Spokane will now have a residential rental registry, funding for additional code enforcement officers, tenant relocation services and more.
After months of negotiations, community meetings and tweaks, the city council passed the FINAL tenant-landlord ordinances late last month. Here, we break them down for you.
Up until a few hours before the city council meeting on February 27, we had all been talking about one tenant-landlord ordinance. But, over the weekend before the final vote, city council members split the ordinance in two in an effort to ensure a unanimous vote on the part of the ordinance that had broad agreement, Council President Breean Beggs told RANGE.
The first ordinance, C-36330, which got unanimous support from council, covers the business license requirement, fees, more money for code enforcement, establishes the rental registry and a housing navigator position. Just to reiterate: everyone on council, even councilmember Cathcart, who previously spent four years as the director of government affairs for the Spokane Homebuilders Association — a trade group that generally opposes additional regulations on development and housing — was in favor of this piece.
The second ordinance, C-36366, basically covers everything else.
- Lays the groundwork for “portable” background and credit checks tenants can use to apply between different landlords and management companies
- Establishes a residential rental property mitigation program to help pay landlords for damages incurred by low-income tenants
- Establishes a legal services and relocation program for tenants
- Adds new requirements for walkthroughs, inspections and disclosures from landlords
- Provides anti-retaliation protections and the ability for tenants to sue.
It was passed with a 5-2 super majority. Council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle voted no.
At the meeting before the vote, Cathcart said that he supports the first ordinance because it provides a basic framework for the city to enforce the laws that are already in place, but he believes that the second ordinance isn’t fully fleshed out yet.
He pointed to the portable background checks as not being fully baked and the possibility that people can misinterpret that part as being mandated. Cathcart also said that, while he fully supports anti-retaliation laws, he thinks the way it was written in the ordinance leaves too much room for misinterpretation. Lastly, he took issue with the tenant legal aid program, saying he fears that the program was created “in a more biased way and not a balanced way” and believes the rental property mitigation program isn’t nearly as funded as it needs to be.
“I don’t think it makes sense to adopt that one as it is,” Cathcart said.
Mayor Nadine Woodward sent a veto letter for the second ordinance C-36366, saying that the law will cause people to sell off their rental properties and endanger new development of rental housing in Spokane.
It’s unclear if the veto letter will have any impact. The Mayor’s veto would be overridden by the 5-2 majority it originally passed with, unless one of the council members who originally voted for the ordinance has a change of heart. The council is scheduling a vote to override the veto on March 27, according to Beggs.
Mayor Woodward vetoes part of tenant-landlord ordinance by RANGE on Scribd
The renter protection ordinances have been in the works for nearly five years, but the pandemic caused it to get back-burnered. The city council last year made implementing their protections a priority. The council was originally set to vote on the ordinance in December, but after public backlash for a lack of engagement, they put it on hold to do more community outreach. Members Karen Stratton and Cathcart held separate listening sessions with tenants and landlords and a town hall with both groups to get their input on the ordinance. According to Beggs, this was around the time when council members started “intense” negotiations and each member had their own version of the ordinance.
“No ordinance has had this many changes and this much tinkering in the last year,” Beggs said.
The final result is the first piece of legislation in Spokane designed to protect tenants, ensure safer rental homes and offer some measure of protection against predatory landlords.
Beefing up code enforcement
There’s an old adage: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. With three new staff for the substandard building division of code enforcement, officials are hopeful they can work through their existing caseload — 245 active substandard building cases — and get to a point where code enforcement staff are inspecting properties before they fall into disrepair.
In addition to extra staff for code enforcement, the ordinance creates and funds a Housing Navigator position to help resolve conflicts between landlords and tenants: like educating each side on resources available to them and assisting with complaints about fair housing and habitability. The position will exist under the Office of Civil Rights, Equity and Inclusion, which… doesn’t yet exist because the city hasn’t been able to hire a director. But once it does, the ordinance authorizes that office to put out a call for qualified organizations that have the capacity to serve as a housing navigator or to hire a position within its department for the job.
