A proposed ordinance that cleared a Seattle City Council committee Tuesday would cap the move-in money that some landlords charge and give renters the right to pay their move-in costs in installments. A final vote is set for Dec. 12.

Share story

Michelle Dillon’s rent went up. Then it went up again. But the Seattle woman stayed until she was paying 70 percent of her income on housing, she told the City Council on Tuesday.

Why? Dillon didn’t have enough money for the security deposits, nonrefundable fees and upfront payments that many landlords require from incoming renters, she said.

“I stayed through rent increase after rent increase,” the Columbia City resident said. “It is not easy to move into a new place.”

Renters such as Dillon are whom Councilmember Kshama Sawant says she wants to help with a proposed ordinance capping the move-in money that landlords are allowed to charge and giving renters the right to pay their move-in costs in installments.

The ordinance cleared Sawant’s energy and environment committee Tuesday in a 6-0 vote despite testimony from a dozen-plus landlords who called it unfair and said it would hurt renters rather than benefit them. A final council vote is set for Dec. 12.

Besides Sawant, Councilmembers Debra Juarez, M. Lorena González, Mike O’Brien, Rob Johnson and Lisa Herbold supported the ordinance, which would limit the combined cost of a security deposit and of any nonrefundable fees — such as screening or cleaning fees — to no more than the amount of the first month’s rent.

It would limit pet-damage deposits to 25 percent of the first month’s rent.

Renters with long-term leases would have the right to pay their move-in costs in monthly installments or according to an alternative plan agreed to with their landlord.

Month-to-month renters would have the right to pay in two equal installments or according to an agreed-upon alternative.

Renters charged their last month’s rent upfront would have the right to pay it in installments, as well.

Sawant introduced the ordinance in July in conjunction with the release of a report by the Washington Community Action Network, a left-wing consumer-advocacy group.

The report included results from a self-selecting survey of renters, 87 percent of whom identified move-in costs as a barrier to finding a new home.

Several renters spoke for the ordinance Tuesday, as did representatives from Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action, the Seattle Education Association, the Tenants Union of Washington State and the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

A University of Washington student compared renting in the University District to “being a fish in a barrel” because the neighborhood’s landlords have the upper hand.

The ordinance is an example of council members seeking to help renters by means other than overt rent control, which state law bars cities from enacting locally.

The council in August approved legislation obligating landlords to rent to qualified applicants on a first-come, first-served basis, and banning discrimination against applicants with various nonwork sources of income, such as Social Security benefits.

The property owners who spoke against Sawant’s ordinance Tuesday described themselves as “small landlords,” in contrast with corporations that own many larger apartment buildings. Several asked the council to target bigshot landlords only.

By capping the size of security deposits and giving renters the right to pay in installments, the ordinance would expose landlords to greater risk, they said.

“I’m offended by the city telling me that I can’t protect my own investment,” property owner Chuck Cady said.

Some landlords said the ordinance would cause them to raise rents higher, while others warned about it pushing them to sell. That could result in modest homes torn down and replaced with pricier buildings, they said.

“We don’t need more of these regulations,” Brad Lefton said. “This is backfiring on your intentions. My intention now is to take duplexes that I have … mow them down and put condos in that I can capitalize out on and walk away with my money.”

The council members weren’t swayed. Councilmember Lisa Herbold said steep move-in costs aren’t just a problem for people with very low incomes.

Forty six percent of Americans don’t have enough money saved to cover a $400 emergency, she noted, citing a recent Federal Reserve survey.