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Seattle Council passing the buck on housing solutions

Posted By: Sean Martin Advocacy , Government , Law , Seattle Laws ,

Seattle City Council recently passed legislation enacting a 6-month ban on evictions after the Governor’s COVID emergency order, currently set as June 4.

With this action, the Council has moved past crisis management and into crisis exploitation. While we’ve seen this tactic from advocacy groups vehemently opposed to any semblance of private property rights in the state, an elected body of government taking advantage of a distracted public to bypass legitimate public debate and outreach to stakeholders achieves a new low in Seattle politics.

Every aspect of COVID management, but one, has been deemed to be guided by science and data. The outlier? Rental housing.

Unfortunately, this has already played out in the past. In 2018, a city-commissioned study by the University of Washington found that 40% of small landlords either had or would sell their rental unit as a result of city regulations. The response by Seattle Council was to roundly ignore the data and suggestions from UW researchers, and to accelerate its push to squeeze Seattle landlords by passing more than a dozen new regulations in under two years. No industry or business is being attacked harder by Seattle politicians than rental housing providers.

This latest action by Seattle Council is a clear attempt at forcing landlords to forgive rent entirely because the city has failed to provide adequate resources for those in need of assistance to keep housing. Renters in Seattle will now have the ability to not only skip out on paying rent for the next six months, but possibly 10+ months when considering that the City’s “winter evictions ban” kicks off December 1 and stretches through March 1. Compounding the eviction bans is another ordinance, this one authored by Councilmember Tammy Morales, which bans evictions from being reported or used as a reason for denying tenancy if they occur during the COVID crisis, or in the six months afterwards. How many Seattle renters will skip paying rent and enjoy free housing for the next 10+ months courtesy of Seattle City Council?

Rental housing is now made out to be – in the words of a Kshama Sawant at the evictions ban hearing – an arrangement where “someone has to lose” clearly directing her contempt at landlords. Worse than that statement, words we’ve come to expect from an elected official actively campaigning for a rent strike, is that not one other member of Council challenged that notion put forward by Sawant. In the eyes of City Council there cannot be time spent working with housing providers to understand our needs and the challenges that rental housing providers are facing to stay in business right now.

This comes at a time when 33% of May COVID survey respondents, 90% of whom manage four units or less, told RHAWA that one or more renter had failed to pay a portion or all of their May rent. Equally as concerning, our initial April COVID survey of members found that 47% of respondents cannot last 6 months of no rent payments, the duration that the Seattle eviction ban runs. We now run in to month three with little relief in sight for housing providers who are simply trying to do the right thing by keeping people housed in a time of crisis.

RHAWA got out ahead of evictions issue clear back in March as COVID was emerging. We issued recommendations to offer payments plans and freeze evictions before any politician brought those issues public, and to waive late fees and hold off on rent increases, and yet we are ignored and portrayed as uncooperative by City Hall. I personally heard from dozens of members at the outset of this crisis who were looking for guidance to do the right thing to help keep people housed. The response from RHAWA members during this time has been, and continues to be, truly amazing.

While we stand ready to work with stakeholders to develop policies to address the financial crisis being felt by both tenants and our members, we cannot support legislation which forces rental housing owners to wholly subsidize renters. This bill, along with others put forth by the council, will create a pancaking effect that eliminates any financial need for tenants to pay rent owed, even if they have the means to do so.

What this, and other bills recently enacted by Seattle Council, actually mean is:

  1. Tenants cannot be evicted for non-payment until March 2021 due to the recently passed COVID and Winter Eviction bans, so tenants have no incentive to pay rent owed.
  2. Tenant will enjoy having eviction records administratively sealed, so they don’t have to worry about any record of choosing not to pay.
  3. Tenants will not have any late fees or interest on debt for 1 year, so they don’t have to worry about debt owed.

Our members are not banks. Many struggle to even get their banks on the phone in some cases. And they certainly do not have the financial ability to cover these costs, especially for those whose tenants are in stronger financial situations coming out of the crisis.

The cumulative effect of the bills being enacted by the Council is hurting our ability to provide the best possible terms to our tenants.

RHAWA is continuing to engage and advocate for the needs of our membership. New announcements from our advocacy team will continue to roll out over summer and I ask and encourage all rental housing providers to respond to our call to action prompts. RHAWA and elected leaders must continue to hear from us. While some may not acknowledge the value of rental housing in their community, there are far more leaders working with RHAWA to come up with solutions that will make a difference.