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Lawmakers look to slow rent hikes

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36) Credit: Washington Legislature

Landlords imposing major increases in apartment rents would have to give tenants 90 days notice, rather than the current 30 days, under a bill soon to be introduced in the Washington Legislature.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said Wednesday that she plans to introduce a bill that would require a landlord to provide a tenant with 90 days notice of a rent increase if that hike exceeds 10 percent. However, if rent increases were 10 percent or less, the current 30-day-notice requirement would remain in effect. "I don't think 90 days is unreasonable," Kohl-Welles said, adding the huge rent increases usually come from long-planned major changes in a building.

Rent increases of more than 10 percent are especially frustrating to people on fixed incomes, who will then have to find new homes, she said. "It's really rough to find affordable housing," Kohl-Welles said.

Several Democratic senators and representatives unveiled plans for bills to address four tenant-related issues at a press conference in Olympia on Wednesday. Rapidly increasing rents, especially in Seattle, plus a tight rental market have prompted those bills. The Seattle Times published an in-depth story Tuesday on skyrocketing rents, which included one West Seattle woman's monthly rent being raised 130 percent from $1,000 a month to $2,300 a month.

Besides the 90-day notice bill, Kohl-Welles plans to introduce a bill to prohibit discrimination in housing based on a prospective tenant's enrollment in a government assistance program. Sometimes, rental advertisements say landlords do not accept people with federal Section 8 housing aid. She compared that to denying housing to someone receiving veterans benefits or Medicaid.

Ormsby and Kohl-Welles' bills would also allow city and county governments to tweak local financial aid programs for tenants who must move because of high rent increases. Landlords or local governments or both provide the money, depending on the wishes of a local government. Currently, a city or county government can mandate that up to 50 percent of the tenants' moving costs. Seattle's program is at the 50 percent level. Also to be eligible, a single tenant or a tenant's family now can have incomes no higher than of 50 percent of the federal poverty level, which is a sliding scale based on a family's size. Ormsby and Kohl-Welles' bills would increase the allowable upper limit to 80 percent.

Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, and Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, plan to introduce parallel bills in the Senate and House to protect tenants from having eviction attempts show up on screening reports for landlords. There are cases of landlords trying to evict tenants and losing in court — and the tenants' records still reflect show evictions, Habib said. "These are zombie conviction because they keep coming back despite being slain in court," he said.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, and Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle, introduced parallel bills in their chambers Wednesday to combat a prospective tenant having to pay for multiple tenants screening reports when applying to several different apartments. Their bills would allow a prospective tenant to go through one screening process with results being made available to all prospective landlords.

A prospective tenant typically pays $25 to $40 per screening report. One shared report can "provide all landlords with the protections they need," Frockt said.

Joining the legislators' press conference was Thomas Green, 44, a University of Washington graduate student in social work who lives in a Tacoma apartment. Green is a former U.S. Army corporal who injured his spine and leg in a military helicopter rappelling accident at Fort Polk, Louisiana in 1999. Green said he was homeless off-and-on in Tacoma from 2004 to 2009 because prospective landlords would not accept military disability payments as income on his applications, and would not accept a homeless shelter as a previous address. Green said he could not afford to pay for more than three screening reports a month as he hunted for a home. He said, "When I looked around the (homeless) shelter, I realized there were others trapped in the same dilemma as I was."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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