Councilmember Tammy Morales was the only candidate to overcome a Mayor Harrell endorsement against her. (Doug Trumm)

The Seattle City Council’s Renters’ Rights Committee passed three bills providing further protections from evictions and rejected a bevy of amendments from Councilmember Alex Pedersen seeking to weaken the measures. On 3-1 votes, Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Tammy Morales, and Andrew Lewis defeated amendments and advanced the bills for a full council vote June 7th.

“Well, that was quick,” Pedersen said after his colleagues declined to give him a courtesy second so he could expound upon the rest of his loophole-creating amendments after humoring him on a few.

The three bills each solve a particular gap in tenancy laws that lead to evictions and seek to get ahead of a wave of evictions and displacement expected after the eviction moratorium is rescinded in Seattle. More than 44,000 Seattle tenants are behind on rent after the pandemic disrupted the livelihoods of many, Morales said. The Stay Housed, Stay Healthy coalition (of which The Urbanist is a member) has pushed the City Council and County Council to prevent evictions and roll out more tenant protections. The coalition has been campaigning and rallying support behind the measures.

  • Eviction defense – Sponsored by Morales, Sawant, and Lewis, this bill would allow tenants to avoid evictions by declaring a financial hardship from the pandemic.
  • School-year eviction ban – Authored by Sawant, this bill would prevent the eviction of households with students, educators, or public school support staff during the school year.
  • End of tenancy loophole fix – Sponsored by Sawant and Morales, this bill would expand Just Cause eviction protections to close a loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants at the end of fixed-term leases simply by not offering an extension.

A Princeton Eviction Lab study analyzed different legal approaches in jurisdictions across the country and found eviction protection measures have been effective at stemming the flow of evictions, Route Fifty reported. However, jurisdictions that haven’t responded with new laws are seeing evictions rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

“The impending avalanche of evictions is a systemic issue brought on by generations of disinvestment in communities of color. This is evident by the fact that two-thirds of renters experiencing pandemic-related rent debt are People of Color,” Morales said in a statement. “If we don’t do something to protect these vulnerable renters now, we will face Depression-era levels of homelessness. Our system is already overburdened and underfunded. If even a quarter of renters who currently owe rent debt fall into homelessness, our entire system could collapse.”

The Seattle City Council has steadily been ratcheting up tenant protections, slowly transforming city law from tilted toward landlord benefit and enrichment to a more level playing field. Most recently, the Council unanimously voted to establish a Right to Counsel for tenants facing evictions. Still, many gaps in tenant rights remain and the State Legislature has left a statewide rent control ban in place since the Reagan administration, even as neighboring Oregon has passed statewide rent stabilization.

Councilmember Pedersen rehashed his support for some previous tenant rights expansions, but essentially argued the new bills would go too far and sided with landlords this time around.

“I have voted for numerous tenant protections during the past year, including the winter ban on evictions for low- and moderate-income tenants, free legal counsel for those in need and facing evictions, and the payment plans for those impacted negatively by the pandemic,” Pedersen said. “I believe providing a more targeted, direct, and efficient solution would be funding the tenant assistance for those in need rather than adding additional regulation at this time that can be legally challenged, because it leaves one party, the provider of the housing, bearing the cost.”

The amendments that Pedersen offered included an 18-month sunset clause, exemptions for small landlords (defined as having four or fewer units), and allowing more conditions for evictions to proceed under each measure. Chair Sawant vigorously opposed the amendments, and her colleagues on the committee agreed.

“By inserting this sunset clause, essentially any politician who supports this amendment would say it’s OK for profiteering corporate landlords to resume evicting school children, their families, educators, and public school staff beginning in 2023,” Sawant said. “Why should it end in 2023? That protection should continue across time.”

Councilmember Sawant suggested Pedersen should have proposed a review provision without sunsetting the protections, arguing this was no benign amendment, but an attack on the intent of her bill. Pedersen’s amendment failed on a 1-3 vote.

Pedersen proposed limiting the scope of the school-year eviction ban to exclude most support staff, but this was also shot down on a 1-3 vote. Sawant argued support staff are vital to educating students and it was classist to not protect teaching assistants and bus drivers, too.

Making the case for her eviction defense bill, Morales stressed that Seattle landlords already have access to more than $200 million in rental assistance to cover losses for tenants behind on rent, refuting Pedersen’s argument that more rental assistance rather than regulation was the answer.

One of Pedersen’s arguments against the Just Cause loophole-closing bill was even more novel. He argued it was redundant and preempted because the State Legislature passed HB 1236, addressing on a statewide basis the end of tenancy loophole in Just Cause laws.

“It is my view that the state law preempts this, and I personally think it’s pretty clear. I do also want to thank State Reps Macri, Fitzgibbon, Frank Chopp, and many others who worked on HB 1236, but I believe that does preempt this,” Pedersen said. “So I will be voting no on this.”

However, his colleagues were ready for this argument and Morales pointed out their measure is stricter than state law and she had talked with Rep. Nicole Macri, who authored HB 1236. Macri encouraged them to proceed and clarified her intent was not to prevent local jurisdictions from going farther than her bill did. Furthermore, Lewis said the potential for a legal challenge shouldn’t dissuade Councilmembers from sticking up for tenants and they should welcome the opportunity to carve out more protections.

Morales emphasized that landlords almost always oppose new policies geared toward helping tenants. She pointed to a 2018 University of Washington study of landlord attitudes that found a general rejection of protection ordinances. “Around 89% of the landlords surveyed when provided a menu of potential policy options, rejected all of them, whether they were intended to increase affordability or housing supply or increase protections for renters,” she said.

Letting landlords dictate policy could end up exacerbating the homelessness crisis, which has been in a declared state of emergency since 2015 without seeing a significant downward trend in the number of people experiencing homelessness.

“We know we are still in a housing crisis, so we have to do these things,” Morales continued. “We have a lot of people who are at risk of experiencing homelessness, who can’t afford to find a place to live in this city, whose communities are being disrupted because they are being pushed out.”

Councilmember Pedersen may find more allies in full council than on the Renters’ Rights Committee, but it seems unlikely that he will find five votes to block the bills, let alone amending them to limit their scope. Last year, Pedersen succeeded in getting his small landlord exemption added to the winter eviction ban. However, this time around his colleagues have been less interested in watering down their bills — perhaps seeing conditioning his vote on severely weakening their measures is too steep of a price to pay to get unanimity.

While Pedersen frets over landlord profits and protecting property rights, his councilmembers appear to be laser-focused on protecting at-risk tenants, preventing a wave of evictions and people falling into homelessness.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.