The Seattle City Council’s manipulation of the tenant-landlord relationship is fraught with toxic consequences. Mayor Jenny Durkan should veto three housing bills passed Monday by an overreaching council majority to force council members to publicly debate this issue a second time if they try to override her vetos.
The bills make it harder for property owners to rent out homes, under the guise of protecting renters. They add to the imbalance in a marketplace landlords are already fleeing. Windermere Property Management/Lori Gill & Associates saw a 48% increase from 2019 to 2020 in clients selling off rental homes, and a poll of the agency’s remaining clients this January found 35% of the property owners who were looking to sell were doing so because of new regulations.
them were looking to sell because of new laws, company vice president of residential operations Cory Brewer wrote in an Op-Ed Monday.
The city is in dire need of more housing options, particularly affordable rentals for people unable to buy into a skyrocketing market. Yet the council chose to play a dangerous game, gambling that giving tenants substantial legal advantages against landlords when rent goes unpaid won’t push landlords out of the business.
That’s the opposite of ensuring housing availability. The approach adds new hurdles to the role of landlord that resourced corporations can more comfortably deal with, while creating fiscal risks greater than the margins of smaller operators. That’s right: A council dominated by liberals who decry large businesses as fundamentally inequitable just slighted small-time “mom and pop” landlords in favor of the city’s biggest residential property companies.
One bill prohibits eviction during Seattle’s September-through-June school year if the tenant is a student or parent — or if anyone in the dwelling works on school property, even as a contractor. A tech consultant, a custodian and a lunchroom worker are all now protected, as “educators,” from being evicted over rent nonpayment except for a summertime window. Bill author Kshama Sawant’s laundry list of 14 varieties of “educator” stops just short of roping in bus drivers and utility workers on school-adjacent streets. This bill could provide an incentive for a landlord to dig up an excuse to turn away a parent, teacher or other “educator” seeking to rent from them.
A 6-1 council majority approved this ill-conceived legislation; only Councilmember Alex Pedersen objected. The wide margin shows how poorly governed this city is in a vulnerable moment.
The other two bills are more nuanced examples of bad lawmaking and commanded 5-2 majorities, with council members Pedersen and Debora Juarez objecting. Both bills contain language linking them to the pandemic, but both remain the law long after COVID-19 subsides. The two council dissenters rightly warned that the city faces costly legal challenges for creating conflicts with state law and curtailing landlords’ ability to do business fairly.
One bill requires landlords to automatically offer any tenant a lease renewal, unless specific conditions are met. In other words, the end date of the lease no longer applies to one side of the agreement. Just this spring, the Legislature passed a bill that adds substantial protections for tenants confronted with eviction after the pandemic moratorium on the process expires, this month. A separate new state law sets out requirements for what to do when leases end.
The City Council has gone far beyond both to chain saw the distinction between a mid-lease eviction and reaching the end of the contract and electing not to renew. Any lease could be a forever bond if the tenant wants it, absent blatant bad actions or the owner wanting to move into or sell the property.
The bad lawmaking didn’t stop there. The council also created a court defense against eviction if getting behind on rent during Seattle’s COVID-19 emergency is a factor. The bill enables this defense forever, not just for a year or two after the pandemic. Without making property owners whole for owed rent, the council voted to strip them of ever being able to hold tenants accountable.
This dangerous governance has the potential for far-reaching effects in a city where half the population lives in rented housing. Leases are contracts; the renter agrees to pay money, the property owner provides a safe dwelling for a limited time. The council just undermined that economic relationship to create new instability for being a landlord of a few units — at a time when a seller’s market for real estate makes cashing out of the business a lucrative prospect. What sense does that make?
Editor’s note: This editorial was updated June 14 to correct a mischaracterization of the property owners poll.