesses signed on to a letter, originally drafted by the progressive Sightline think tank; the Sightline letter, which we reported on last week, asks Gov. Jay Inslee to issue a partial veto of accessory dwelling unit legislation that state representatives amended with anti-renter provisions.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? The AARP of Washington, Climate Solutions, 350 Seattle, Amazon, the Washington State Labor Council, SEIU 775, and the Sierra Club, among others.

As we reported, the initial proposal, by state Sen. Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), would have banned owner-occupancy for secondary units, such as backyard cottages, allowing renters to live in both single-family houses and their accessory units—opening up exclusive single-family neighborhoods to more people. However, state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) kicked off a House process that led to a radical rewrite, allowing owner occupancy mandates and imposing new restrictions designed to prevent homeowners from renting out their secondary units as Airbnbs.

Joining Sightline in a mini-rebellion against the House Democrats’ changes? 350 Seattle, AARP Washington, Climate Solutions, the Washington State Labor Council, and the Sierra Club, among many others.

“ADUs alone will not solve the state’s housing shortage,” the letter says. “But they are the gentlest way communities can add relatively affordable homes that offer lower income families more choices and allow seniors to age in place.”

2. Coming off yet another major legal loss, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman has stumbled again. The Republican Washington Secretary of State’s office threw out all four of Eyman’s anti-capital gains tax (SB 5096) referendum proposals.

The capital gains tax bill, which passed this year, would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains of $250,000 or more, but conservatives are already champing at the bit to stop it from taking effect. Earlier this week, two conservative groups filed lawsuits against the bill, arguing that it constitutes an unconstitutional income tax.

Rejecting the measures, Washington State Director of Elections Lori Augino cited the bill’s necessity clause, an amendment added by Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle), which says that the tax is “is necessary for the support of the state government and its existing public institutions.” This places it outside the scope of citizens’ referendum power, Augino wrote.

Eyman’s referendum method would have been the safest option for conservatives to stop the bill. The other options are a lawsuit or a voter initiative, which requires twice as many signatures—about 325,000, or 8 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

While the lawsuits could also upend the Democrats’ plans, they may also backfire on the conservatives. The Washington State Supreme Court could uphold the tax by ruling that it’s an excise tax, not an income tax. Or they could overturn a 1933 decision that defined income as property, which, under the state constitution, must be taxed at a 1 percent uniform tax rate. If the court overturns that ruling, Democratic lawmakers would finally have the opportunity to pass a graduated income tax in the state.

Morning Fizz: “Unlikely Alliance” Narrative Falls Flat, City’s Hotel Shelters Aren’t ADA Accessible; and State Moves to Fund Eviction Prevention

1. The Seattle press corps seems to have settled on the narrative that Compassion Seattle, the campaign to amend the city’s constitution to require the city to fund shelter and housing and keep parks and public spaces “clear”) (without providing any new funding for either purpose) is the result of an “unlikely alliance” between groups that don’t usually agree.

A quick look at the two supposed “sides”: of this alliance—on one, the Downtown Seattle Association, a business group; on the other, a list of homeless service providers that operate downtown—quickly reveals that this “unlikely alliance” story is largely an illusion.

The service providers that are supporting the initiative have long histories of working closely with downtown businesses; the directors of both Plymouth Housing and the Chief Seattle Club, for example, is on the board of the Downtown Seattle Association, while the CEO of the DSA is on the board of the Downtown Emergency Center. The Public Defender Association, meanwhile, started its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in collaboration with downtown businesses as well as the Seattle Police Department.

Another indication that Compassion Seattle is primarily a business-led effort, not one emerging from the homeless advocacy community, is the list of financial backers on the PAC’s latest fundraising email. (Political action committees are required to list their top funders on campaign literature.) They are: Downtown developer Martin Smith Inc; downtown and South Lake Union developer Vulcan; Fourth Avenue Associates LP, a large downtown real estate firm owner; and Clise Properties, which owns millions of square feet of downtown real estate; and ex-Microsoft millionaire Christopher Larson.

A quick look at the two supposed “sides”: of this alliance—on one, the Downtown Seattle Association, a business group; on the other, a list of homeless service providers that operate downtown—quickly reveals that this “unlikely alliance” story is largely an illusion.

Larson was one of the largest contributors to 2019’s People for Seattle campaign, whose incendiary attack ads made that year’s city council campaigns some of the ugliest in recent Seattle history. People for Seattle, like Compassion Seattle, was started by former city council member (and anti-panhandling crusader) Tim Burgess.

