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Why don’t Seattle renters know their rights?

A new study has revealed a lack of knowledge around new tenant laws. A network of public and nonprofit entities are tasked with changing that. 

Intern Pierre Funalot, left, talks with participant Peter Wehrli, right, during a Tenant Rights Bootcamp on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at Schilling Cider House in Fremont. (Photo by Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

Mark MacKay and his partner have one of the best deals in Seattle — an apartment they can still afford in one of the city’s priciest neighborhoods. Boston transplants, they moved into their apartment building off Dexter in 1998. They’ve got views of the water from their bedroom and their rent has stayed below market rate. It’s been an idyllic living situation for two decades. But the building was sold to new owners last year and now MacKay fears that the good life could soon come to an end. As has become routine in this booming market, a new owner often means rising rents and, in many cases, moving vans.

The Seattle City Council has passed several new laws to help protect tenants in this turbulent market. But a newly released report found that few renters know about them. MacKay counted himself among those with little understanding of rental law, which is why, with potential rent hikes looming, he set out to learn his rights.

MacKay was one of eight people attending the latest Tenant Rights Bootcamp, held Wednesday night at a cider bar in Fremont. Hosted by Be:Seattle, a homeless and renter advocacy nonprofit, the free weekly workshops teach attendees about tenant protection laws and enforcement, the ins and outs of leases, how to get your deposit back, and other critical details about the legal relationship between tenant and landlord.

“I’m here to learn if there’s any teeth in [Seattle’s tenant laws],” said MacKay. “I want to know if it’s just information about what’s going to happen to me or information that allows me to have a say in what’s going to happen to me.”

He learned Wednesday that he doesn’t really have a say when it comes to the kind of economic eviction he is concerned about. There’s no cap on the amount a landlord can raise the rent in Washington. Be:Seattle Executive Director Devin Silvernail acknowledges that renter protections only go so far, but says he hosts the bootcamps because, “Knowledge is power for renters and we want people to be able to stay in place.”

But if knowledge is power, Seattle renters are currently suffering from a lack of wattage.

“There’s not a whole lot of understanding of rights among tenants,” says University of Washington sociology professor Kyle Crowder. “Given the super-heated housing market, people are feeling vulnerable to rising costs, but also the practices of landlords. The sense was tenants feel they’re at the mercy of landlords.”

Crowder is the lead author of the city-commissioned Seattle Rental Housing Study released last week. The report draws on focus groups and interviews with 38 tenants and tenant advocates and eight landlords, as well as a survey of more than 4,200 landlords, to shed light on how renters and landlords are reacting to a rapidly changing market and a slate of new tenant rights laws passed by the Seattle City Council.

Unsurprisingly, tenants are most concerned about the rising cost of housing and the threat of displacement. According to the report, they also know little about their rights as renters and don’t trust landlords to follow the rules anyway. Landlords, on the other hand, feel vilified in the housing conversation and think the city’s attempts to strengthen tenant rights are going to backfire — leading to higher costs and more small landlords selling off their property.

Over the past few years, the Seattle City Council has been on something of a tear implementing new laws to strengthen renter rights.

In 2016, it passed a law that banned “source of income” discrimination — the practice of landlords turning away potential tenants because they’re using Section 8 vouchers, veterans benefits, social security or other non-cash means to pay their rent. That law also required landlords to offer a lease agreement to the first qualified applicant — called “first in time,” the policy was intended to limit the conscious and subconscious biases that might lead landlords to discriminate against certain people. The state superior court overturned first in time earlier this year, but the city is in the process of appealing the decision to the state supreme court.

Devin Silvernail, center, leads a Tenant Rights Bootcamp on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at Schilling Cider House in Fremont, Seattle, WA. The event was hosted by Be:Seattle and provided information on Seattle tenants rights. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)
Devin Silvernail, center, leads a Tenant Rights Bootcamp on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at Schilling Cider House in Fremont, Seattle. The event was hosted by Be:Seattle and provided information on Seattle tenants rights. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

The council also passed a law in 2016 limiting how much landlords could charge for application fees and security deposits, as well as another that bans rent increases in buildings with code violations. Last year, the council passed a “ban the box” law prohibiting landlords from screening tenants based on criminal convictions (with the exception of sex offenders). Landlords renting a room in the house they live or an attached accessory dwelling unit are exempt from the law. And earlier this year, council passed a one-year ban on rent-bidding websites such as Rent Berry, which have been accused of increasing rents through bidding wars.

Though the new laws establish fines and penalties for landlords who fail to comply, their passage did not include funding for increased education or enforcement efforts by the departments tasked with those jobs.