Funding for the new positions comes from a $127 per year business license fee for landlords and a $15 per year fee on each rental unit in the city. This fee was decided after some back and forth on if the city would only charge bigger landlords a per door fee. Eventually, the city landed on a flat $15 fee after financial analysis by city staff determined that revenue would cover the cost of an effective code enforcement program, Beggs said.
Over the last four years, substandard building cases have steadily risen — from 114 in 2019 to 190 in 2022. These cases include commercial and residential buildings, but the majority, about 60%, are rental properties. Much of the remaining 40% of cases are vacant and abandoned properties, according to code enforcement supervisor Jason Ruffing.
While the rank of enforcement officers will grow, the laws governing building use and habitability are not changing because of the ordinance. “This ordinance does not adopt a new standard of minimum housing,” wrote Brian Walker the Neighborhoods, Housing and Human Services communications manager in an email to RANGE. That means that residences that may not meet current codes, but were approved at the time they were built or altered, are still allowed to be rented as long as they are in safe and sanitary condition.
The ordinance allows for periodic inspections in addition to cause-based inspections. Access to conduct an inspection relies on several factors, including the consent of the landlord, tenant consent or in some cases a court order for inspection. The inspections will be prioritized based on the resources of the department and the level of safety concerns. For example, a house that has no heat or running water would be a priority for the inspection team to issue a code violation and set a rapid timeline for the problem to be fixed compared to a building with a roof that needs to be updated but isn’t an imminent danger to the occupants.
Having more capacity to visit sites, will help the code enforcement team spot issues before they spiral and become even worse. “There is a benefit of routine or proactive inspections,” said Ruffing. “On a lot of the cases that we're currently working, by the time a complaint is submitted, conditions can be quite dire.”
When conditions do get dire, code enforcement tries to work with owners to get problems fixed. In general, code enforcement relies on voluntary compliance and only escalates to legal action when building owners refuse to fix problems. “A lot of times landlords or tenants don't understand what deficiencies really constitute a violation,” said Luis Garcia, the city’s director of code enforcement and parking services. “If we do get the opportunity to educate, more likely than not, we won't have to regulate.”
When education isn’t sinking in or being ignored the issue can escalate to notices, fines and a hearing in front of the building official — a quasi-judicial public forum that rules on issues like the habitability of a property. Each year, Garcia said dozens of cases go in front of the building official. The building official only posts the most recent agenda, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions about whether there are landlords who frequently run afoul of code enforcement. (RANGE submitted a public records request for the last 5 years of building official hearing agendas, so we’ll let you know if the building official has frequent-flyer slumlords sometime in the summer or fall.)
While the new law doesn’t change inspection standards it does set some fees for additional inspections. The initial inspection and follow-up won’t cost the landlord any money, but if more inspections are required, code enforcement may charge a fee. Landlords who are repeat offenders within a 12-month period can get slapped with a $2,500 fine per violation.
Ultimately code enforcement believes that a better staffed substandard housing division will improve housing quality in Spokane. “We can take care of [substandard buildings] on a maintenance level rather than an enforcement or deterioration level,” Garcia said. “The hope [is with additional staffing] that we have the ability to assist the landlords and tenants in keeping a safe, habitable dwelling that doesn't fall into the state of disrepair to the extent where now it's being considered substandard.”
The ordinance also requires landlords to register their units each year and declare that their property is in compliance with Washington state law ensuring basic health and safety for tenants. This is a huge win for anyone wanting accurate data on the rental market and quality of landlord properties in Spokane — which is something the city has never had before.
When landlords pay for their business licenses and unit fees, they’ll do it through a website created by the city. That web portal will ask for information including: the addresses of every residential rental unit owned or controlled by the applicant, whether the unit is offered at market rate or below market rate, and whether it’s occupied or unoccupied at the time of registration.
Code enforcement officials said this piece of the legislation is especially important for their work. It serves two main purposes: generating better data on where building complaints are happening and creating a contact list for building inspectors to more quickly locate and communicate with building owners.