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2. Although it’s common for unsheltered people to have mobility issues—national data suggest that a very large percentage of chronically homeless people have physical disabilities—neither of the two hotels the city has belatedly opened for unsheltered people is ADA-complaint, and the larger of the two requires guests to walk up stairs to access their rooms.

King’s Inn, operated by the Chief Seattle Club, is the more accessible of the two hotels. CSC representatives said last week that they’ve reserved ground-floor rooms at the motor court-style motel for guests in wheelchairs, elders, and people with mobility impairments; although the motel’s 58 shelter rooms and bathrooms aren’t designed for wheelchairs, they don’t require guests to traverse any stairs.

This isn’t the case at the Executive Pacific—a 155-room hotel that’s accessible only by stairs and has no wheelchair-accessible rooms. (Youtuber Wheelchair Jimmy called it “a hotel to avoid at all costs if you’re in a wheelchair.”). The city of Seattle, not LIHI, selected the hotel, which LIHI director Sharon Lee notes is in a historic building. Asked why the city hasn’t provided any accessible rooms at its hotel-based shelters, Human Services Department spokesman Kevin Mundt told PubliCola, “the City is exploring options for a third hotel and is taking into consideration ADA accessibility.”

Mundt did not directly answer a question about where the city’s HOPE Team (which replaced the Navigation Team) was directing unsheltered people who would be eligible for the hotel shelters but happen to be in wheelchairs, saying only, “As with all shelter recommendations, the HOPE Team works with providers to match available shelter resources with individual service needs.”

3. On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means committee held a public hearing for HB 1277, which would add a $100 surcharge to the state’s document recording fee, which is collected by county auditors; the recording fee is the most significant source of funding for homelessness programs in the state bill. Groups representing landlords, realtors and housing advocates all support the bill. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: “Unlikely Alliance” Narrative Falls Flat, City’s Hotel Shelters Aren’t ADA Accessible; and State Moves to Fund Eviction Prevention”

Olympia Fizz: House Committee Passes Wealth Tax, House and Senate Take Action on Tenant Rights and Funding

1. After nearly two months of inaction, the House Finance committee passed the progressive wealth tax (HB 1406) out of committee Wednesday morning. The bill made it out of committee with no amendments, despite Republican efforts.

The wealth tax is arguably the most progressive piece of tax reform legislation this session; the House is taking the lead, while the Senate took the lead on the capital gains tax.

The wealth tax legislation would require anyone with more than $1 billion in intangible financial assets, such as stocks, bonds, or cash, to pay a one percent tax on their worldwide cumulative wealth. The Department of Revenue estimates the tax will affect 100 Washington state taxpayers and generate $5 billion per biennium.

Finance committee chair Rep. Noel Frame (D-36, Seattle) urged her colleagues to vote yes on the bill so the state could begin rebalancing Washington’s tax system, which, according to the progressive Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, forces the lowest income Washingtonians to spend 18 percent of their income on taxes while the very wealthiest spend just 3 percent of their income on taxes.

“The Washington state wealth tax would take a giant step forward in trying to right that wrong by asking the wealthiest Washingtonians, including some of the wealthiest people in the world, to pay their fair share,” Rep. Frame said.

Members of the finance committee passed the bill 9-7 with Democratic senators April Berg (D-44, Mill Creek) and Larry Springer (D-45, Kirkland) along with all Republican committee members, voting no. PubliCola has reached out to both Berg and Springer for comment.

Patinkin Research Strategies found that 58 percent of Washingtonians support the tax and just 32 percent are opposed. (The pollster gets a B/C rating from 538.)

According to Frame, the legislature will direct revenue from the wealth tax into a dedicated Tax Justice and Equity fund, rather than into the state’s general fund as the bill originally specified. Legislators will use the Tax Justice and Equity fund to support an anti-displacement property tax exemption (HB 1494) that the finance committee also passed Wednesday.

The finance committee passed the wealth tax in their last regularly scheduled meeting of the session. April 2 will be the last day for finance bills to be read into the record on the house floor, leaving little time for the bill to be deliberated on in the Rules committee, which will take up the bill next. If Rules passes it out, the bill will go to the House floor where progressives hope to send it to the Senate.

2. The Legislature’s latest biennial budget proposals made two traditional foes, tenants and landlords, happy—with some footnotes.

In budgets released this week, legislators from the House and Senate allocated roughly $1 billion to new rental assistance and eviction protection programs. (The House allocates $1 billion, the Senate $850 million). The state will use the money to pay off rent debt accrued by tenants during the statewide eviction moratorium and fund legal counsel in eviction cases.

