Move-in fees legislation: you’re doing it wrong

Yesterday’s hearing on Council member Sawant’s proposed legislation, capping move-in fees and requiring landlords to let tenants pay those fees by installment, was a parody of the legislative process. It undermined her credibility, and that of the other Council members who participated.

In the end, six Council members voted out of committee an incomplete bill that was rushed through with a promise from Sawant that she will delay its presentation to full Council until at least October 10th so that they could spend more time working through the glaring problems with the ordinance.

Sawant announced back in July, after her last tenant-protection bill passed, that this would be her next legislative effort. The first committee read-through on it was two weeks ago; it was clear then that this was an ambitious bill that tried to do a lot (perhaps too much for a single piece of legislation) and that getting many of the details right would be tricky. Several issues were raised for further discussion and possible amendments. Some of the desired changes were significant enough to require re-titling the bill, which in turn means it needed to be introduced; that happened on Monday of this week.

Council members went into yesterday’s committee hearing with the new version of the bill (which they hadn’t seen before Monday), and right before the hearing they also were given a new memo that responded to the earlier issues and posed amendments to address some of them.  Sawant’s colleagues were rightfully unhappy about receiving the materials so late and thus not having time to prepare for the meeting. Council member Juarez went further and said that she had at least 10 outstanding issues from meeting with stakeholders “across the spectrum” that she was still trying to understand.

As they began to plow through the issues, it became clear that some of them required more investigation and information-gathering. The most problematic issue was enforcement of the new regulations, and in particular whether violators should be issued a citation or a “notice of violation.” Each has benefits and drawbacks. Citations work better for one-time violations, while NOV’s are better for ongoing violations — and some of the provisions of the bill are one-time, while others would be ongoing. NOV’s give the recipient a period of time to comply; citations don’t. A citation can be appealed immediately to the city’s Hearing Examiner, which could create an enormous amount of work for that office. If citations are not paid, they are referred to a collection agency; NOVs are referred to the law department.  Council members Johnson, Gonzalez and Juarez wanted more time to discuss the options with the Hearing Examiner and the law department before choosing an option, so this issue was left unresolved.

Another key issue left unresolved was how to handle the situation where a tenant might be willing to pay a larger security deposit in return for a landlord overlooking a low credit score or some other reason why a potential tenant might fail a screening. At its heart that’s an equity issue, creating a method for people who might otherwise have great difficult finding housing to successfully land an apartment. Allowing that kind of exception also aligns with an exception in the “first in time” regulation put in place earlier this year to allow landlords to prioritize people from underserved communities. On the other hand, it could be seen as a “loophole” for a landlord to circumvent the cap on move-in fees.

But despite these big unresolved issues, Sawant was adamant that the bill should be voted out of committee. The timing makes it difficult, as committee meetings are traditionally cancelled in October and November while the budget is developed. That means her next committee meeting would be in early December, and she would only have two weeks then to complete it before the Council adjourns for the holiday season. Sawant made a half-hearted offer to her colleagues to schedule a special committee meeting in October to continue the work, but she knew that wouldn’t be a palatable option. Strangely, she also pointed out that a lot of activists who had pushed for the bill showed up for yesterday’s hearing in order to see the bill passed out of committee and she wanted to make sure they got what they came for — suggesting that the hearing was as much “legislative theater” as a working session on a complex piece of legislation.  In the end, she talked them into agreeing to pass the bill out of committee but delaying its vote at a full Council meeting until October 10th. Johnson, Juarez, and Gonzalez all would have preferred the 17th, but Sawant pushed hard for scheduling it for a week earlier while being open to the option of a week later if the investigation and amendment-writing took longer.

Sawant acknowledged the obvious: that her colleagues felt rushed through the legislative process on this bill. She admitted feeling sympathetic, but disagreed — but then argued that they should feel good about moving a bill through quickly.

The other very strange aspect of yesterday’s hearing was the presence at the table of Xochitl Maykovitch, a community organizer with Washington Community Action Network, the grassroots organization that lobbied for the bill.  I’ve criticized Sawant before for doing something she would never allow her colleagues to do with the business community: let a lobbyist write a bill. There is certainly plenty of precedent for hearing testimony from stakeholders at committee hearings, and gathering their feedback; for the “secure scheduling” ordinance there was a balance of stakeholders from both sides involved: in full view through the early stages and behind the scenes while the final legislation was being written. But at yesterday’s hearing Maykovitch was invited to sit at the table while the Council members debated individual issues and amendments, and for several of them she not only was asked her view but effectively wielded veto power over amendments she didn’t like. Maykovitch had a perfect record yesterday: none of the amendments she opposed were passed.  It’s bad enough that Sawant doesn’t bother to solicit input or participation from a variety of stakeholders, but she brazenly displays her favored lobbyists and the influence they have over her work.

