Move-in fee legislation set for final showdown on Monday

This coming Monday afternoon, the proposed ordinance capping tenant move-in fees comes up for a final vote in front of the City Council. The finish line is in sight, but there’s at least one more hurdle to jump on the way there.

The bill, which not only sets an upper limit on how much landlords can charge tenants in up-front move-in fees (such as last month’s rent and security deposit) but also requires landlords to offer an installment plan if the fees are more than 25% of one month’s rent, has seen a rocky path. Council member Sawant, the bill’s sponsor, rushed it through her committee at the end of September before the Council turned its full attention to the budget. Her colleagues on the Council referred it back to her committee in mid-October, where it had another hearing two weeks ago and was further amended before being passed back up to the full Council for final adoption.

Activists on both sides have been very vocal. Sawant’s followers, including Washington CAN, have shown up en masse at Council meetings to demand that it be approved. On the other hand, the Rental Housing Association of Washington, representing landlords, has also mobilized its members to show up at Council meetings and speak in opposition. Both sides have been calling and emailing the Council members’ offices to press their position. There has been plenty of name-calling in both directions.

Both Sawant and Washington CAN have put out the call this week for one final push to get the bill pushed through, with no “loopholes” that might exempt some landlords.  RHA’s message at the last Council meeting on the bill was that small landlords should be exempted from the requirements because it place them at greater financial risk (since they can’t spread the risk across multiple properties).

Early on in the process, Council member Johnson offered an amendment that would exempt landlords renting out space in their primary residence, either to roommates sharing a living space, or to someone renting an “attached dwelling unit” such as a mother-in-law apartment. His amendment failed by a 2-3 vote, with Johnson and Juarez voting for it and Sawant, Herbold and O’Brien voting against.

Johnson told me today that he planned to offer the amendment again on Monday; Council rules bar him from moving the same amendment twice in committee, but he is allowed to try again with the full Council. He reiterated his reasons for the amendment: since the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) will be enforcing the ordinance, and his committee oversees SDCI for the Council, he is trying to look out for their ability to provide sane enforcement. He noted that the recently passed “first in time” ordinance already exempts those renting out space in their home, and he wants to make the rules consistent across the two. In committee, however, Herbold made the point that the exemption was justified for the “first in time” ordinance because state law allows people renting space in their home to discriminate so not providing the exemption would create a conflict in the laws — whereas she believes no such conflict exists with capping move-in fees.

Johnson’s office has tried to estimate how many landlords would be exempted if his amendment is adopted; he told me there is no good study that answers that question, but his personal estimate is somewhere between 10% and 20%. Of course, those are the landlords managing the fewest properties, so the percentage of actual rental housing units exempted would be less than the percentage of exempted landlords — whatever the real number is.

Assuming Johnson still has Juarez’s support (a fair bet), he needs to land three more colleagues to push it through among Burgess, Bagshaw, Gonzalez, and Harrell.  Burgess is probably the most sympathetic, Gonzalez the least, and Harrell and Bagshaw are somewhere in between. Sawant will oppose it with all her might, and this will be a test of how much sway (and political capital) she currently has with the other Council members. If the recent pattern continues, expect her to accuse her colleagues of being “corporate Democrats” who have sold out to the landlord lobby. Her bullying certainly won’t endear them to her cause, though it alone probably won’t make them vote “no” out of spite. Sawant’s supporters will call Johnson’s amendment a “loophole” and demand that it be voted down; the RHA landlords will in turn say that it’s a good first step — though not nearly enough — and demand that it be adopted if the Council won’t reject the ordinance altogether (an option the landlords would surely prefer).

At this point there is no hint of any other amendments that will be offered to the bill, though the possibility can’t be ruled out.

Expect Monday afternoon’s meeting to be long, loud and contentious, with a drawn out public comment session. Regardless of whether Johnson’s amendment is adopted, the bill will pass — likely unanimously — and go into effect in January.