Part 2: Improving conditions for renters. After a decade of punting, the legislature (finally!) seems to be taking the housing crisis seriously.
By Anthony Gill, Spokane Rising
In this two-part series, we’re tackling the most influential housing bills currently under consideration in Olympia.
Part 1 explored bills that make it easier to build housing, generally by reducing barriers to construction of new housing, but also by directly funding construction of new affordable housing.
Here in Part 2, we’re examining bills that improve conditions for renters, generally by increasing tenant protections and instituting new rules on when landlords can raise rent on their tenants — and what rights tenants have when rent goes up.
Spokane’s hotly-debated (but frankly, fairly minor) tenant protection ordinance remains stalled until at least February 27, but the state legislature has made housing affordability — including rental justice — one of its priorities this year.
Spokane’s tenant protection ordinance would require landlords to hold a business license, ensure legal representation for tenants at risk of eviction, create a portable credit and background check system, enforce clear standards for habitability and housing quality and protect tenants from landlord retaliation.
This package includes some important provisions — particularly those regarding housing quality and code enforcement. But compared to the renter protections in other Washington cities and the types of protection that only the state government can provide, it falls short.
The legislature could help fill in the gaps with strong housing-justice bills. Legislators are considering laws that would cap move-in fees, require six months’ notice for large rent increases, create a statewide rental registry and unleash the state attorney general’s office on bad landlords. There’s even a bill that would cap rent increases at no more than inflation or 7% — whichever is lower.
Together, these laws would give Washington some of the strongest renter protections in the country. So, without further ado, let’s dig into the most promising tenant protection laws under consideration this session.
1. Require more notice for rent increases
Among the tenant protections under consideration this year in the legislature, perhaps the most promising is HB 1124, which would provide additional notice for rent increases.
Under this bill, landlords would be required to provide at least 6 months’ notice and allow tenants out of their leases if they issue rent increases in excess of 5%. Given that many Spokane tenants frequently receive one-month notice or less for increases of 25% or more, this could make a big difference for local renters. The bill would also reduce late fees for rent payments to no more than $75.
This bill has already passed the House Committee on Housing and is awaiting action in the Rules Committee, which could send it to the House floor. Right now, it has strong support in the House, with 18 cosponsors, including both of Spokane’s representatives (Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby), but the bill faces significant opposition from the landlord lobby.
2. Stop abuse of security deposits
Have you ever wondered where the money from your security deposit goes after you’ve moved out and received a check for less than you expected? So have your legislators.
Under HB 1074, landlords would have about another week to return your security deposit (30 days instead of 21 days), but they would have to provide actual documentation about the cost of any damages for which they withhold funds — for example, repair estimates, invoices or receipts. The bill would also prohibit landlords from withholding tenant deposits for standard activities completed after a tenant moves out, like carpet cleaning.
This bill has already passed the House Committee on Housing and is awaiting action in the Rules Committee, which could send it to the House floor. This bill has fewer cosponsors than the others outlined so far. But in part because it seems so straightforward and obvious, I think it has a good chance of passing this year.
3. Create a statewide rental property registry
Many advocates — both among tenant organizers and housing advocates more generally — lament the lack of adequate data on rental and vacancy rates in our state. (That said, all indications are that Spokane’s apartment vacancy rate is around 1.1%, which is well below the 5% vacancy that housing experts consider a “balanced” market.)
SB 5060 requires most rental property owners to register their housing units with the Department of Commerce for a small per-unit fee and provide statistics on monthly rental rates. Landlords would be expected to update this data regularly — for large landlords, possibly as often as every couple days. Commerce, in turn, would maintain a new website tracking rental housing inventory, including, at the bare minimum, statewide rental and vacancy rates. This would give us important information about where housing supply is most constrained and where we could possibly focus most on building new housing and providing rental assistance.
Additionally, under this new law, if landlords fail to register their units with the state, they will have fewer allowable justifications for eviction. Only nuisance uses of the property, illegal activity, and other substantial or repeated behavior would be legal grounds for eviction in unregistered units. This serves as a strong incentive for landlords to register with Commerce as required.
Predictably, landlords strongly oppose this bill, for many of the same reasons they oppose Spokane’s tenant protection package. Moreover, this package of strong reforms hasn’t received much support from the general public — a recent public hearing garnered only one person (other than the bill’s sponsor) testifying in support.
