Notes from today’s Council meetings

A lot was said AND done today.

This afternoon the Council passed several bills related to tenant protections.

The first extends the Council’s moratorium on redevelopment of mobile-home parks for another six months while the city tries to resolve an appeal to its SEPA determination of a draft bill re-zoning the properties.

The second provides a defense to eviction for families with schoolchildren and “educators” during the school year. As previously written here, this bill is much broader than it sounds; the definition of “school” includes childcare facilities, and the definition of “educators” includes all school employees — even those not in educational roles.  There were two last-minute amendments to the bill: Sawant added a severability clause (knowing it will face legal challenges), and Mosqueda (over Sawant’s objections) added an exemption for small landlords who need to move back into their rental unit because of financial hardship. It was painful watching Mosqueda repeat her description of the amendment over and over again, trying to emphasize how narrow an exemption it represented, as she was clearly fearful of backlash from advocates for “watering down” the bill with a “landlord loophole.” In the end, the amended bill passed by a 6-1 vote; Herbold and Strauss were absent, and Pedersen voted “no” (as he also did in committee).  Juarez voted yes, but later explained that she did so reluctantly, noting there are legal issues with the definitions and the breadth of the bill but saying, “I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The third bill provides a defense to eviction for tenants who have accumulated past-due rent during the COVID emergency. This passed by a razor-thin 5-2 margin, with both Juarez and Pedersen voting no. Pedersen objected to putting the burden on the housing provider; Juarez voted no because the city’s legal department told the Council that the bill was likely pre-empted by state law. she drew a distinction between the eviction moratoria, in which tenants still eventually have to pay, and this bill, which essentially created a situation where there are no consequences to a tenant for not paying the back-due rent.

The fourth bill created a “right of first refusal” for a tenant to renew when a fixed-term lease comes to its end, and allows tenants to rescind a mutual termination agreement. There were four trivial technical amendments, and in the end this bill also barely passed by a 5-2 margin, with Juarez and Pedersen again voting no. Pedersen said that the bill was pre-empted by the recently passed House Bill 1236; court have generally found that even when a state law does not contain an explicit pre-emption clause, it pre-empts a local ordinance that is in conflict, i.e. the two cannot be harmonized in a manner where their requirements can simultaneously be met.

Finally, the Council unanimously passed a resolution from Councilmember Sawant urging Mayor Durkan and Governor Inslee to extend their respective eviction moratoria through the end of 2021. Last week Durkan said that she is speaking with the Governor on the topic, and that she doesn’t believe this is the time to let the moratorium expire; but the Legislature passed a bill declaring that the statewide moratorium terminates on June 30th. Sawant added language to the resolution stating that there is no legal reason why Inslee can’t issue a new moratorium.

The Councilmembers are clearly in a rush to get tenant protections in place before the eviction moratorium might lift at the end of the month. It is, notable, however, that in doing so they have chosen to ignore the legal advice from their own attorneys and push through ordinances that on shaky legal footing. It’s also notable that both Pedersen and Juarez have broken the unspoken covenant and for once let it be known that the city attorneys told the Council that the bills they were passing were probably illegal.

Juarez went a step further in her comments this afternoon, calling for a “comprehensive review of city tenant protections that work with state law,” because “this pandemic has changed the preemption landscape.”

This morning in discussing the tenant-protection bills, Councilmember Morales gave a strange argument for ignoring the impacts that the bills would have on small landlords dependent upon rent income for their livelihoods:

“I do want to acknowledge that many of us have had conversations over the last few weeks with small landlords. My office has had a few conversations with folks.   And we know that, like thousands of renters in the city, some landlords have lost their income during COVID. So these bills, I just want to say, are meant to protect renters from losing their homes. They are not meant to put landlords in jeopardy of also losing their homes. And that’s why I want to urge these landlords to take advantage of the rental assistance dollars that both the city and the county have made available. The county has an eviction prevention and rental assistance program. It’s funded at $145 million from the federal coronavirus supplemental response and relief appropriation, and it is intended to help residents pay past, present and future rents. Seattle also has about $20 million available in rental assistance. So I do want to urge landlords, before they consider an eviction response, I want to urge them to take advantage of these dollars so that they can be made whole. That’s what they’re there for.”