As a whole, the process was a travesty: Sawant rammed through a complex, incomplete bill (most notably with no provision for enforcement) with several outstanding issues, on a promise that further amendments could be brought up when it comes before the full  Council. And that’s certainly true, but it subverts the entire reason for having a committee: to roll up their sleeves and work through the important details, issues and complexities of legislation. To the extent the issues are sorted out in the coming weeks, it will be behind closed doors, depriving the citizens of Seattle an opportunity to witness and comment on the discussion. And to the extent that amendments are considered and adopted at the Full Council meeting, they will not receive the close scrutiny they would at a committee hearing.

And it is a bill largely dictated by an advocacy organization that sat at the table with the Council members and wielded control over changes. Six Council members were complicit in the process yesterday: Sawant, Gonzalez, Juarez, Johnson, O’Brien, and Herbold. In the end, five went along with it and voted the bill out of committee (Gonzalez had to leave before the final vote).

The sad part is that at its heart it’s a really good bill, trying to solve an important problem.  Washington CAN’s research shows that most people can’t find $400 on short notice to deal with an emergency, let alone several thousand dollars to pay move-in fees at the start of a lease. Done right and carefully, this could be an enormous help to renters in Seattle — who now make up a majority of the population.

But this is how you get bad law: you rush it through, don’t think through the issues completely, and give the lobbyists free rein. Council member Juarez summed up the situation well yesterday when she shared her frustration with passing laws that several months later are found to be clearly unworkable. “When we pass laws,” Juarez said, “we use a scalpel, not a chain saw.”

Council member Sawant should be embarrassed for what she orchestrated in her committee yesterday, and Johnson, Gonzalez, Herbold, Juarez and O’Brien should be equally embarrassed by their complicity and for letting Sawant bully them into passing a bill that was clearly not ready to be moved out of committee. Our elected officials owe us better than this.

You can watch the committee hearing on the Seattle Channel here; jump to 51:30.


  1. I suspect that if Washington CAN existed for the purpose of generating private profits (if they were “a member of the business community”) then they would likely be excluded by Sawant as well. Having grassroots, community-focused, non-profit organizations drafting legislation to benefit the community seems wise. Having for-profit organizations draft regulation to regulate themselves does not. Comparing them is a bit bizarre.

    1. Of course, members of the business community will tell you that businesses benefit the community as well with jobs. And then there’s the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which as a union protects the safety of its members but also fights against police accountability measures. The BlockTheBunker folks are now arguing for cutting the funding for additional police officers and for disarming the police. The larger point here is that any advocacy group or lobbyist, if given unfettered access and influence, will potentially overreach to the detriment of the community. Our legislators need to be asking hard questions of all these groups, and most importantly “is what this group is telling me true?” I like Washington CAN and the work that they do, but that doesn’t mean the City Council should be deferring to them.

      1. That all sounds accurate. Businesses will certainly attempt in the context of influencing public policy to shift focus from their primary purpose–to generate profit for owners–to side-effects such as their purchasing of labor in order to achieve their goals of profit. And of course, any group with sufficient influence upon our public servants has the potential to overreach to the detriment of the community.

        I meant earlier to comment on the equation of 1) our elected representatives using draft legislation from a grassroots community organization with 2) our elected representatives using draft legislation from an organization that exists explicitly to generate profit for its owners. I find nothing contrary about this City Council committee receiving assistance from Washington CAN and council member Sawant (potentially) rejecting such from “members of the business community.”

        1. Where do unions fit in there? They exist to make money for their members. Even Washington CAN is advocating for the economic interests of a target demographic. So trying to separate out the lobbyists focused on profit from the lobbyists focused on “grassroots good” is very challenging.

          When I wrote about the move-in fees, I pointed out that housing is a cyclical market. At the moment the power dynamic is tilted well in favor of the landlords. The next time the economy busts, it will flip at least to some extent, as it has in previous boom/bust cycles. That creates additional hazards for legislative processes that attempt to shift those power dynamics by deferring to the constituency that is currently disadvantaged: what seems like an appropriate adjustment now may become an overreach in the future.

          I worry that there are elected officials who believe that their job in office is to advocate for the people who voted for them, when in fact their job is to advocate for all of their constituents, including the ones who didn’t vote for them. I think that distinction is often lost for Council member Sawant. Though in her favor, when campaigning she was crystal clear about what she intended to do if elected, and you have to give credit to politicians who do what they said they would do.

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