New Legislation Poised to Create Tenant Protections and Preserve Affordable Housing in Seattle

Council President Tim Burgess
Council President Tim Burgess

The Seattle City Council is poised to take up legislation that would create new tenant protections and preserve affordable housing across the city. Proposed by Council President Tim Burgess, the two pieces of legislation would advance tenant rights by upping the length of time for eviction notice and establish a new requirement for property owners to provide notice to public agencies when affordable multifamily housing units are intended to be sold.

Under the City’s current rental market regulations, 20 days notice is required to evict tenants if a rental owner intends to move into a unit or allow an immediate family member to occupy a unit. Burgess plans to increase the notice period in such instances to 90 days. The legislation would go further by requiring 90 days notice if an owner intends to evict a tenant for the purpose of selling it. Only 60 days notice is currently required in that instance. Burgess hopes that these changes will give renters some semblance of greater security should they be forced to move because of no fault of their own.

Meanwhile, Burgess also plans create legislation that would preserve existing affordable multifamily housing units. All multifamily properties with five or more units and at least one unit renting to households at or below 80% of the area median income would be subject to the preservation provisions. Owners of any such properties intended for sale and market listing must have first provided advance notice to the City of Seattle’s Office of Housing and Seattle Housing Authority. A notice of 15 days would be required so that public agencies can determine if units should be acquired and preserved giving them the first right to do so.

These proposals are not entirely new with former Councilmember Sally Clark having previously investigated them as potential avenues. Although, The Stranger recently highlighted the tenant protection issue by suggesting broad policy reaches into areas like additional just cause eviction rules and fixing the tenant relocation assistance loophole.

In a press release, Burgess said:

The growing lack of affordable housing poses a direct challenge to our vision of an equitable city. There is no one solution, but the City should play an active role in preserving and promoting affordability. These proposals are the first of many concrete steps we must take.

Burgess plans to submit the legislation at Tuesday’s full council meeting and send it to the Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services, and Economic Resiliency for further consideration.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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What does his mean: “giving them the first right to or so”…ROFOs? ROFRs? Just a heads up to go find x millions under the seat cushions to close in 3 months?

Stephen Fesler

Details are forthcoming on exactly what that means. I can’t say how that will work since the actual legislation hasn’t been published. I’d presume they’d (public agencies) have to close considerably sooner than that. But, I’d imagine it would offer an opportunity much like what happened in Squire Park.

Matt the Engineer

And we take another step toward becoming San Francisco.

“All multifamily properties with five or more units and at least one unit renting to households at or below 80% of the area median income would be subject to the preservation provisions.”

Of course this will result in fewer units overall, which means more people are displaced.


Exactly. The worse part about this is that no one wants to address the real source of the problem in this city, and would much rather attack landlords and developers. I’m sure there are some nasty landlords out there, as well as some thoughtless developers, but blaming them for the problem is just a distraction.

Most of the land in this city is zoned for single family houses. The ADU laws in this city are way more restrictive than Vancouver’s or Portland’s, let alone being a model for the country. There are numerous ways in which we could address the problem and build our way out of it — some of them would preserve the houses — but proposals like this are at worse a distraction, and at best counter productive.

It isn’t like there aren’t solutions out there, either. A search for “legalize inexpensive housing” leads to this — — a series of articles about this very city. A search for “the rent is too damn high book” leads to this —
This isn’t rocket science. The sooner we realize that there are trade-offs with legislation that limits density, the sooner we can work towards sensible solutions. The limits, by the way, often do nothing about limiting growth or preserving old structures (you can destroy a lovely old house and replace it with a huge one as long as one family lives there). There are a few very simple things we could do to greatly decrease the cost of rent:

1) Do away with all parking requirements. This wouldn’t effect big buildings that much, but it would have a huge effect on row houses and ADUs (where it matters most from a cost perspective).

2) Do away with the ownership clause on ADUs. This is huge — it prevents landlords from buying a house and renting out both the house and backyard cottage (or house and basement apartment).

There are lots of other things that could be done (none very radical) that could improve things way more than this proposal, but just those two would be huge. These are the things we should be considering, not legislation like this.

Stephen Fesler

Alan did a great job in that series. It’s probably worth rehashing the discussion for Seattle. If you’re interested in offering something nuanced about it and how to free up the LU code on the topic, hit us up.

Matt the Engineer

And adding numbers to this: for every unit demolished in Seattle, 11 units were built in 2014 (20 in 2013!). This means for every unit you protect you’re kicking 10 households out of Seattle.

Stephen Fesler

Just to clarify this assumption, you’re assuming a sale of property means that it will be redeveloped? That’s not inherently the case here. It appears that the legislation will cover any land sales subject to the regulation regardless of redevelopment or simple conveyance of ownership and continued operation. Although, in instances where redevelopment is possible or likely, your point is noted.