The best you could say about this is that it’s tone-deaf, essentially saying “I know these bills we’re about to pass hurt you, but they’re not intended to hurt you.” But it goes further than that: it makes explicit Morales’ (and her colleagues’) intention to make it the landlord’s problem when a tenant can’t pay the rent: she says it should be the responsibility of the landlord to seek out rent assistance on behalf of their tenants.

Those landlords will soon have their day in court, as several of the bills passed today are expected to quickly draw legal challenges.

This morning Councilmember Morales announced that her next Community Economic Development Committee meeting will be on June 15th. The meeting will include a community panel on creating an equitable economy and preventing “disaster gentrification.”

Councilmember Mosqueda’s Finance and Housing Committee will also meet on June 15th, and will potentially vote on the proposed allocations for the “Seattle Rescue Plan” for allocating federal ARPA dollars. She is welcoming all Council members to the meeting, but under Council rules only the official committee members may vote on the bill and amendments in committee, so she is bending over backwards to create a way where she can at least propose amendments in committee on behalf of her colleagues who aren’t voting members of the committee. This is all a bit strange, given that Mosqueda also chairs the Budget Committee, in which all nine Councilmembers are voting members; she could easily have referred the bill to that committee instead and scheduled a meeting of the Budget Committee. either way, though, all nine Councilmembers will have an opportunity to propose amendments at the eleventh hour when the bill comes before the full Council for final approval in a few weeks.

Councilmember Pedersen said that his Transportation and Utilities Committee will meet next on June 16th, and will have a discussion of Seattle City Light’s strategic plan.

Councilmember Sawant announced that her next Sustainability and Renters’ Rights Committee meeting will be on June 22. The agenda is still being finalize,d but she expects it to include:

  • her bill requiring landlords to pay relocation assistance if they financially displace a tenant via rent increases;
  • her bill requiring landlords to give tenants 6 months’ notice of rent increases.

This morning Councilmember Juarez reported back to the Council from the latest Sound Transit Board meeting, where they continue to discuss realignment plans. In truth, though, she said that they are discussing plans to pare back the current plans due to a $7.9 billion “affordability gap” due to higher costs and lower revenues. “Our program is now unaffordable,” Juarez said, and explained that at their next meeting the ST Board will consider a draft resolution on realignment that might defer some decisions but commit to what is required under state law (i.e. what ST committed to as part of voter-approved taxes and fees).

Councilmember Lewis introduced a bill today that relaxes some requirements on how the executive branch can spend $12 million of funding that the Council appropriated for expanding emergency homeless shelter earlier this year. The earlier bill set the expectation that the city would use the money for programs and investments that FEMA will reimburse, but the Mayor and the Council have an ongoing disagreement over exactly what FEMA will reimburse, and the Mayor’s Office apparently has not spent the money yet on its intended use — scaling up emergency shelter — because it believes that the necessary wrap-around services to accompany the new shelter spaces would not qualify for reimbursement. Lewis’s bill relaxes the reimbursement requirement so that the city can simply move ahead and spend the money now. He emphasized that with the imminent re-opening of the city and state economy at the end of June, it is critical for the city to scale up the resources now so that it can move more people off the streets downtown and into safer shelter.

Lewis referred the bill directly to the full Council, instead of to his committee, so it can be enacted faster.

This morning Lewis also circulated a letter for his colleagues’ signature related to the Overdose Emergency and Innovative Recovery Taskforce. The letter requests that the task force make public policy recommendations related to psychedelic drugs, and specifically around decriminalizing them. Lewis and Sawant are working on legislation to decriminalize psychedelics in Seattle to the extent they can; the can’t can’t legalize them, but it can legislate that they are the lowest priority for criminal enforcement.

Councilmember Sawant also circulated a proclamation this morning in support of a national day of action on June 12 as “Pledge to Teach the Truth Day,” a response to efforts in some states to pass restrictions on the teaching of “critical race theory.”

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