More Renter Protections En Route From City Hall

A ban on source-of-income discrimination and a cap on move-in fees make their way through Council.

Relief may be coming to Seattle’s beleaguered tenants, with a pair of new tenant-protection bills on their way through City Hall.

One, a product of mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) task force, would prevent landlords from discriminating against unorthodox sources of income, such as child-care payments, veterans’ benefits, or welfare. That measure is on deck for a final vote by the full City Council. The other, merely a draft from Councilmember Kshama Sawant at this point, would cap the amount of money landlords can charge a new tenant in one-time move-in costs, as well as give tenants the right to pay the cost of their last month’s rent, security deposit, and move-in fees in up to six monthly installments, depending on the length of the lease.

At a press conference last week, Sawant unveiled her proposal to ease the financial burden on new renters through regulation. In addition to capping the combined price of a security deposit and one-time move-in fees to the equivalent of 10 percent of a month’s rent (and, as mentioned, giving tenants the right to pay one-time bills in installments), the legislation would create costly penalties for landlords who violate or try to violate city rental regulations—penalties that would mostly be remitted to the offended tenants. The legislation also clearly defines the types of costs that landlords can impose on renters, so they can’t just make up new fees.

Fellow councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Lisa Herbold support the bill, and Mayor Ed Murray’s office says that at first glance ”it definitely looks like something we could work with [the council] on.”

Sawant characterized Seattle’s ongoing affordable-housing drought as both a civil-rights issue and an existential threat to the Emerald City’s working class. “We have no option but to fight for tenants’ rights and reasonable rents in this city, because there is nowhere else to go,” she said on Thursday. “Not only is it our right to live in this city … but also, where would we go? We see the same trends of skyrocketing rent in the peripheral area around Seattle.”

Landlord John Bito stood alongside Sawant at the press conference. He supports the bill. “This reasonable legislation will not harm me or any other landlord,” he said. “The people who live in the city are what make Seattle what it is. If people are pushed out … our city’s culture will no longer be vibrant and inviting.”

Also present was Yani Robinson of the Gender Justice League, who talked about how the affordable-rental crisis especially affects already-marginalized groups such as transgender people. Robinson said that after a former landlord jacked up rent, they survived by couch-surfing. “So many of my friends [couch-surf] regularly,” they said in a follow-up interview. “It seems like housing is really unstable for my cohort in this city.”

Tim Seth, president of the Washington Landlords Association, objects to Sawant’s plan to allow renters to pay first-time costs in installments, saying it would expose landlords to too much financial risk. “If [a tenant] can’t at least come up with a deposit [equal] to one month’s rent,” he says, “it’s really questionable whether they’re financially able to handle this rental … The landlord is taking a real chance every time they give someone the keys.”

However, Seth doesn’t have any problem with Sawant’s proposal to cap the cost of the deposit plus move-in fees at the equivalent of one month’s rent. “We recommend [the cost of] 20 days of rent for a deposit, normally,” he says. “But nowadays [landlords] can charge anything to screen down the number of applicants.”

The morning after Sawant’s press conference, Sawant,Herbold, and O’Brien voted out of committee the mayor-sponsored bill to ban landlord discrimination against renters who rely on unconventional income like child-care payments or welfare. The bill would expand anti-discrimination protections that already exist for renters who pay with Section 8 housing vouchers to include other unconventional sources of income.

The Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts committee amended Murray’s original bill to also ban “preferred employer” discounts for, for instance, Amazon and Google employees. Further, the amended bill would require landlords to note the date when they receive a rental application and to give the apartment to the first qualified applicant to apply, rather than holding out for a rich-smelling tenant. There are exceptions in both amendments for landlords, such as nonprofits like Capitol Hill Housing, who specifically target their housing toward poor renters. The bill will go before the full Council on August 8.

During a Seattle Office of Civil Rights briefing on renter income discrimination, director Patricia Lally said that landlord discrimination against federal Section 8 rent vouchers, which has been illegal for more than a quarter-century in Seattle, is still widespread. Last year OCR filed 23 charges against landlords for housing discrimination, according to their website, though they found that far more—as many as two-thirds of the sample of landlords they investigated—showed evidence of discrimination.