Even some landlords and developers are starting to fret that the rent may be too damn high.
So high it’s practically inviting new laws on rent control.
After I denounced a landlord in West Seattle who had jacked rents 145 percent in one fell swoop, I heard from dozens of landlords and others in the housing business — as I do whenever I object to such sudden, extreme hikes in rent.
Only this time, for the first time, some landlords said it may indeed finally be going too far.
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“I’m a conservative so I don’t agree with you much, but you’re 100 percent right about this one,” phoned Corky Thoreson, the owner of five rental properties on the Eastside. “Raising someone’s rent 145 percent all at once, to me that’s criminal.”
“We are shocked at these increases at the West Seattle property,” wrote Don DeWeese, a Seattle landlord since 1976. “This will only contribute to bolstering (Kshama) Sawant’s efforts at rent control, which is a horrible idea in my viewpoint.”
Added a small-lot developer who didn’t want to be named: “Increasing rents 145 percent is sheer greed. We are going to get rent control because of stunts like this.”
Rent control, in which rents on some units (usually in older buildings) are set by a government commission, is currently barred here by state law. There’s no sign that’s about to change.
But these landlords do have reason to worry. A higher minimum wage was considered crazy, too. Until suddenly it wasn’t (it actually took years of organizing work by unions and other groups, but the political breakthrough seemed sudden).
“We believe rent stabilization is going to be one of the big issues politically in 2015 and 2016,” said Jonathan Grant, director of the Tenants Union in Seattle. “There are just too many stories of rent shock like the ones you guys just wrote.”
What’s happening to the nine tenants of Linda Manor in West Seattle is extreme. As chronicled by Times business reporter Sanjay Bhatt, a new owner is raising their rents 130 to 145 percent. Most landlords wouldn’t do that.
But it isn’t that rare either. Based on my email in-tray this past week alone, I could write a similar rent-shock column every week now for the rest of the year. All featuring someone forced from their apartment by rent hikes of 25, 50 percent or more.
“I am sorry to leave Seattle, as I love it there and hate seeing what is happening in my adopted city,” wrote reader Ray Wodehouse, whose rent was raised $550 — 38 percent — last year in Fremont. Instead he left the city.
A number of readers pointed out that the day after I wrote what I thought was hyperbole — that “Seattle is becoming a city for only the rich and the homeless” — the mayor announced the opening of three new homeless tent cities.
You think you’re exaggerating, but then it barely keeps pace with reality.
So what to do? I am leery of outright rent control. To me the private market works best, but it’s also true that when it’s obviously abusing some people, its excesses need to be checked (example: the towing industry).
So my nominee is that we at least adopt an “unconscionable rent increase” law. New Jersey has one. It isn’t across-the-board rent control. The way it works is that if a tenant believes a rent increase is so high it would “shock the conscience of a reasonable person,” the tenant can appeal to an independent judge or hearing examiner.
The landlord then has to show the rent is fair, citing the building’s expenses and profitability, nearby rents or whatever case can be made. The judge may accept either side’s proposal, or recommend a third.
I love this approach. It’s not society telling all landlords what to charge. But it is society telling landlords to treat tenants like human beings, not cash machines.
I also like telling myself that boomtown Seattle has a conscience that can be shocked. Some signs, but the jury’s still out.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org