Continue reading “Olympia Fizz: House Committee Passes Wealth Tax, House and Senate Take Action on Tenant Rights and Funding”

PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020

By Erica C. Barnett

As we say a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, we’re taking a look back at some of the work we did over the year, starting with the most popular stories of the year, measured on a month-by-month basis. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll have some updates on stories we covered earlier in the year, including a police shooting, access to public restrooms during the pandemic, and a group of people forced into homelessness when the city declared the hotel where they lived uninhabitable.


Durkan Withholds Funding for Nationally Recognized LEAD Diversion Program

The year began with a story that would have reverberations for the next 12 months, when Mayor Jenny Durkan decided to withhold funding from the nationally recognized LEAD arrest-diversion program, which provides case management and other services to people engaged in crimes of poverty. (LEAD, which at the time stood for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, is now short for Let Everyone Advance with Dignity.)

After the city council passed a budget that would have allowed the program to expand and reduce caseloads, Durkan balked, holding back the council’s adds until a consultant could write a report on whether LEAD was producing results. Ultimately, LEAD’s plans for 2020 were upended by the pandemic, but the story touched on themes that would recur all year: Social-service programs as an alternative to policing and incarceration; the battle between the council and Durkan over the city’s budget priorities; and Durkan’s reluctance to fund LEAD, which did not abate during the pandemic.


Police Lieutenant Had Navigation Team Haul Her Personal Trash

The Navigation Team, a group of police and social workers that removed encampments and offered shelter beds to their displaced residents continued to be a flashpoint for most of the year. (The team was formally disbanded after an ugly budget battle; its non-police members now make up a still ill-defined group called called the HOPE Team.)

In this story, we broke the news that the SPD lead for the encampment-removal team directed a city contractor hired to remove trash from encampments to pick up some bulky garbage at her home, because it was “on the way” to their next stop. The fact that the Navigation Team included a large number of SPD officers made it especially controversial among advocates for people experiencing homelessness. In the year before the pandemic, the team removed more encampments without notice than ever before, on the grounds that homeless people’s tents were “obstructions” that prevented others from enjoying the city’s greenbelts, planting strips, and parks.


Emergency Orders, School Cancellations, and Planning for Those Who Can’t “Quarantine At Home”

In March, as the gravity and severity of the pandemic was just starting to set in, PubliCola shifted our coverage to the impact COVID-19 was having on the city, including people experiencing homelessness. Our most popular post that month featured a report from a crowded in-person press conference (!!) at which Gov. Jay Inslee banned gatherings of more than 250 people (we!!!). At the time, March 11, regional governments did not yet have access to federal relief funds or a solid plan for isolating and quarantining people without homes who were unable to “shelter in place.” A story we ran four days later, about an Inslee directive banning gatherings of 50 people or more, was headlined “Advice for Keeping Grandma Alive Depends on Whether Grandma is Homeless.”


Downtown Seattle Hotel Rented by City for $3 Million Has Had Just 17 Guests

The city of Seattle’s reluctance to simply put homeless people in hotels became one of PubliCola’s major recurring stories of 2020. (Although several homeless service organizations have rented rooms for their clients, the city won’t rent its first hotel units for people living unsheltered until early next year).

This story (and its many followups) was about a downtown hotel that the city rented out, at a cost of around $3 million, to serve as temporary housing for “first responders” such as police officers and firefighters to isolate or quarantine. Almost no first responders took the city up on its offer, so Seattle eventually opened the rooms up to nurses and other medical personnel, who also failed to show up in significant numbers. The city never offered the rooms to people experiencing homelessness, preferring to pay for empty rooms than make them available to people living on sidewalks and in growing tent encampments that eventually took over several downtown parks.


Tickets or Passes, Please! Sound Transit, Citing Damage Caused by Homeless Riders, Will Resume Fares and Enforcement

Both of the region’s major transit agencies, Sound Transit and King County Metro, removed fares and instituted social distancing on trains and buses this year, but the two providers took vastly different approaches to both fare enforcement and fares themselves. While Metro revised its policies, taking tickets out of the criminal justice system and adopting what a spokesman called a “harm-reduction” attitude to fare enforcement, Sound Transit doubled down, reinstating fares a little more than two months after the pandemic began. Even now, the agency has not committed to decriminalizing fare nonpayment, committing only to a yearlong experiment to see if it’s possible to ease up on enforcement without cutting into fare revenue. Continue reading “PubliCola’s Most Popular Posts of 2020”

State Buys Central District Nursing Home for Hospital Relief, City Hall Shelter Clients Still Sleeping Inches Apart, and More COVID News

1. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services has purchased the former Paramount Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in Seattle’s Central District to serve as a hospital for people without COVID-19, at a cost of $13.5 million, The C Is for Crank has learned. The 165-bed nursing home closed down last month, after an analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services called it one of the worst-performing nursing homes in the country.

