On Tuesday evening, residents, advocates, and rental housing groups packed into the physical and virtual chambers of Newcastle City Hall. Amid some minor code amendments and complaints about a recent street repaving project, councilmembers heard comments and criticisms of an ordinance meant to introduce several protections for tenants in the city. In addition to capping fees and increasing notice requirements for rent increases, the ordinance would have enabled flexible payment dates for renters on a fixed income and prevented landlords from using a lack of a social security number as a reason to deny a rental application. Had the ordinance passed, it would have introduced the widest sweeping set of tenant protections of nearly any city on the Eastside.
However, the ordinance failed on a narrow 4-3 vote — Mayor Linda Newing sided with Councilmembers Robert Clark, Tom Griffin, and Pratima Lakhotia to deny the protections from taking effect. In their explanations, several councilmembers expressed concerns about regulating landlords in additional ways beyond already-existing state protections, with Councilmember Clark pointedly noting that “it’s a contract between a tenant and a landlord. No tenant and no landlord is forced by gun to sign a contract…”
Newcastle’s unsuccessful push for tenant protections was in part spurred by a recommendation from A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH), a partnership between King County and Eastside cities to preserve and create more affordable housing in the region. At an executive board meeting back in April, ARCH recommended that its member cities consider adopting a set of three tenant protections meant to increase housing stability for renters:
- Require landlords to provide 120 days’ notice for rent increases greater than 3% and 180 day’s notice for rent increases greater than 10%;
- Limit move-in fees and security deposits to no more than one month’s rent while allowing tenants to pay these fees in installments; and
- Set a maximum fee for late rental payments at 1.5% of a tenant’s monthly rent.
The organization believes that these measures can help tenants better prepare for upcoming increases in housing costs due to inflation and COVID-19 impacts, and the ordinance is modeled after similar protections that Kenmore enacted earlier this year. However, of the 12 cities with chief executives (i.e. mayor or city manager) represented on the ARCH board, only three have enacted any part of these protections in the five months since the board’s recommendation.
The majority of cities have not brought the protections up to a vote for their city councils; those few that have have each discussed a unique combination of protections for passage in their jurisdiction. Although several elected officials in each city have cited consistency across jurisdictions as reasons for their respective support, the patchwork nature of this process — individual cities each voting on their own unique set of protections across a timespan of several months — has led to a landscape for Eastside renters that is anything but consistent.
In Redmond, the first city to act after ARCH’s recommendation, renters are protected by all of ARCH’s suggested provisions, as well as by an additional clause forbidding landlords from denying a rental application because of a lack of a social security number. However, a more divided City Council in Kirkland was only able to pass protections related to rent increases and move-in fees along a 4-3 vote. And down the road in Issaquah, councilmembers were only able to agree on passage of a four months’ notice for rent increases greater than 3% — though a vote to study other tenant protections at a later date was also successful.
Common themes have emerged in each city’s deliberations. Before taking action, elected officials have often wanted to acquire more data about the state of affairs for renters in their jurisdictions, such as the number of renters who are cost-burdened by housing or who belong to a low-income bracket. Debates have also often centered around identifying the perceived problem that these provisions are trying to solve — some councilmembers have noted that the proposed provisions would do little to lower housing costs or create more affordable housing, while others have pointed out the positive effects of the suggested provisions on their own merit.
Katie Wilson of the Transit Riders Union and the Stay Housed Stay Healthy Coalition underscored this point during testimony to Newcastle City Council: “[Large] rent increases… very often force families to move, and when rents everywhere are going up, it’s really hard to find a new place. It’s especially hard to find a new place in your community, so that your kids can keep attending the same schools, so that you can stay near family… The legislation you’re considering tonight can help. By giving renters more time to find new housing and limiting move-in costs and late fees to a reasonable level, it will mitigate some of the harms that renter households are experiencing right now.”
Unfortunately, a clear articulation of these issues doesn’t always lead to commensurate action. After all, Newcastle voted down tenant protections, even after staff made clear that 45% of Newcastle tenants make less than 80% of Area Median Income (AMI), and even after residents shared the concrete impacts that such protections would have on their lives.
And needless to say, it’s hard to overcome these deliberative obstacles if a city doesn’t even bring protections up for discussion at all. With their wealthy status as home ownership enclaves well-established, it’s foreseeable that the Gold Coast communities won’t take action on these provisions. But as the largest Eastside city and second-largest city in King County, Bellevue is a notable omission from the small club of cities who have taken action. Given Council dynamics, it’s easy to see ARCH’s recommendations going either way, depending on which ideological faction is best able to court the Mayor to their side.
Regardless of Bellevue’s future action on the issue, it will take many more council meetings across many more cities to bring consistent tenant protections to all of the over half million residents of East King County. For advocates and renters wanting further action, the patchwork nature of Eastside governance may prove to be the biggest challenge of all.
Chris is a UW Environmental Sciences graduate who moved to Bellevue in 2015. When he's not busy being an urbanist fox on the internet, he's working on the Eastside to support efforts reducing greenhouse gas emissions and going to city council meetings to denounce the hegemony of automobile infrastructure. Follow him on Twitter at @Deutski1.