KENMORE — Several years ago, homelessness knocked on Corina Pfeil’s door.
When her landlord raised her monthly rent $300, Pfeil couldn’t pay, nor could she quickly find a cheaper place in Kenmore, where she’d lived for three decades.
“I thought I was going to end up in a shelter,” possibly separated from her older son, who was 18 and who has autism, she recalled.
That didn’t happen, thanks to a last-minute negotiation. But the upsetting incident stayed with Pfeil, who now serves on the Kenmore City Council and is pushing to pass a batch of new tenant protections. She still rents, in a sprawling complex tucked behind pine trees.
“We have to be willing to take a hard look at the inequities in our community,” she said. “We’re a community with haves and have-nots.”
In the city of 24,000, where owner-occupied homes outnumber rentals almost 3 to 1, other matters have sometimes received more attention. Yet pressure is mounting in communities like Kenmore as housing costs soar and COVID-19 protections and assistance programs lapse.
Tenant advocates who helped win provisions in Seattle and for unincorporated parts of King County last year now hope to make gains in the suburbs. They’re in contact with leaders in multiple cities, including SeaTac, Burien, Kirkland and Bothell. Landlord groups are pushing back.
The debate has already begun in Kenmore, where initial deliberations last week ran three-plus hours, as representatives from the Stay Housed, Stay Healthy coalition vied with a landlord lobbyist. They discussed restrictions on move-in costs, late fees, rent increases, evictions and background checks.
“Each time we see changes proposed … we’re told this is going to make a difference,” said lobbyist Jim Henderson, with the Rental Housing Association of Washington. But complicated regulations can nudge landlords to exit the market, exacerbating the region’s housing shortage, he argued.
Wedged between Lake Forest Park and Bothell, Kenmore is best known for its seaplane harbor, waterfront parks and asphalt plant, which hug Lake Washington’s northern shore.
The city partly serves as a bedroom community for Seattle and the Eastside, with quiet blocks of houses that can sell for $1 million. But Kenmore also includes mobile home parks and apartment buildings near Highway 522.
“Blink twice and you miss us,” said Lisa Anderson, who called in to the council’s remote meeting last week.
In a sense, Anderson is lucky, she said, because her Section 8 voucher covers most of her $1,800 monthly rent. Still, she and her husband struggle to pay other bills, because both are disabled, and Anderson, 52, has trouble scaling the stairs to their apartment because she uses crutches, she said.
Ideally, they’d move to a place without stairs. But they don’t want to leave Kenmore, their longtime home — and they don’t have enough cash saved to pay first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit.
“Unless you’re related to Bill Gates and can ask Uncle Bill for some money, you can’t afford to move,” Anderson said. “That’s why we’re stuck.”
Stuck is also how Andres Morfin feels. He worries about his apartment’s moldy walls harming his three children, and his monthly rent has doubled over time, he said.
Yet Morfin, 39, who took a door-to-door survey by the Stay Housed coalition, doesn’t want to move his kids away from their friends and relatives in Kenmore, and nearby buildings seem equally expensive.
A restaurant cook, he lost work early in the pandemic, putting him behind on rent. Only with a temporary second job and rental assistance from King County did he catch up. Now he dreads the next rent hike.
“The landlords, they can go as high as they want,” he said.
Expecting landlords to keep rents steady while their operating expenses grow is unrealistic, Henderson countered in an interview. “Nobody is villainizing the county” for property tax increases, he said.
No Kenmore landlords offered public remarks at the Feb. 14 meeting. But Councilmember Joe Marshall noted that many have mortgages to pay, warning the city could send some rentals “down the tubes” by adding too many costs and restrictions.
“Exploitative tenants do exist,” added Marshall, a lawyer with real estate industry experience.
On Feb. 14, Kenmore council members reviewed the status quo in the city and elsewhere, plus recommendations by the Stay Housed coalition. That alone was challenging, because overlapping laws regulate rentals at the local and state levels.
For example: Rent hikes were barred in Washington at one point during COVID but that provision has expired. The required notice for increases is now 60 days statewide, 120 days in unincorporated King County for increases over 3% and 180 days in Seattle. In Kenmore currently, it’s 90 days for increases over 10%.
The Stay Housed coalition recommended 180 days for Kenmore, while some council members objected, at least without considerations for “mom-and-pop landlords.” Ultimately, they voted to pursue 120 days for increases over 3% and 180 days for increases over 10%.
They also decided to explore new caps on late fees and move-in costs, plus a new registry for landlords,though not an inspection program. They chose not to pursue a ban on rent increases for units in poor condition and to keep studying a relocation assistance mandate for certain economic evictions.
No laws were passed right away. Instead, the council indicated what provisions to draft and consider as early as next month. Pfeil backed almost every proposal, while certain colleagues opposed almost every item.
Though Councilmember Debra Srebnik supported some, she questioned whether others would make Kenmore more affordable.
“What’s the problem … that we’re trying to address? Because what I’ve heard mostly from our residents” is that housing is too pricey, she said.
Even when protections don’t directly address costs, they can prevent homelessness, a representative from Mary’s Place told the council.
“Keeping families in their homes prevents trauma” and is more cost-effective, said Linda Mitchell from Mary’s Place, which has a shelter in Kenmore.
Median rents in cities across King County were 10% to 20% higher last month than a year ago, according to Apartment List.
As the Kenmore conversation evolves, a key choice will be whether to include mobile home parks in any new protections, said Stacey Valenzuela, who lives in one of two near the Sammamish River.
Though many mobile home residents own their structures, they rent their spaces, and some park landlords employ predatory practices, Valenzuela said. Kenmore has more mobile home parks than any other city around (one even located next to City Hall) and many parks are occupied mostly by blue-collar retirees, she added.
Politics in Kenmore, like in many suburbs, are changing, said Mayor Nigel Herbig. Dominated a decade ago by conservatives, the council now leans left and is “trying to punch above our weight” with inclusive policies, he said.
That’s partly because local activists have been making noise, said Nadia Silver, who landed in Kenmore after spending time in a shelter.
Silver helped establish a Little Free Pantry in her neighborhood, partly because the need exists, even in a relatively affluent suburb.
“So many people have had to switch careers or move in together” after COVID hit, said Silver, 39.
Pfeil didn’t mention her own homelessness scare in last week’s meeting. But she may be the only Kenmore leader ever to serve while renting, she said.
“Being a single parent, my budget is tight,” Pfeil said. “That’s the reality.”
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