New protections against slumlords on their way

The Council held its first hearing this morning on a new ordinance, authored by Council member Kshama Sawant, to restrict slumlords from raising rents for non-compliant housing units. But the details are a little tricky, so it’s worth diving into the details.

Landlord regulations has been a hot legislative topic recently. Last fall, the Council passed legislation strengthening the rules for tenant relocation assistance, providing advance notice to the city of multi-unit residential properties being put up for sale, and allocating $500,000 for tenant education. Earlier this year, another $50,000 was allocated for tenant and landlord outreach and education. Next week a bill will be introduced in Council member Lisa Herbold’s committee that prohibits discriminating against tenants based upon the source of funds they are using to pay their rent. And later this year it is expected that the Council will see a “fair chance housing” bill introduced that protects tenants with criminal records from discrimination on that basis.

Today’s bill, introduced into the Affordable Housing, Neighborhoods and Finance Committee and presented by Faith Lunsden of SDCI,  does four things:

  • It delays a landlord’s ability to raise rent on a property that is shown to be in violation of the city’s housing code, aka RRIO, until all violations have been addressed.
  • It adds specific enforcement authority for landlords who fail to provide the legally-required advance notice of a rent increase to tenants (30 or 60 days, depending upon the size of the increase).
  • It centralizes enforcement authority for landlord violations with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI); previously it was split between SDCI and the Police Department (SPD).
  • It increases the amount of damages a tenant may privately sue a landlord for.

All these are good things, but the bulk of the attention is on the first one: delaying rent increases on substandard properties. The authors and proponents of the ordinance go to great pains to assure everyone that this is not rent control, which is illegal in Washington State. It does not prevent landlords from raising rents, nor does it grant tenants the authority not to pay the higher rent. Under its proposed terms, after a landlord provides the required advance notice of a rent increase the tenant has 10 days to submit a written notice to SDCI and the landlord describing the code violations. SDCI will subsequently send an inspector out, and if the inspector verifies the violations will issue to both the landlord and tenant a notice that the increase is delayed until the code violations are remedied. As soon as the landlord make the necessary corrections and notifies SDCI a new inspection can be scheduled and when the property passes the delay order is lifted.

So here’s where it’s interesting: this ordinance doesn’t change how the tenant pays rent, both before and after the effective date of the increase. The tenant still needs to pay the increased rate as of the effective date in the landlord’s original notice, but if the landlord doesn’t bring the property up to code until after that date, the landlord must refund  the difference in rent for the period after the effective date that were charged at the higher rate until the day the property passed inspection. If the landlord fixes everything quickly and it passes before the effective date of the increase, then the tenant  receives no refund and the increase goes into effect as originally planned.  As Council member Herbold pointed out today, this is going to be a point of confusion for many tenants that might land them in eviction court if they believe they are entitled to continue paying their old rate.

Council member Sawant is not happy with the 10-day window for a tenant to file a complaint; today she let it be known that she would like that period to be as long as possible, and at least up until the day the rent increase goes into effect. Her argument is that many tenants will be unaware of their rights under the ordinance, and it might take longer than 10 days for someone to receive notice, talk to other people, learn about the right, and correctly file a written complaint (state law requires that complaints be in writing). This is a fair point that SDCI acknowledged, but SDCI responded that they wanted responsible landlords to have enough time to learn of violations, fix them, and have the property re-inspected before the original effective date of their rent increase. According to SDCI, for safety-threatening code violations such as lack of power or heat, broken doors or windows, or sewage backups, they conduct an inspection within 24 hours (and often on the same day the notice is received); for lesser violations their goal is to inspect within 7 working days, and they meet that goal around 85% of the time. Under existing laws, if the inspector verifies safety-threatening violations then the landlord is given 24-72 hours to fix the problem under an emergency order; if the violation is not fixed in the given time, then the landlord must pay for emergency relocation for the affected tenants and also pay a fine that could range from $150-500 per day until it is corrected.

There are some protections for landlords in the ordinance as well; for example, if the inspector determines that the tenant created the code violation (potentially to delay the rent increase) then the increase goes into effect as of the original planned date. No one expects a lot of tenants to do this, but it’s a good event to anticipate so as not to create a trap for landlords.

The difficult part of this ordinance will be educating landlords and tenants about it. It’s good to see that SDCI is increasing its education and outreach efforts, but they could go one step further: they could require that a landlord’s written notice of a rent increase contain additional information informing tenants of their rights and how to file a complaint.

There was no action taken today; committee Chair Burgess noted that the bill will be discussed with city attorneys in executive session Monday morning, when no doubt the issue will arise as to whether it is a prohibited form of rent control. Following that, the committee will take it up again at their next meeting on June 1.