It’s been a good week for Seattle tenants

Things are looking up this week for renters in Seattle this week, thanks to Mayor Murray and Council member Kshama Sawant.

Tuesday the Mayor proposed new regulations to protect tenants from discrimination by landlords based on the sources of income that the tenants are using to pay their rent, an in particular “alternative sources of income” that low-income renters use. According to the text of the legislation Murray is proposing,

“Alternative source of income” means lawful, verifiable income derived from sources other than wages, salaries, or other compensation for employment. It includes but is not limited to monies derived from Social Security benefits, supplemental security income, unemployment benefits, other retirement programs, child support, the Aged, Blind or Disabled Cash Assistance Program, Refugee Cash Assistance, and any federal, state, local government, private or nonprofit-administered benefit program.

In addition, Murray said that the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) has updated its guidance for landlords on so-called “preferred employer” programs that favor employees of companies such as Amazon and Microsoft over other renters by providing exclusive discounts and other perks.

Then yesterday Murray and Sawant announced draft legislation that would prohibit landlords from raising rents on properties that are in violation of the city’s building and maintenance codes. The text of this bill also spells out the enforcement provisions and the procedures through which tenants can report violations.

Murray and Sawant are an unlikely alliance, so it is interesting that they have found common cause. The text of the bill is interesting to read because it looks like Murray’s staff worked hard to protect landlords too: it spells out in great detail the timelines in which a tenant may report a violation and the penalties for a tenant who files a false claim or who was the cause of a unit to fail inspection.

Both of these bills need to go through the City Council’s legislation process, including a trip through the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee. Council member Tim Burgess, who chairs that committee, is no fan of Sawant and a stickler for details and fairness, so we can expect that both bills will get a hard look and probably see some tweaks. Burgess’s plate is full at the moment with the 2016 Housing Levy and the upcoming supplemental budget, so we’ll see how quickly these bills move forward.

However, there is a larger issue for the second bill: whether it is legal given the State of Washington’s law prohibiting cities from enacting residential rent control.  The text is fairly clear:

The imposition of controls on rent is of statewide significance and is preempted by the state. No city or town of any class may enact, maintain, or enforce ordinances or other provisions which regulate the amount of rent to be charged for single-family or multiple-unit residential rental structures or sites other than properties in public ownership, under public management, or properties providing low-income rental housing under joint public-private agreements for the financing or provision of such low-income rental housing.

If the Sawant/Murray bill is passed, it will surely be challenged in court. Murray and the City Attorney must be fairly certain that it will survive, otherwise they wouldn’t be wasting time trying to get it passed — though frankly I don’t see how they wriggle around that first sentence. According to Crosscut, developers and the Rental housing Association are already lining up in opposition.  If and when this does come up in Burgess’s committee, I expect he will ask some hard questions about that.