Washington state’s ban on rent control has been in place for 36 years, and efforts in the past to repeal it have been considered dead on arrival — but things could be different this time around.
Rent control, an issue that’s been simmering in Seattle seemingly forever, is bubbling up to the surface.
State Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, said Tuesday she will introduce a bill in the upcoming session to repeal Washington state’s ban on rent control, which dates to 1981. She has the support of officials in Seattle, where the City Council has been asking the state to repeal the ban for years.
It will be the first such bill aimed at allowing rent control since 1999, Macri says.
Similar ideas over the years never got anywhere — the common reaction in Olympia has been that any such bill would be “dead on arrival.” But there’s at least some reason to believe things might be changing.
The housing situation is worsening in Seattle and across the state. Rents have soared 65 percent since 2010 in Seattle — with the average two-bedroom now topping $2,000 a month. Statewide, Washington rents are rising at the second-fastest rate in the country, according to Zillow, as cities from Spokane to Bellingham report issues with soaring housing costs.
For the first time in years, Democrats will have control of the Legislature during the 60-day session that starts in January. The state’s Republicans generally oppose rent control, while Democrats have been divided on the issue.
“I think we’ve reached such a crisis point that we have to start talking about it,” Macri said Tuesday after making the announcement with housing activists and other supporters who were rallying outside a rental-housing-industry trade show in Seattle.
“I think the crisis is spreading. Homelessness is touching pretty much every community in the state, and that wasn’t true 5-10 years ago,” she said.
The bill she plans wouldn’t enact rent control; rather, it would give cities the chance to vote on introducing their own measures. Seattle hasn’t decided if it would adopt rent control.
Right now, landlords across the state can raise rent as much as they want after a lease ends, as long as they give a month’s notice. In Seattle, it’s two months for rent hikes that top 10 percent.
Many other pricey cities, among them New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have rent-control laws that typically limit rent hikes to a small amount each year for existing residents, often just in older buildings.
The results have been mixed. A Stanford study last month found San Francisco’s rent control did help keep longtime residents in the city but caused rents for other, unprotected units to increase an additional 7 percent as landlords looked to make up the difference elsewhere. And landlords have been able to get around rent control through evictions.
The vast majority of economists have said time and again that rent control does more harm than good. But it remains an enticing idea for Seattle renters who face constant worries over whether they will be priced out.
The challenge for local lawmakers and activists has been to prove this is a statewide issue. The Legislature will have many other competing priorities in the 60-day session, as pent-up demands from Democrats have accumulated after years of a divided Statehouse.
Supporters of rent control would also need to overcome staunch opposition from the real-estate industry.
The Rental Housing Association of Washington, a landlord group that helped pass the 1981 rent-control prohibition, has been warning for months about the potential for a Democratic-controlled Legislature to repeal the ban.
“The potential ramifications of rent control becoming a reality are based on what we’ve seen in countless other areas when rent control is enacted,” Sean Martin, the landlord group’s spokesman, wrote in August. “Rental housing costs will soar, new rental housing construction will stop, and housing opportunities and mobility will be limited for anyone not lucky enough to already be living in their preferred rental unit.”
Macri said the repeal would also help the Seattle City Council implement its cap on move-in fees for renters. Landlords in May sued to block the rule, arguing it violated the state ban on rent control.
“Is there enough political will to get this through?” Marci said. “I think that will depend on how big the movement is for something like this.”