Currently, the city doesn’t have great data on which buildings are falling into disrepair and who the owners are of those buildings. “We haven't historically sorted and tracked these cases by building type or [rental status],” said Ruffing. “Obviously one of the benefits of a rental registry is we would then have the new record type where we can track that data better and report on that data.”
That data will give Spokane a clearer sense of which landlords aren’t taking care of their rentals and the overall health of the rental housing market. With a rental registry, the city can track and publish vacancy rates in the city — an important indicator of housing availability in the city. The registry also requires landlords to post if their properties are renting below or at market rate. That data can inform decisions like what housing types the city needs to focus on promoting or subsidizing, and also serve programs that seek to connect people in need of housing and affordable housing providers to available rentals.
A rental registry will also make code enforcement’s job easier by clarifying who owns and manages each rental property. Under the current system, code enforcement sometimes ends up spending extra time trying to track down property owners and managers. With a rental registry it will be easier for code enforcement officers to contact property owners and establish legal access for inspections.
Portable background checks
Portable background checks (formerly known as universal background checks), allow prospective tenants to pay for one background and credit check (which can cost $30-$50 each time) and have it be valid for any landlord in the city for 90 days while they’re applying for rentals. One slight casualty on the renter protection side compared to previous iterations of the ordinance is that landlords are no longer required to accept these background checks.
Beggs said that the city’s legal department was worried about the legality of requiring landlords to accept a specific background check and that state law only has a bare framework regulating universal or portable background checks. Until the legislature allows cities to require it, they’re hoping that they can develop a voluntary program in Spokane. Also, it turns out that there’s one company in Spokane that does about 70% of the background checks in Spokane, Beggs said, and they’re willing to work with the city on the voluntary program. So for now, this part of the ordinance doesn’t do much for renters having to pay multiple background check fees.
Legal Services and Relocation Program
The ordinances create a pretty big service for renters who find themselves stuck in a dangerous unit with no money to move, let alone for legal recourse against their landlord. The legal services and relocation program for renters will bring legal action against landlords who are providing housing units that clearly fall below the standard of habitability.
The city will be contracting with an attorney or law firm that focuses on tenant laws. Once this attorney determines it’s more than likely that a landlord would be held liable under state law for providing a below-standard housing unit, the city would provide the tenants in the unit with relocation funds directly. When and if the attorney wins the case, the attorneys fees and settlement funds would go to paying the attorney, refunding the relocation funds and funding more attorneys in the future.
To get this program off the groundt, the city will be providing seed money for the first year of salary and benefits for an attorney and their associated legal fees. Then, that attorney will establish an application, review and appeals process for the relocation fund program. Households that make more than four times the federal poverty level will not be eligible for the program (for a household of two, that would be about $78,000 in yearly income).
For the first five years, the fund will be paid for with 2% of the revenue from the Housing Local Sales Tax Fund. After that, it will be maintained by proceeds from suing bad landlords. The city council can also add money into the fund at any time.
While state law provides some protections for tenants speaking out or organizing about housing, the city is adding more.
Now, no landlord, owner or property manager can intimidate a person because they’re trying to educate others on fair housing laws or doing political organizing. And, no one can threaten an employee with firing or discipline for trying to help someone exercise their housing rights.
The ordinance very distinctly doesn’t provide a consequence from the city, like a fine, but it does provide for what’s called a “private right of action,” meaning that someone who has been harmed by any of the violations above can sue within three years of the alleged violation.
It also says that if a landlord doesn’t comply with the requirements laid out in the disclosure section, the walkthrough and inspections section, the anti-retaliation section, or the business licensing and registration section, and the tenant didn’t cause it, they can terminate their lease with written notice.
Residential Rental Property Mitigation Program
The ordinance creates another new program operated under the Community, Housing and Human Services department, to help landlords who provide housing to low-income people and have their properties damaged by tenants.
Landlords can apply for money from the program after using up the tenant’s deposit, and going through any similar state or federal program. The CHHS department is tasked with establishing clearer rules for the fund, but the fund will prioritize assistance to landlords where a program or nonprofit referred the tenant and provided part of their rent or deposit.