A version of this bill passed the Senate Committee on Housing on February 9 and was referred to the Ways and Means Committee. The revised bill limits the bill’s effect to cities with more than 130,000 people. That means renters in cities like Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Cheney, and Airway Heights would be less protected, and we’d have less data on housing supply in those cities. The Ways & Means Committee could reverse this change.
4. Limit move-in fees and rent increases
Outside of more notice for rent increases, many tenants simply wish to see some limitations and certainty about their costs — both how much their rent can increase from year to year and how much landlords can charge to move in.
Fortunately, the legislature has two bills tackling this issue.
Under HB 1389, a tenant’s rent could not be increased within the first 12 months of tenancy. Additionally, rent could not be increased in any 12-month period by more than the consumer price index or 3%, up to a maximum of 7%. In other words, renters would be assured more stable housing costs in the long-term that do not increase faster than inflation. In Spokane, rents have increased more than 45% on average over just the past five years. If this bill had been law over the same period, the maximum increase allowed under a single tenancy would have been about 16%. That would make a big difference for Spokane families.
Simultaneously, under HB 1388, landlords would be banned from requiring more than an amount equal to one month’s rent to move into a new unit. Many landlords require payment of the first and last months’ rent, a security deposit equal to a month’s rent, and application fees before they will allow someone to move in (in other words, three times a typical month’s rent). Lowering the move-in cost could mean the difference between being able to afford a place to live and being homeless for some households.
Versions of both HB 1388 and HB 1389 passed the House Committee on Housing on February 9 and were referred to Appropriations. Most changes were technical, rather than substantive, and these remain strong bills. They also have arguably the strongest support of any tenant protection bills this session, with dozens of cosponsors. That said, there’s still significant opposition from landlords, so it is likely the fight will continue until the very end of the legislative session.
5. Unleash the attorney general on bad landlords
There’s another provision of HB 1388, which could dramatically improve enforcement of landlord-tenant law and consumer protection law when it comes to housing.
At present, the Office of the Attorney General is somewhat limited in enforcing consumer protection law in the context of housing, due to the lack of clear definition of what constitutes a “predatory practice.” This bill finally starts to define these practices, including:
- Charging “excessive rent.” The bill specifically defines an excessive rent increase as any increase greater than inflation (but no more than 7%) within a 12-month period — aligning with the rent stabilization standard set by HB 1389.
- Charging a higher rent or including more burdensome rental terms if a tenancy is month-to-month, compared to under a term lease.
- Charging application fees, move-in fees, or security deposits that in total exceed one month’s rent.
The bill explicitly gives the AG’s office the authority to investigate predatory practices, issue cease-and-desist letters and file court actions. If a court agrees with the AG and finds that a landlord indeed engaged in predatory practices, then the landlord will be liable for civil penalties in the tens of thousands per violation. Tenants will also have the right to sue landlords for predatory practices and could recover not just the excess rent they paid, but also punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
This package of reforms would give the Office of the Attorney General a powerful stick to enforce consumer protection law and finally hold bad landlords accountable. As mentioned above, a version of HB 1388 passed the House Committee on Housing last week and now awaits action in Appropriations.
6. See you in (housing) court
While it would benefit tenants if the AG’s office had a bigger stick to keep law-breaking landlords in line, a separate pilot housing court program would create a less adversarial option to resolve landlord-tenant disputes. SB 5707 creates specialized housing courts where judges and staff get special training to work through disputes between renters and property owners. The goal of the program is to move landlord-tenant disputes through a mediation or settlement process. A separate but similar initiative called the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program is set to end in July, but showed real success in resolving landlord-tenant disputes in a way that allowed 94% of participants to remain in their housing.
Perhaps drafting off the feel good Valentine’s Day vibes, this bill had its first public reading at 10:30 this morning. The bill is scheduled for executive session in the Senate Committee on Law and Justice on February 16.
How to get involved
If you’d like to get involved and support renter justice laws in the legislature and across the state, check out the Washington State Low-Income Housing Alliance, which is organizing advocates in support of many of the bills mentioned above. You should also check out the Tenants’ Union of Washington, which is organizing for the ordinance under consideration at the Spokane City Council.
You can also offer direct public comment on each Bill Information page linked above, or sign in “pro” (or "con") in advance of a committee public hearing.
An (off-topic) treat for you: Check out our Spokane and news-themed valentines! See them all here and share with your chosen family, your actual family, your bestie and even your nemesis!