The Seattle City Council on Monday passed three bills that council members said will help tenants in various circumstances stay in their homes.
The bills will provide a defense against most school-year evictions of students and school employees, require landlords to offer lease renewals in many cases and prevent certain post-pandemic evictions.
The council also passed a resolution asking Mayor Jenny Durkan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to extend COVID-19 bans on most evictions through the end of 2021. The city and state moratoriums are currently scheduled to expire on June 30.
“Today’s bills put people before profits. They put the rights of renters above the interests of corporate landlords. They prioritize housing stability instead of racist gentrification,” said a statement by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the resolution and sponsored or co-sponsored each bill.
Several landlords objected to Sawant’s description of the bills, saying the council hadn’t accounted for the perspectives of “mom-and-pop” landlords.
Late Monday, Durkan spokesperson Kamaria Hightower said the mayor had yet to review the bills. Durkan has advocated for rental assistance during the pandemic, Hightower said.
More than 100 people signed up to deliver public testimony over the phone for the council meeting, and more than 50 were given time to speak.
Tenants and advocates said the bills were needed to maintain educational stability for children, to protect tenants from losing their homes when their leases run out and to prevent a “tsunami of evictions” when the COVID-19 moratoriums expire. Many tenants fell behind on their rent when the economy shut down and are at risk of becoming homeless, they said.
“This isn’t about property rights. This is about human rights,” Tram Tran-Larson, community-engagement manager at the King County Bar Association’s Housing Justice Project, told the council.
A number of property owners raised objections, asking the council to exempt small-time landlords and warning about unintended consequences. They said the bills could cost them crucial income, force them to subsidize tenants and motivate them to take their units off the rental market. Corporate landlords are better equipped to handle such regulations, they said.
The bills “will ensure the existing housing shortage will continue … by making any housing provider think twice” about renting out units in Seattle, Jeffrey Flogel said, arguing damage would be done in the long-term.
Some landlords asked the council to concentrate on providing tenants with rental assistance instead; Council President M. Lorena González said City Hall has made assistance available, along with the state and King County.
It’s possible that one or more of Monday’s bills will be challenged in court, like several other tenant protections passed by the council. Judges have in recent years upheld Seattle’s limits on move-in fees and the city’s requirement that landlords accept the first qualified applicant.
What the bills say
Monday’s first bill will establish a defense against evictions during each school year for children and students, for their guardians and for educators — including evictions for missed rent. Tenants will be able to cite the bill in eviction court; Seattle and Washington state earlier this year passed laws guaranteeing legal counsel for low-income tenants facing evictions.
Monday’s school-year bill passed 6-1, with Councilmember Alex Pedersen opposing. Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Dan Strauss were absent.
Evictions of children and educators interrupt learning and homeless children can struggle to make progress at school, Sawant said.
The school-year bill will define children and students as anyone under 18 and anyone enrolled in child care through high school; and it will define educators as anyone working at a school, including teachers, janitors, counselors and cafeteria workers.
It will cover the school year as set by Seattle Public Schools, though it also will apply to students and educators in private schools.
There will be some exceptions. Families with students and educators will be subject to eviction from condemned buildings, from certain owner-occupied properties and from housing units where criminal activities occur.
The council approved an amendment Monday from Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda allowing evictions when landlords move into their own rentals.
Seattle’s school-year bill is written in a similar way as the city’s ban on winter evictions, which was approved last year. That created a defense against many evictions for moderate- and low-income renters between Dec. 1 and March 1.
Last month, the council’s renters rights committee rejected amendments by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that would have excluded school employees other than teachers, exempted landlords with under five units and allowed teachers to be evicted for nonpayment of rent.
Monday’s second bill will require landlords to offer new leases to tenants before their existing leases expire and before seeking new tenants, unless there are separate reasons that the tenants can be evicted. The bill will apply to tenants with fixed-term leases.
Pedersen amendments that would have exempted small landlords and repealed the bill after 18 months were rejected. Monday’s vote on the bill was 5-2, with Pedersen and Councilmember Debora Juarez opposing.
Councilmember Tammy Morales, who co-sponsored the lease-renewal bill with Sawant and Councilmember Andrew Lewis, said it would close a loophole that for years has allowed landlords to oust tenants without cause.
As the city starts to recover from COVID-19, “it’s important that our neighbors who rent continue to receive some stability,” Morales said.
Monday’s third bill will establish a defense against evictions based on rent debts incurred during the pandemic, with that period defined by Seattle’s proclaimed COVID-19 emergency. Tenants would need to sign declarations that they suffered financial hardships during the crisis.
The vote again was 5-2, with Pedersen and Juarez opposing. They voiced concerns about Seattle’s protections clashing with state law, suggesting the council’s actions could end up costing the city dearly in court. Last month, other council members disagreed with that view.
Juarez stressed that tenants citing the COVID-19 hardship defense may not always win in eviction court.
The council in May 2020 passed a bill prohibiting evictions based on nonpayment of rent for six months after Seattle’s proclaimed COVID-19 emergency; Monday’s third bill will add another layer of protection.