Tensions run high in City Council over new tenant protections

Seattle apartments Capitol Hill

Apartment buildings on Seattle's Capitol Hill.

In a tense and occasionally personal meeting, the Seattle City Council delayed voting on a bill to regulate the move-in fees landlords can charge tenants. While the stated goal is to implement the regulations by January, supporters see the pause as landlord-led opportunity to water the rules down.

The bill, introduced by Councilmember Kshama Sawant (oddly, into her Energy and Environment committee), would restrict the amount a landlord could charge for the security deposit and non-refundable fees, and allow tenants to pay the fee in installments. In tandem with other tenant laws passed over the last several years — including a ban on income discrimination, and requirements that landlords must bring their buildings up to code before raising rents and must accept the first qualified tenant — Councilmember Sawant is building what she calls a “tenants’ bill of rights” piece-by-piece.

The council voted 7-2 to punt the legislation to a yet-undetermined November meeting for further consideration, a highly unusual bit of legislative work in the middle of budget season. Councilmembers Sawant and Mike O’Brien voted against the move.

Public testimony Monday was heavily tilted, with around 40 people testifying in favor and no one opposed. The coalition of supporters, dressed as they often are in red, was organized by the Washington Community Action Network (CAN), which has led the effort to draft and pass the ordinance.

“Every time I hear council talking about homeless, they say this is an emergency, this is urgent,” said Xochitl Mayakovoich with Washington CAN. “This is something you can do right now.”

Representatives of the landlord and developer community take deep issue with the entire proposal. Well-known lobbyist Roger Valdez argued Monday, as he has in the past, that the city has no data to measure the scope of the problem, that the costs will be passed into the rent prices, and that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) won’t be able to enforce it.

Speaking after the meeting, Valdez called the people in the room a “mob” that sways the council.

But Valdez was relegated to the sideline Monday, conceding that the council will eventually pass this bill. The fight was between those who want to wait and “get it right” and those who fear delaying will water down the legislation.

Mayakovich and others blamed the lobbying of landlords for the delay. “It’s really troubling to us,” she said after the meeting. “If the councilmembers weaken this legislation in committee, that will tell the public that money buys influence. … This legislation was already strong and already vetted. The only people against it are landlords.”

Sawant did not hold back in skewering any councilmember who supported sending the legislation back to committee. Most notable among them was Councilmember Debora Juarez, who said the legislation needed strengthening, and that she’d heard from SDCI that they’re worried about the resources they have to enforce the regulations.

“The benefits of sending this back to committee far outweighs fixing problems after the fact,” she said.

In response, Sawant jumped on Juarez, accusing her of missing meetings and doing little behind the scenes over the last two weeks to improve the legislation. This, she said, was the real Seattle process: “Jam it up as much as possible when it’s for ordinary working people. When it’s for the Seattle police department, ram it through,” referring to the council’s support of the new North Precinct station.

In response, Juarez took a personal tone, saying “I think it’s important to note that I work really well with councilmember Sawant,” a gesture to show she does actually intend to work with the socialist councilmember to pass the bill.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.