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Burgess’ housing ordinances get a start in council

Apartment buildings on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Credit: Joe Wolf/Flickr

Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess brought two housing related ordinances to the Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee on Thursday. The first would extend the eviction notice period. The second would require owners of affordable multi-family housing to give the City of Seattle advanced notice of intent to sell.

Although far from an establishment conservative, Burgess will be eyeing a former Tenants Union of Washington State leader to his left in the upcoming city council elections. Jonathan Grant, the former Tenants Union executive director, believes the measures fall short.

Another opponent, John Persak, another Burgess opponent, said of the package of ordinances, “It is a good start but there are miles to go.” Candidate John Roderick said, “I think the proposals are good, and they are long overdue. It is another example of how the current council is responding to the diversity of candidates who are coming after them” in the wake of the realignment of council positions in a new system of mixed district and at-large voting.

When Burgess announced the two ordinances in late May, the quick reaction was that he was covering his political bases.

Burgess dismisses this claim. “This work on these ordinances,” he said, “actually began last year early in 2014 and was led by Sally Clark. … There’s a history here.” When asked if there was any particular timing to these ordinances, he said no.

Logistically speaking, the first ordinance would be relatively easy. As it stands now, if a landlord or a landlord’s family member wants to move into a tenant occupied unit, the landlord is only required to give 20 days notice of eviction. Additionally, if an owner of a single family home wants to sell, the landlord must give 60 days notice to tenants. The new ordinance would expand both periods to 90 days.

Grant and Councilmember Kshama Sawant are both on the record saying they think the period should be 120 days – about six months. “In a tight rental market,” wrote Grant in a letter to the council, “even 90 days will not be enough time to find new housing.”

The second ordinance would require owners of some low-income housing to notify the city of intent to sell 15 days before listing the property. Council central staffer Traci Ratzliff told council members that, since the beginning of 2013, 412 buildings with affordable units have been sold. In theory, this ordinance would allow for the city or partnering non-profits to get first crack at these buildings, thereby preserving more affordable units.

There are a few tricky things about the second ordinance. First, affordability would be based on the price of the apartments, not the income of the people living inside of them. Therefore, it would be the duty of the landlords to understand whether their apartments were rented at a rate that is technically affordable for individuals earning less than $46,000 or families of four earning less than $65,000. If even one apartment in a building is at or below that level, the landlord would be required to provide the 15 day notification to the city.

The second difficult piece is whether the city can have right of first refusal to buy the building. In his letter to the council, Grant strongly advocated for this. “Requiring notice in these situations is a starting point,” he said, “but without the legal authority to buy the building first the city will be hard pressed to address the speculation we are seeing in the housing market.”

Some cities, like Washington D.C., have this legal authority, but council members were unsure about Seattle. They will hold an executive council meeting with city attorneys to discuss its legality.

The mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda is expected to come forward with recommendations any day now. Councilmember John Okamoto, the chair of the council’s housing affordability committee, said he wanted to sit on Burgess’ ordinances until they do. Sawant, however, urged Okamoto onward, saying, “The council should act with a sense of urgency.”

Both Burgess and Grant lay claim to carrying forward former Councilmember Sally Clark’s work on housing. While Burgess said he was trying to “wrap up” what she started, Grant said this was a deviation from ideas he and Clark had developed over the course of a year.

In line with Okamoto’s wishes, neither ordinance received a vote.

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