Eviction Defense Bills Pass Out of Committee with Pedersen Dissenting

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Councilmember Tammy Morales steps up to the podium at the Stay Housed coalition rally for her Eviction Defense bill on Friday. (Photo by 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to evictions and seek to get ahead of a wave of evictions and displacement expected after the eviction moratorium is rescinded in Seattle.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 The Urbanist's Executive Director. 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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ballardite

I don’t understand who the renters commission is trying to protect here. School Teachers and the majority of school staff have been employed throughout the pandemic so they should still be able to afford rent. So does this law target people who have been schoolteachers at one time in their lives but are now unemployed? Is anyone with a Bachelors in Teaching able to take advantage of this no-eviction law? And what about Drivers Education Teachers and Preschool Teachers? It’s unclear what the definition of Teacher is. The unintended consequence of a law like this is that it may end up making it harder for Teachers to rent a home in Seattle. Teachers are not a Federally Protected Class so a landlord who doesn’t want to risk it can just decide not to rent to teachers.

Douglas Trumm

I’m curious: What do you think a teacher makes and what do you think a typical apartment rents for in Seattle?

asdf2

This piece shows what is wrong with Seattle politics in a nutshell. On transportation issues, Alex Pederson is way too car-centric, opposing everything from 35th Ave. bike lanes to car tabs to fund transit. But, on housing issues (least lease landlords .vs tenants), I find myself more often than not, supporting his position over those of other councilmembers. There is basically nobody to vote for that strikes a reasonable middle ground on housing, while also supporting bike lanes and transit.

A lease is a contract where you agree to pay rent in exchange for housing for a defined period of time, provided you keep paying the rent. It is not a contract where the landlord is obligated to rent you the space forever at current rates, not is a contract where you can simply just decide not to pay and leave the landlord obligated to house you, indefinitely, for free.

I think a reasonable middle ground is to give tenants behind on their leases similar rights as homeowners who fall behind on their mortgages. Give them a period of a couple months to start paying again and allow the back rent to by split up over several months. I would even allow a renter who knows they can’t afford the place the option to leave voluntarily within the two-month grace period, in exchange for not having an eviction on their record, that would hinder their ability to find cheaper housing elsewhere. But, at some point, a tenant should have to either pay up or leave. It is not reasonable at all to expect a landlord to house them for free for multiple years.

I would also take a look at encouraging/making legal residential lease contracts with terms more similar to what businesses already get today when renting retail space. For instance, when you rent a storefront, you typically get a guaranteed rental rate for 5-15 years, with annual rent increases stipulated in the contract, usually around the rate of inflation. In exchange, the cost of maintenance and property taxes is passed on to you, rather than included in the rent. (Even then, long-term is still not forever; when the lease is up, everything is subject to renegotiation). Obviously, a 10 year lease is not for everyone – lots of people like the flexibility of not committing to one place for more than a few months or one year – but for families looking to really settle down, it seems reasonable that longer term leases should at least be an option. And, if the market demands it, landlords will have to offer it in order to compete.

And, of course, eliminating single family zoning, which drives up the cost of market-rate housing, everywhere.

John H

Are there any protections or exemptions for small, non corporate rental providers? Like if I want to rent out my mother in law apartment does that put me in another category versus a large national corporate rental operation? If someone stops paying rent on my apartment and I cannot recovery that legally or evict them for non payment, I would prefer to rent the mother in law as an AirBnB.

ballardite

Alex Pedersen tried to add an amendment that would exclude owners with 5 or less units but the amendment didn’t pass. So it seems it would apply even to those renting a mother-in-law apartment in their own home or renting a room in their own home.

David Foster

The bias shown in your articles is getting tiring. How about an honest discussion about whether it is fair to place the entire burden of the housing crisis on landlords? Or an investigation of how tenants are using the eviction moratorium to avoid paying rent?

Douglas Trumm

The Urbanist joined the Stay Housed coalition because we think reducing homelessness and suffering among tenants is a worthy mission, especially amidst a pandemic already causing too much suffering.

I don’t claim to be unbiased, but I am open to interrogating different sides of a story. Do you know of any tenants that deferred rent payments maliciously to take advantage of the moratorium and not simply because they were broke? Or any landlords with proof of abusing moratorium protections willing to go on the record? We can only write about stories were leads actually lead somewhere.

David Foster

I do in fact. One of my own tenants admitted that he was using the moratorium as cover while he paid off other bills; he’s been working the whole time. No doubt you’ll find similar stories with a little digging. What is really frustrating is that the moratorium is across the board and doesn’t require any proof of hardship. How is that fair? I expect this fellow will simply move out once the eviction ban is over. He’ll probably find a pretty nice place with all the money he saved.

Douglas Trumm

It sounds like your tenant is paying off other debts not living it up. I don’t see this as malicious. Even people who are working see their hours cut and if they’re service workers, their tips may suffer. The moratorium is giving him a new tool to manage his debts. I’m sorry that you’re on the wrong end of that, but it could well be your tenant makes good in time. This is an unprecedented time of unique challenges. Let’s cut each other a little slack.

And, for what it’s worth, the eviction defense does require tenants fill out a form claiming a financial hardship.

Brian G

If you made the slightest effort, you could find a near-limitless supply of examples of landlords who are struggling with abuses of the various moratoria. Few of them would want to go on record publicly due to fear of legal or other repercussions, but there’d be plenty who’d at least be willing to comment off the record. (Let me know if you’d like me to connect you with some.) Moreover, these new laws will simply have consequences that run counter to the stated goals of their sponsors. Get ready for that. You would do well to read the top few comments on this op-ed.

But, as you mentioned above, you’re not unbiased—you make no bones about being a journalist, and at this point, I don’t think anyone views the Urbanist as a reliable source of news. You have no responsibility to represent a multiplicity of perspectives, and I don’t expect you to do so. Though I do appreciate some of the work the Urbanist publishes, I take it with an ever larger grain of salt.

Last edited 7 days ago by Brian G
Douglas Trumm

If no one views The Urbanist as a reliable source of news, why are you trying to feed me a story? I’m sorry you didn’t like this story, but if you think reading anonymous comments on Seattle Times op-eds is going to change my mind, you may be disappointed.

Last edited 7 days ago by Douglas Trumm
Brian G

Fair point—Seattle Times comments are usually a cesspool. The only reason I found these ones worth my time is that they include a number of credible-sounding examples of landlords who have sold their Seattle rentals, are in the process of doing so, or are planning to. My point being that the city council can legislate however they choose, but rational actors are still going to act in their own best interest. These new laws incentivize small-time landlords to exit the city. Those who remain will tighten rental criteria, raise rent, and/or retain professional property management services in order to offset the increased risk of being unable to remove a non-paying tenant. The ultimate result, I feel, will be that tenants who were already somewhat on the margins, economically or otherwise, will be less able to find rental housing than before. I really do wish I could prove this to you, but I’m not a journalist either. That said, I think a full accounting will happen as time goes by and trends become clearer.

I wanted to apologize for being so abrasive above. I do appreciate the Urbanist and I know that you have many loyal readers. It’s not so much that I didn’t like your story; it’s that I think you’re missing a big part of the story. You have every right to the conclusions you’ve reached, but I think your certainty may be blinding you to the full implications of these changes.