The program will be funded by 10% of the landlord business registration fees and the city council can also add additional funds including an initial startup investment.
What landlords have to do now
Individual landlords and landlord-advocacy groups fought extremely hard against this ordinance. Arguments and misconceptions flew around online and at the city’s town hall on the matter ranging from “this is going to cost so much that landlords are going to have to raise their rents” to “landlords are going to sell off all their units and there will be no housing left.”
According to Mayor Woodward, some of those fears have already become a reality for some. In her unsigned veto letter, Woodward wrote that she had already heard of a family with four young children who are losing their rental housing because their landlord is selling the home due to the new regulations. RANGE reached out to city communications director Brian Coddington to try and connect with this family and the property owner. We’ll report back if that goes anywhere.
As we’ve covered before, many of the concerns and sky-is-falling statements from landlords haven’t stood up under scrutiny of what the law actually says and does. Despite changes in the ordinances since our last explainer, the laws simply won’t cost much to landlords as long as they’re providing basic, safe housing for their tenants.
Here are the new landlord costs and obligations under the ordinances:
- Landlords have to pay for a $127 business license and $15 per unit (even small landlords) each year and register their units. There are a few exceptions: nonprofits don’t have to pay the per door fee, private landlords who rent units below market rate can get the fee waived, landlords renting out a room and who live in the home, or rent an ADU inside a home (like a basement apartment), are exempted from getting a business license and paying the unit fee. If a landlord has multiple units at different locations, they only need to get one business license, but they’ll have to list all their units in their application.
- Before they rent out a property, the landlord, owner or manager of the property has to self-inspect the unit to make sure it meets basic building and housing codes and make all necessary repairs before a tenant moves in. Any rental agreement will act as a certification by the owner that the property meets those requirements.
- They have to provide each tenant a link to a website the city will make that has voter registration information, tenant rights and responsibilities and resources available to renters.
- Landlords also have to maintain all move-in and move-out inspection records for at least three years.
- Before signing a rental agreement, the landlord has to disclose to prospective tenants if the unit has a history of mold, what was done to remediate it and if the landlord has been informed by past tenants of health concerns related to mold. They also have to disclose if the property has any known history of methamphetamine manufacturing.
- They have to disclose to tenants within 10 days if the unit, building or parcel they’re renting is for sale. And if it is sold, the landlord has to provide all known contact information for the new owner to the tenants.
So, as long as a landlord is providing a minimally habitable unit as already required by law, they will have to pay a total of $142 per year for one unit. They are allowed to pass on the cost to their tenant, so if they choose to do that, they would have to raise rent by $11.83 per month. And, if they have more than one unit, the rent raise would go down significantly, even with the extra unit fees.
Landlords and their advocates were loud about this ordinance and Beggs said that based on conversations with realtors, they did so because “they believe that if they don’t fight back now, they think it will be worse next year.”
Despite the kerfuffle at January’s town hall meeting, Beggs said that ultimately, not that many landlords showed up to the city council meeting when the ordinance passed. And, he said he hasn’t heard much from landlords since — with the exception of one singular property manager who emailed him to say that one of their landlords was selling their property because of the ordinance.
“I think it was because it wasn't really that radical,” Beggs said. “This is a very middle of the road solution.”
A new chapter and learning opportunities
While the current landlord tenant ordinance may not be the most radical piece of legislation, tenant advocates see it as an important step to housing justice in Spokane. “This [ordinance] really lays a foundation,” said Terri Anderson, the Spokane office and statewide policy director for the Tenants Union of Washington state. “The best thing about the ordinances is that they create a chapter in our municipal code called regulating rental housing, which means more ordinances can go into that chapter.” A future addition Anderson called out was specific protections for tenants who organize tenants associations within their buildings.
As Anderson and tenant advocates plot their next initiatives, they’re also launching an education campaign for tenants at the Central Library downtown. Dates haven’t been set yet for these tenants rights and organizing workshops, but when they are we’ll be sure to let you know in our CIVICS newsletter (get it in your inbox here).