By Andrew Engelson
Responding to Washington’s ongoing homelessness and housing affordability crisis—more than 25,000 people across the state live without permanent housing—several Democratic state legislators have introduced bills that would protect tenants and help prevent them from becoming homeless.
Last week, Reps Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), Alex Ramel, (D-40. Bellingham), and Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds) each introduced rent stabilization bills intended to give tenants advance notice of rent increases, set limits on how much landlords can raise rent, cap move-in fees, and give the state attorney general authority to pursue violations under the Consumer Protection Act.
Separately. Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a $4 billion referendum that would raise the state’s constitutionally mandated debt limit to fund a host of new capital housing projects over the next six years.
Lack of housing and high rents are the primary causes of homelessness, and the state Department of Commerce estimates Washington will need more than 1 million new homes by 2044, with more than half of those affordable to people earning 50 percent or less of the median income in their area. Though the rise in rents in Seattle actually tapered off slightly in the past year, rents in other cities across the state saw significant increases, including Bellingham (5.5 percent), Kent (8.9 percent), Renton (10.1 percent), SeaTac (9.4 percent) and Spokane (5.1 percent).
Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year, limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power undert to investigate and prosecute landlords that flout the new rules
Shannon Corrick, a Safeway employee who lives in Cheney, a college town south of Spokane, spoke at a press briefing for Macri and Ramel’s bills this week, noting that in 2021, her landlord raised the rent on her $995-a-month, 3-bedroom house by $300.
“He wasn’t very nice about it,” Carrick told PubliCola. “He was like: Well, that’s what the market will bear.” Since more than half of her minimum-wage income went to paying rent, Carrick had to move to an apartment that was much smaller. “I could have swallowed maybe 5 percent or 8 percent, because I could always pick up more hours or work some overtime or volunteer to work the holidays,” but not an increase of more than 30 percent, she said.
Macri’s bill would limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, capped at 7 percent per year. The bill would exempt buildings newer than ten years old from the caps. Macri’s legislation would also limit total move-in fees to the equivalent of one month’s rent, and give the state attorney general new power under the state Consumer Protection Act to investigate and prosecute predatory landlords that flout the new rules.
“We have to respond to people who are homeless, and we have to do all that we can to keep people who are precariously housed in their homes,” Macri said.
Ramel’s bill would also limit annual rent increases to 3 percent or inflation, capped at 7 percent, but would allow landlords to “bank” rent increases—so, for instance, an apartment owner could choose to not raise the rent by 3 percent for five years, and then raise it 15 percent in the fifth year of a renter’s tenancy.
Macri says allowing periodic larger increases would “invite more uncertainty for the tenants, but a lot less uncertainty than they have right now.” She notes that her bill also allows landlords to raise rent beyond the limits, but only if they can prove hardship or the need for large capital or repair costs.
“Legislators like the concept of consumer protection, generally,” Macri said. “They like the framing of this as prohibiting predatory behavior.”
Peterson’s more modest bill would require landlords to give six months’ notice before any rent increase of more than 5 percent and allow tenants to terminate their leases, without penalty, at any time after learning their rent will be increasing by more than 5 percent. It would also cap late fees for rent paid more than five days after the date it’s due to $75.
A similar bill failed to pass out of committee last session.
Peterson, who chairs the House housing committee, is optimistic about moving a host of housing reform and tenant protection legislation this year. “I think the tenor has changed,” Peterson said. “I think our caucus has changed. We have a bunch of new members that are the most diverse class that’s ever come in, and they’re extremely motivated when it comes to housing.”
As part of this sea change, the House Democratic Caucus recently removed Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46, Seattle) from a leadership position he had used to block pro-housing legislation, as PubliCola reported in December.
Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].”
Other tenant protection legislation includes a bill from Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-41, Bellevue) that would require landlords to provide evidence of damage or disrepair in order to justify not returning deposits. Another bill that Peterson is co-sponsoring would give groups of tenants or nonprofits the opportunity to purchase manufactured home communities if they’re put up for sale. Peterson he crafted the legislation inspired by three manufactured home parks owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.
Katie Wilson, general secretary of the Transit Riders Union (and an occasional writer for PubliCola), says these tenant protection bills complement policies her organization and the Stay Healthy Stay Housed Coalition have been pushing in Seattle and across King County for several years, including limits on move-in fees and advance notice for rent increases.
“Macri’s bill is particularly exciting,” Wilson said, “because it deals with very large rent increases.” She noted that because state law prevents cities and counties from limiting rent increases, to have a state-level law “would be amazing.”
Macri noted that city and county jurisdictions aren’t affected by her bill or Ramel’s. “We can set statewide policy on rent stabilization,” she said, “But what neither of these bills do is expand the authority for local [governments].” Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant recently floated the idea of a local $10 cap on late fees.
The Washington Multi-Family Housing Association, an organization representing large apartment landlords, declined to comment to PubliCola and the Rental Housing Association of Washington, which generally represents smaller, independent landlords, did not respond to requests for comment.