In 2022, the Stay Housed Stay Healthy Coalition successfully pushed passage of a suite of renter protections in five cities across King County and plans to build on that work in 2023.
For Burien City Councilmember Cydney Moore, who as a single mother once lost her housing because of high late fees, passage of tenant protection legislation in October was deeply personal.
“I had to move myself and my children out of our home because my mother died and I incurred some late fees. And then I couldn’t burrow my way out of it,” Moore said. “So I’ve seen firsthand what a difference these new protections can make in people’s lives.”
Burien was among five cities in King County that successfully passed a suite of significant renter protection laws in 2022, thanks to the efforts of the Stay Housed Stay Healthy Coalition. The bills included tenant safeguards such as six months advance notice of large rent increases, caps on move-in and late fees, and a ban on requiring Social Security numbers for rental applications.
Founded in 2021 in response to surging rents and the ongoing homelessness crisis, the coalition encompasses a broad spectrum of 60 organizations, including groups that focus on social justice, racial equity, environmental protection, labor rights, and transportation (The Urbanist is a member of the coalition). Last year, Stay Housed Stay Healthy lobbied for eviction moratoriums in cities across the county and also successfully convinced the King County Council to pass strong renter protections for unincorporated areas of the county in 2021.
“It’s broader than just organizations that work directly on housing,” said Katie Wilson, general secretary of Transit Riders Union, and a coordinator and spokesperson for Stay Housed Stay Healthy. “I think that reflects the fact that so many different groups’ members are struggling with housing costs.”
Wilson said the coalition shifted its focus in 2022 to cities in King County outside Seattle. She said this was critically important in light of data showing that rents across the county have risen between 20 and 30% since before the Covid-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, suburbs saw their housing prices skyrocket at a greater pace than Seattle, and most tenants in those cities didn’t benefit from the same protections that Seattle put in place over the past decade and strengthened during the pandemic.
With rents jumping amid the economic turmoil of the pandemic, evicted and displaced tenants had a greater likelihood to become homeless, adding to a growing crisis. King County estimated its homeless population was 40,800 in 2020.
Wilson said the coalition worked with the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association to develop a model ordinance based in part on King County’s 2021 legislation for unincorporated parts of the county. The coalition then convened a series of online Zoom listening sessions early in the year, spoke with many participating organizations, and began to identify city council members and mayors who were receptive to the bills.
“Once we identified a city where we had a council member or two who was really excited and leading on this, we would focus more on that city,” Wilson said. “That’s where the door knocking would come in, and trying to build the support on the ground.”
Spreading tenant protections in 2022
Kenmore was the first to pass a bill in March, and in July it added additional provisions. The major changes included: requiring 120 days notice of a rent increase of 3% or more and 180 days notice for rent increases of 10% or more. The legislation limits move-in fees to the equivalent one month’s rent, which can be paid in 6 monthly installments (or 2 monthly installments for 6-month leases). It also capped late fees at 1.5% of monthly rent.
Additional protections in Kenmore’s bill include a ban on requesting Social Security numbers in rental applications; just cause protections that prevent eviction or lease termination without good reason; provisions allowing tenants on fixed incomes to adjust due dates; a ban on abusive or deceptive practices; and a limit on rent increases if the property is in poor condition.
Wilson said the requirement of six months’ notice for rent increases greater than 10% is the most significant provision in Kenmore’s bill. “It allows you to figure out if you can adjust your finances so you can stay in your home,” she said. “Can I get a higher paying job? Or can I get a second job? Can I find a roommate? And if you can’t afford it, it gives you extra time to actually find another place in your community.”
In July, the Redmond City Council followed Kenmore’s lead, passing the 120/180-day notice for rent increases, the one-month move-in fee cap, and a limit on late fees, as well as several other protections similar to Kenmore’s. In August, Kirkland adopted legislation that requires 120 and 180-day notice for larger rent increases and the one-month move-in fee cap. It did not pass any other renter protections.
In October, Issaquah passed one modest renter protection: requiring 120 days notice for any rent increase above 3%.
Wilson said that in addition to door-knocking and community efforts, the success of these bills in these Eastside cities was boosted by support from A Regional Coalition for Housing (ARCH), an affordable housing coalition comprising Eastside cities and King County. She said that when the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced earlier this year it would be substantially increasing income qualifications and rent limits for affordable housing, ARCH recommended to its member cities that they pass Stay Housed’s portfolio of renter protections. “That was really key in getting results in Redmond and Kirkland and Issaquah,” Wilson said.
The tenant rights push didn’t succeed everywhere. Efforts were rebuffed or fizzled out in cities like Newcastle and Bellevue, with landlord group lobbying hard against the protections (as they have everywhere) and getting more traction there. Still, the coalition is optimistic renters’ rights will spread from the friendly beachheads they’ve made throughout the county.
In October, after a contentious debate, the Burien City Council passed its renter protection bill, which nearly equaled the number of protections passed by Kenmore, including the 120/180-day rent increase notice, the one-month cap on move-in fees, and the 1.5% late fee limit. It also passed all the other various protections Kenmore enacted, except for a ban on abusive or deceptive practices.
“I’m really proud of our city,” Burien City Councilmember Moore said. “It speaks to the strength of our community. Our community is so active and involved and engaged.”
Mahamed Jama, a renter who has lived in Burien for ten years, said in a press release from Stay Housed Stay Healthy that these protections make it much easier for his neighbors to stay in their community.
“The new city of Burien renter protection ordinances are crucial for safeguarding working families—ensuring that children can attend the same school, preventing the increase in expensive commutes and that communities and neighbors can remain in place,” Jama said.
“This is a great city, it’s very vibrant,” Jama said in a phone interview, noting that the protections ensure the sustainability of Burien. “Sustainability means people are housed, and that they’re able to afford to stay where they’re living.”
Moore said the timing of the bill was crucial, because Burien let its pandemic eviction moratorium – one of the last in the state – expire at the end of October. “So it was a serious concern that there would have been that gap between the eviction moratorium and implementation of these new renter protections,” she said. “We were able to get the votes necessary to pass it so that it was effective immediately.”
Tenant rights push marches on
Wilson said that next year the coalition will continue to focus on passing the same tenant protection bills in other King Cities. She said SeaTac’s city council heard debate on the protections in committee in December and will likely introduce a bill before the full council in January. Other targeted cities next year will be Renton, Tukwila, Shoreline, and Bothell. “We’ve had conversations with council members who are interested there,” she said.
The bills address the stark imbalance of power between landlords and tenants, Wilson said. “For a renter, basically your home is your landlord’s investment. But what you stand to lose, if you can no longer afford to live there, or you get evicted, is this basic human right.”
“These are very basic protections that give renters a modicum of housing security,” she said. “That we have to have these huge fights about such modest protections can be a little bit demoralizing. But on the other hand, these do make things better.”
Moore also noted it’s a relatively small victory for people struggling to pay the bills, as she once did as a single mom years ago.
“Obviously having significant rent increases is a problem itself,” she said. “But having at least advance notice so you have time to find new lodging can make such a difference in people’s lives.”
Andrew Engelson is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor with over 20 years of experience. Most recently serving as News Director/Deputy Assistant at the South Seattle Emerald, Andrew was also the founder and editor of Cascadia Magazine. His journalism, essays, and writing have appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, The Stranger, Crosscut, Real Change, Seattle Weekly, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Times, Washington Trails, and many other publications. He’s passionate about narrative journalism on a range of topics, including the environment, climate change, social justice, arts, culture, and science. He’s the winner of several first place awards from the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.