Matt the Engineer

I don’t see where my arguments rely on that assumption. I’m saying that many of the types of units that were demolished in 2014 wouldn’t be allowed to be demolished in the future under this legislation. That means that those 11 homes you build when you demolish 1 home don’t happen, and that 10 households won’t have homes in Seattle to protect that one existing household.

But you’re right – this will also affect buildings where there’s a sale without the intent of redevelopment. And that part of the law is weird as well. The city gets the first right of refusal to buy your building? How is that legal? Who sets the price?

This is a good argument for inclusionary zoning and 1-for-1 replacement of low-income units you tear down. Rather than kicking out exclusively the lower income households, let’s include them, as in NYC and 200 other cities.

That’s a terrible argument for inclusionary zoning. IZ slows construction and leaves us with fewer units overall. Remember who will be left without a home when you have fewer units – it won’t be the rich.


I’m not defending this legislation but I think it’s necessary to point out nearly all the research I’ve looked at on inclusionary zoning does not show it slows construction.

While this research could indeed be wrong, it doesn’t seem fair to confidently make this claim when the research points in the other direction.

Matt the Engineer

I know we’ve disagreed in the past about even the results these studies were intending to show, but I thought most of our disagreement was about the magnitude of the impact, not whether there is one at all.

Just take a look at this one. “Results from suburban Boston suggest that IZ has contributed to increased housing prices and lower rates of production during periods of regional house price appreciation.”

Also, take a look at the Pennsylvania example in this article.

Anyway, why do we always end up back in linkage fees? We’re talking about something we can all agree on: limiting new housing harms affordability.

I for one, and many housing advocates who work on affordability to not agree at all on this premise. It’s not limiting new housing that harms affordability, because new construction never produces any affordable housing. Not now and not 20 years from now. Building more new, high-proced housing only affects the market for high-priced housing, and limited the supply when jobs are expanding like craze, could limit the supply of high-end housing.

You will argue that some people will look for an older, cheaper apartment than they can afford, displacing someone who can’t afford to pay more. This is true, and it’s happening all over, but beyond that, when buildings get older and less expensive (though not affordable to those in service jobs), they are beoing sold, and the new owners either tear them down or rehab them into “like new.” They actually never get below $600 a month for a studio. So what we have is two discontinuous markets, one market-rate and one subsidized, for those who can’t work and those who can’t afford even $600 a month, which is actually a lot of people. Building more of one doesn’t affect the supply of the other–unless we have a linkage fee.

“This is true, and it’s happening all over” It seems like you’re conceding these markets are connected, then say they’re discontinuous. It can’t be both.

We need:
1. Enough housing supply to house absolutely everyone that wants to live here and is gainfully employed.
2. Enough subsidized housing to house the rest.

#2 will never be built by the market – if you don’t have a job, nobody will build you a house. That’s where subsidized housing is really important, and where homelessness is a real possibility. The good news is that we have very good tools to pay for this – we just need more housing levy.

But #1 is artificially constrained by our existing residents and politicians. It’s really not a lot of money to build a unit of housing – ignoring land costs and amortized over 30 years including interest and developer profit it’s something that a minimum wage worker can afford. The only thing driving up the price of these units is land costs, and the only reason land is so expensive is that we constrain multifamily housing to 13% of our land area. SF land will always be expensive because you can only build one unit per lot. But when you can take that same piece of land and build 100 units, land prices can become small.

No, that’s not it. You state that everyone who is employed can afford market-rate rent. In fact, pretty much everyone in the service economy, $11-$22/hr, or up to about $48,000 a year, cannot afford $300 to more than $550 a month. Since the latter won’t get you a studio apartment, you’re sending all the workers who wait on us and clean up after us to Burien or points south.

We need to provide workforce housing for those making 30%-60% of Area Median Income, and it will take cheaper land and subsidized construction, since they cost the same to build, about $250k/unit. This low-income group represents about 25% of the population.

We have lots of SF land with 2-3 units. My hope is that we lift the parking and owner-occupancy restrictions on mother-in-law apartments and build “discrete” duplexes to increase density in SF zones without changing their character.

Anyone up to $48k a year can’t afford $550 a month? HUD defines affordability as housing costs being 30% of your income – that’s $1,333 a month.

