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.”