State representatives stand at their desks and raise their right hand to take an oath to start the 2023 session.
A new crop of legislators, including HB 2114 sponsor Emily Alvarado (upper middle), is more pro rent stabilization than older waves, but will it be enough for the bill to survive? (Washington State Democrats)

Once again rent stabilization is on the docket at the Washington State Legislature and facing long odds to overcome four decades worth of political inertia against lifting the state’s ban on all forms of residential rent control. Tenants across the state have faced steep rent hikes in recent years.

The average rent statewide was up about $700 over the last decade, clocking in at less than $1,100 in 2014, but having reached nearly $1,800 in 2023, according to the Washington Center for Real Estate Research’s quarterly apartment market report. That increase is twice the rate of inflation.

House Bill 2114, sponsored by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle), would limit rent and fee increases to 7% annually, with some exemptions, prevent increases during the first year of a tenancy, cap fees, and require longer notice for rent increases. While the 7% upper limit to rent hikes would not prevent housing costs from steadily rising, the bill would represent a sea change for a state where laws have largely been stacked in favor of landlords and against tenants. Tenants could take solace in knowing sudden steep rent hikes would no longer be permissible in most cases, limiting landlord’s opportunities to rent gouge.

However, the senate companion to HB 2114 has already failed ahead of a committee cutoff deadline, signaling tepid support in the higher chamber. Meanwhile, the house bill faces a 5pm deadline today (Tuesday) to clear the “house of origin” cutoff and avoid a similar death. The bill is on the floor calendar, but that is not a guarantee that it will get called to a vote, let alone garner sufficient support to pass — especially given the time crunch and the litany of amendments hanging over the bill and threatening to delay the legislature should they take it up.

Bill sponsors held a press conference on Friday to rally support for the house bill, hoping to keep the issue alive this session, which is rapidly approaching its end in early March. The lawmakers in attendance were Rep. Alvarado, Rep. Chipalo Street (D-37, Seattle), Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33, SeaTac), Sen. T’wina Nobles (D-28, Fircrest), Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), Rep. Sharlett Mena (D-29, Tacoma), Sen. Claudia Kauffman (D-47, Kent).

“The reason we’re here to speak to the issue is there is a lot of misinformation about what exactly we’re talking about,” Trudeau said during the news conference. “It’s really important to understand that what we’re talking about is rent increases. We’re talking about stability. We’re talking about opportunity, and we’re talking about predictability. We are saying give people relief. Let them plan. Without stable housing, you don’t give people the opportunity to dream, and if you’re not giving people and families the opportunity to dream, you can’t expect successful outcomes because the ground is shaking underneath their feet at every moment.”

The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance made passing rent stabilization a top priority for the 2024 session. Michele Thomas, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Housing Alliance, said advocates had done a good job of raising the issue, which has frequently been proposed but rarely advanced far in the legislative process.

“We have done a good job keeping this as the top issue,” Thomas said in an email to supporters. “We need to keep that up.” 

While it’s been a struggle to advance tenant issues in a state where the real estate lobby is powerful and opponents have successfully beat back past efforts without breaking much of a sweat, tenant rights advocates have taken the opportunity to push back on false narratives and negative stereotypes.

“This narrative of, you know, ‘renters don’t bring value; they’re not invested in their community’ is such a lie,” Nobles said Friday. “And so not only do I want to make sure that we’re exhausting every option to keep community members housed. I also want to tell renters that it is okay to choose to rent; it is okay if all you can do is rent, whatever you want to do so that you can live and be housed is your decision and it’s the best decision for you if you are making that decision. But know that we are sitting here fighting really, really hard to protect folks who are renters and who deserve to be respected and have a place to call home.”

Nobles noted that out of 49 state senators, she’s the only member who lives in rental housing.

The rent stabilization press conference included (from left to right) Rep. Chipalo Street, Rep. Emily Alvarado, Rep. Mia Gregerson, Sen. T’wina Nobles, Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, Rep. Sharlett Mena, Sen. Claudia Kauffman. (Washington State LSS)

Even if the bill were to survive in buzzer-beater fashion in the House, it appears set to face a gauntlet in the Senate. As the smaller chamber, it takes fewer votes to derail bills. With Republicans in lockstep against the legislation, it takes only five Democrats from the senate caucus to block it.

At least one senator has already loudly declared her opposition to the bill. In fact, Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-49, Vancouver) took the unusual step of issuing a press release not to celebrate legislative progress, but to celebrate her stonewalling of the senate rent stabilization bill and enumerate a laundry list of reasons to oppose all forms of rent control, even the gentlest. Cleveland’s release was picked up and broadcast by Vancouver’s paper of record, The Columbian, which noted Cleveland had been recently talking to economists and experts to understand the bill.

Much like minimum wage laws, which were lambasted by the majority of economists before being implemented and proven effective, rent stabilization is largely unpopular within the profession, but there is a growing body of economic research that is sympathetic to rent stabilization and more prone to acknowledge benefits than emphasize only negative consequences, whether theoretical or empirical. Relatedly, The Urbanist advocacy team included rent stabilization in its advocacy agenda and supports the bill.

Cleveland attacked the senate bill on multiple fronts, on one hand for not limiting rent hikes enough (which was done in concession to skeptics like herself) and on the other hand for going too far. “I’ve looked at studies that have concluded that the policy actually does drive inequity and gentrification and decreases affordability,” Cleveland said.

“Landlords would be able to increase rent by 15% year after year, well in excess of the typical economic growth of household salaries and means. The math is brutal. What renter could afford a 15% increase in rent with each new year?” she continued in the press release, seemingly arguing for stricter controls.

The house version sets the rate at 7%, which could provide Cleveland with a chance for a Goldilocks ‘just right’ taste test.

While Democratic party leaders have emphasized the three S’s of supply, stability, and subsidy, Cleveland argued that supply was working without stability policies and that tenants should just tough it out to see if rents would sort of regulate themselves in time, suggesting things were looking up for tenants.

“Nationally, rent increases have averaged 3.18% since 2012, and the rate of price growth in rents nationally has slowed for the past 19 months consecutively,” Cleveland wrote. “This indicates that our efforts to increase housing supply are beginning to work and suggests we should continue these efforts before adopting risky policies that might do more harm than good and could disrupt the positive path we are now on.”

It’s not just Cleveland. Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), a noted thorn in the side of progressive legislation, has long been an opponent, and Sen. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) told a constituent that bill was effectively dead and that the Democratic caucus contained many skeptics — won over by some combination of the economic literature and the landlord lobby.

“I think that there is a genuine difference of opinion about whether rent stabilization would ultimately help or hurt tenants,” Pedersen wrote in the email. “Many Democrats, with the support of most academics who have studied this subject, believe that passing such legislation risks exacerbating the housing shortage, making market rents even higher.”

But the bill’s sponsors are not giving up yet and have emphasized the broad coalition of more than 100 local organizations and labor groups behind the effort. They’ve also noted that they finetuned the bill to address concerns.

“We’re seeing responses to questions and concerns that are being brought to the table,” Alvarado said. “And so we have increased the cap. We have, for example, removed the lease-break requirement. We have, for example, added more exemptions for owner-occupied duplexes and homes. This is a policy that we’re reflects years of work. Some type of rent stabilization bill has come before the legislature for the past several years. So we do believe in making policy after listening to many stakeholders, and believe that there’s a good bill in front of us right now in the house.”

We will know by 5pm whether those efforts were enough to move the bill this session.

Take Action: Send a letter to your state legislators in support of rent stabilization with Housing Alliance’s form. Sign in as pro on HB 2114.

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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.