But let’s not talk about $48k workers. Let’s talk about $15/hr minimum wage workers. HUD affordability levels would allow them to afford $867 a month. Assuming a 30 year mortgage and 4% interest that’s a $182k home. If you’re right and units really cost $250k (RS Means* begs to differ, but I’ll let you have it for argument sake), then they certainly can afford to rent that unit at $867 a month.
Anyway, I think we’re mostly on the same side here. I just don’t understand why you don’t join the fight to allow more households to afford to live here by allowing more units to be built. We can argue about IZ or linkage fees and genuinely both think we’re right (I’m still open to have my mind changed on either, and Owen’s been working hard at that), and we surely both agree that greatly increasing the housing levy and building more subsidized housing would be a good thing. But why are you always against upzoning? Just to stick it to the developers, no matter the consequences for affordability?
* finishes, appliances, and a few other items aren’t factored into those numbers


>> It’s not limiting new housing that harms affordability, because new construction never produces any affordable housing.

But that isn’t the point. New housing adds to the overall supply, which pushes down the cost (all other things being equal). Those who can afford it, move into the new place, while those who can’t move into older places. The only reason yesterday’s bananas are cheap is because there are new bananas in the store. Stop shipping bananas and those old ones become really valuable. That is basically where we are at in this city (not enough new bananas). Obviously there are a lot of factors (the cost of construction, which includes the cost of land, etc.) plays a big part (sometimes it is just too expensive to ship bananas). In some cases (as in New York) you have very wealthy people buying up units and actually decreasing density (knocking down walls — making artisan banana bread if you will — OK, now I’m really stretching that analogy). Anyway, in this city, that is rare, if not unheard of. In our case, we have the opposite. Despite the fact that the city actually encourages the development of luxury low density housing, there is pressure to build the opposite. People want to build Apodments, even though it is much easier (for regulatory reasons) to build massive unit apartments (one unit per floor). Meanwhile, the Apodment boom (such as it was) is about over (since the city ended it). In its place you can build tiny apartments with the same number of people and not have to add parking or go through a review — Ha! — just kidding. The city killed it and you have to build a more expensive (way more expensive per unit) building. You can still build luxury, one unit per floor apartments though (as always) but there just aren’t that many rich people moving here.

There are really two problems here:

1) Middle class housing is too expensive.
2) Low income residents can’t afford housing.

The first is caused by very high demand and very restricted supply. Easing the first problem (by allowing more construction) won’t solve the second problem. But it will make it cheaper to solve. If we allowed a lot more middle class housing (low rise, ADUs, etc.) then prices would drop (all other things being equal). That would mean that subsidies (to build low income housing) wouldn’t cost that much. The best way to solve the second problem is to first solve the first problem.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

No, unless your definition of middle class is the area median income, about $80,000. There are an awful lot of people who think of themselves as middle class who can’t afford the rent. The cost of rent, and the cost to construct new housing, doesn’t drop because supply equals demand. This is proven by Ballard in 2013 having the highest average rents and highest vacancy rates–both. The reason is, the lenders won’t let the developers lower their rents, because if they did, their investment wouldn’t be profitable. So they sit vacant for a year or more until they are rented at the designated price, as determined by the business plan.

I do think we should create more affordable housing units by easing the parking and owner-occupied restrictions on MILs and backyard units. It costs only about $35,000 to remodel a daylight basement into a 1BR apartment, and it rents below market if the owner is selective about sharing their house.


I’ll take a read on the second link you sent. I haven’t read that yet.

As to the first one, the findings from that study are the ones articulated in the Furman Center study I went over in my first linkage fee article. The full quote from the abstract is:

“Boston suggest that IZ has contributed to increased housing prices and lower rates of
production during periods of regional house price appreciation. In the San Francisco area,
IZ also appears to increase housing prices in times of regional price appreciation but to
decrease prices during cooler regional markets. There is no evidence of a statistically
significant effect of IZ on new housing development in the Bay Area.
which I went over in my literature review. which only found a marginal impact on single family home production.”

In my frist comment I said “nearly” all research. I went over the paper from the Furman Center in my summary of the literature and the impact is on SF homes. This impact was found in another study but that study also looked at multi-family construction and found an increase in that type of construction. The overall picture of the literature is very compelling and it points in the direction of no impact.

The reason why this keeps coming up is because the disagreement about linkage fees is derived from a larger disagreement about the effects of regulatory costs. Since we disagree about the differences between regulatory costs and housing limits there are many policies that we will end up disagreeing about. With those disagreements in mind, we both agree that housing limits are really important. I’m arguing for us (urbanists) to refocus on housing limits because there is agreement there among many political constituencies.

Sarajane Siegfriedt

Thank you. I wouldn’t have said it so graciously. Matt, why on earth would you state that inclusionary zoning (who lives in a unit) would slow down construction (how it gets built)? When you state your arguments as flatly black and white, you lose credibility. Actually, most of these arguments are financial, and depend on whether there are 10% inclusionary units, or 15% or 20%, as elsewhere, or whether the linkage fee is set to a modest 3-5%, or high enough to discourage development. It would help your credibility if your agruments were more nuanced.