Given that enforcement of these laws requires renters to call the city and complain, they’ll only do so much if tenants don’t know about them.

In Seattle, much of the responsibility to educate tenants about their rights (and address the violations of them) falls on the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI), though the Office of Civil Rights also plays a role in educating tenants about anti-discrimination laws such as ban the box and source-of-income discrimination.

According to SDCI’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance Manager Geoff Tallent, the agency uses a variety of outreach tools to try and reach renters. In 2017 the department conducted outreach at 28 events and have appeared at 22 so far this year. Last year ads in multiple languages telling people about their rights and where to get info ran in 13 local publications. It has also tried to update the department website to make tenant rights information easier to find. Still, “it’s fair to say a lot of tenants don’t know to look at SDCI for info,” says Tallent.

A sign rests on the table during a Tenant Rights Bootcamp on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at Schilling Cider House in Fremont, Seattle, WA. The event was hosted by Be:Seattle and provided information on Seattle tenants rights. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)
A sign rests on the table during a Tenant Rights Bootcamp on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 at Schilling Cider House in Fremont, Seattle, WA. The event was hosted by Be:Seattle and provided information on Seattle tenants rights. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

Both Silvernail, of Be:Seattle, and Violet Lavatai, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington, say that SDCI does good work. “I know SDCI doesn’t have necessarily enough staff to go out and cover the city [with their outreach],” says Silvernail. “I would love to see more money go to them so they could do that work.”

According to Tallent, SDCI spreads the outreach work across the department, but relies primarily on five staff for most of the planning, outreach events, and development of materials. Their 2018 budget has $200,000 for renter education and outreach, part of which funded a newly-hired lead for renter and landlord outreach. “This is the first year we’ve received this kind of funding and support for our tenant outreach,” Tallent says.

SDCI relies on partnerships with nonprofits to boost its signal. Tenants Union hosts workshops around the state and city and has a hotline and walk-in clinic to answer renters’ questions and concerns. Anti-poverty nonprofit Solid Ground also has a hotline. The Housing Justice Project provides free legal advice to renters facing eviction.

Lavatai says sometimes community-based organizations like Tenants Union are better positioned than the city to get the word out about tenant laws. “We’re community members who can go out and spread the word. You need people on the ground, organizations like ours, to get out into the community and do these workshops.”

It’s a similar approach to the one at work in the Office of Labor Standards (OLS), which the city created in 2015 after passing a new sick time law and raising the minimum wage. The department is charged with educating workers on those and other recently passed labor laws such as secure scheduling and the hotel employees health and safety initiative.

Like SDCI, the Office of Labor Standards staff do community outreach, maintain a website about labor law, provide worker and employer training and technical assistance and more. But there is one big difference between the OLS operation and that underway at SDCI: funding. The department is spending more than $3.2 million over two years to fund outreach, education and technical assistance by local organizations.

Tenants Union and Solid Ground receive some funding from Seattle’s Human Services Department, but SDCI doesn’t have funding in its budget to pay for community outreach in the same way.

Though OLS has been criticized for its slow response times and lengthy investigations, the number of worker complaints it’s investigating has grown each year. In 2017, the number of employees receiving back pay from wage theft cases nearly doubled over the previous year.

Tallent, from SDCI, says their volume of calls on the tenant complaint hotline has gone up in recent years, a metric they use to show their outreach is working. “If the question is ‘are people aware of their rights and know there are services the city can offer to help with those problems?’ then call volumes going up is evidence of success,” he explains. At the bootcamp, Silvernail praised SDCI’s hotline saying, “Code enforcement in Seattle is great. They’ll go to bat for you.”

Still, SDCI recognizes there’s a long way to go to make sure every renter knows their rights. “Tenants are just a big diverse, diffuse group of people,” says Tallent. “There’s no single easy channel to reach all of them.”

There are signs that the Seattle rental market is cooling ever so slightly. The construction boom has led to an increase in apartment vacancies which in turn has slowed the pace of rent increases. A market slowdown will provide a smidgeon of relief for the anxious renters UW’s researchers spoke to. But the problems of discrimination, overpriced move-in fees and other issues the city council is trying to address with its new ordinances remain, as does the threat of economic eviction Councilmember Kshama Sawant has said she’ll address with future legislation.

Peter Wehrli, a real estate broker and former property manager who also attended Be:Seattle’s bootcamp, said that in his experience many landlords violate their tenants’ rights, intentionally or not. The only way tenants can combat those unscrupulous or unwitting landlords is by contacting the city for help. The only way they can do so is if they first know their rights. 

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated which landlords are exempt from the ban the box ordinance. 

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Why don’t Seattle renters know their rights?