Chris Wright, a spokesman for the state COVID Joint Information Center, said the goal of the purchase is “to free up beds in hospitals during the crisis by finding patients who are currently in hospitals, but could receive the same level of care in this nursing home.” He says the state is “trying to find a contractor to run the facility and hope to open by the end of April.” The facility will create about 100 job openings, for nurses, food service workers, maintenance workers, and supervisors, Wright says.

2. As homeless shelters run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Salvation Army, and other nonprofit groups “de-intensified” their existing shelters by moving some clients to new locations, people are still sleeping inches apart at the nighttime-only shelter at City Hall, which is run by the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center. Staffing is apparently an issue; expanding the shelter to the red-glass lobby on Fourth Avenue (as has been discussed) or moving some shelter clients elsewhere would require additional Salvation Army employees or other staff.

A spokesman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center said that “Many shelter operators, including the operator at the City Hall shelters, are facing staffing capacity constraints that make it challenging to split operations between multiple sites quickly. City staff have been stepping in to help staff shelters to meet this need, and we are working with the service provider to identify solutions.” A spokeswoman for the Salvation Army said the group had nothing new to announce about the shelter.

The basic shelter at City Hall consists of 75 mats on the floor inside the Fifth Avenue lobby, which is open daily from 7pm until 7 in the morning.

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3. Staff at the city’s Human Services, Parks, and Seattle Center departments are being reassigned to front-line positions working in some of the new shelter spaces that have been opened for residents at  as part of the city’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, and distributing food through HSD’s division of Youth and Family Empowerment. These reassignments apply not just to the approximately 70 workers who have been specially trained to work in shelters, but also to other staffers who will be reassigned as part of the departments’ Continuity of Operations Plans (COOPs), which shut down certain city facilities and functions while defining others as “mission essential.”

It’s unclear what, if any, long-term plan exists for city employees who would ordinarily be reassigned to front-line jobs but are in a high-risk group for COVID exposure. The mayor’s order authorizes departments to provide “full or partial compensation” to these workers, but the city did not provide any specific details about what that will look like, or whether some employees may eventually have to be furloughed until front-line services can open again.

4. Governor Jay Inslee confirmed on Saturday that the state is using prison labor to make hospital gowns during the COVID crisis. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, the gowns are being produced by inmates at the Coyote Ridge medium-security prison in Franklin County. Inslee said Saturday that the prisoners were “very eager for this job, and we’re eager for their success in this regard.” Prisoners in Washington State make a fraction of the state minimum wage.

Prison reform advocates across the country, including in Washington State, have argued that state prison systems should release many incarcerated people to protect their health during the COVID crisis. Inslee said Saturday that “we have a commitment … to keeping these incarcerated individuals as safe as humanly possible” during the pandemic.

5. The Seattle City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution this afternoon asking Gov. Inslee to use his emergency powers to implement a moratorium on all residential and commercial rent and mortgage payments in the state, and to forgive any debt accumulated by renters and property owners after the COVID crisis has passed. The resolution, which also calls on the federal government to enact a similar policy nationwide, passed unanimously, though not without a bit of incredulous guffawing from council member Debora Juarez, who (along with her colleague Alex Pedersen) seemed skeptical about the idea of effectively canceling all rent and mortgage payments for the indefinite future.

“So you’re saying that a commercial [landlord] that owns 20-plus units, or apartments, who also has a mortgage to pay … that we are lobbying for them as well, under this administration and to our governor, that they too don’t have to pay their mortgage to the bank?” Juarez asked.

“That’s right,” the resolution’s sponsor, council member Tammy Morales, responded.

Pedersen expressed doubt about the legality of preemptively forgiving all rent and mortgage debt, and seemed to question whether renters would really need the help. “I’m concerned that [if] people are getting other relief, why would we want to then suspend the payments that are due when they’re getting relief from other angles?” he said. On the other hand, Pedersen said, “I have received lots of emails from constituents who are expressing their major concern and fear and pain that they’re suffering during this crisis, so I wish we had more time to think this through.”