Residents of manufactured home communities increasingly warn that investors have bought large numbers of mobile home parks and driven up the costs in recent years across one of the last consistently affordable housing options. Those rental increases have shaken longtime tenants who say they now live under a rising threat of “economic eviction.”
Two measures from the 2023 session, SB 5198 and HB 1771, advanced out of the Legislature and were signed into law. SB 5198 requires landlords to notify the Washington Department of Commerce via registry if they decide to sell their mobile home park. HB 1771, authored by Rep. Brandy Donaghy, D-Snohomish, expanded the time frame in which mobile home tenants can apply for relocation assistance.
Rental rates across all housing have increased sharply. Some communities have organized into local tenant associations to share support and lobby for new protections in Olympia. Housing advocacy groups, such as the Washington Association of Manufactured Home Owners and Washington Community Alliance, have also committed to backing those efforts.
Chester Baldwin, a lobbyist for the Rental Housing Association and executive director of Manufactured Housing Communities of Washington, said property managers firmly oppose broad rent control, but did push for relocation assistance in the 2023 session. He told Crosscut the RHA also supported the sale notification bill, but had tweaked language in order to allow for 1031 exchanges to still take place, which is when a real estate investor can swap one property for another to avoid additional taxes.
“There is no such thing as affordable housing in the state anymore because we have put so much cost and regulation onto housing – that housing is expensive,” he said. “No one can build it affordably.”
Rent stabilization proposals
During the 2023 session, Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, introduced SB 5435 – which would hold any rent increases to at or below the rate of inflation for both residential and manufactured home tenants. The proposal would have also created a “cause of action” for tenants to seek reimbursements for rent paid above the allowed increases. The bill failed to advance beyond the Housing Committee, but the senator has plans to reintroduce an updated version next year with input from her House colleagues such as Rep. Emily Alvarado, D-Seattle.
“If you really want to take care of the continuum of folks that make manufactured home communities so particularly sympathetic and unique you're gonna have to do a broader rent stabilization effort,” she argued.
Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, who drafted companion HB 1389 last session, told Crosscut that rent stability “is one of the most, if not the most urgent issues” in the upcoming legislative session. The measure was penned in response to Ramel’s constituents who feared homelessness, and also partly in an effort to increase Washington’s housing supply.
When asked about the increased acquisition and consolidation of numerous mobile home communities around the state, Baldwin with the RHA said the housing shortage was to blame. But he argued rent caps would not encourage property managers to invest in expanding available housing.
“It's the law of supply and demand – as our supply is so far below what we need,” he said. “It artificially drives up the price and the demand for these things, and so it makes that a more valuable-looking asset to go after, because you know there is a shortage in housing and so something that is in short supply, as much as that is, is probably going to increase in value and in price.”
Trudeau said the state attorney general’s office would remain the main enforcement mechanism for all housing disputes. She said she hopes her colleagues will look for ways to empower the agency to better prosecute predatory rent practices. State law allows tenants to hire their own legal counsel – “but for people that are struggling to pay their rent, that's not even a realistic possibility.”
“I just want to emphasize it's not enough to pass a policy,” Trudeau said. “We actually have to have a policy that's going to be enforced, that the industry is afraid will be enforced.”
Potential civil penalties
Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, similarly introduced legislation last session to link allowable rent increases to the rate of inflation, but it also would have made violations of tenant rights subject to the state’s Consumer Protection Act to open up new potential civil penalties.
In the last session, both Macri and Ramel’s measures moved up the legislative chain – but the two opted to prioritize Ramel’s bill. Macri told Crosscut she intends to introduce a refined version of her previous bill that would “take the best of 1389 and 1388.” The updated measure would entail a more specific, “straight limit” on rent hikes and determining what constitutes new construction and hardship exemptions.
Macri said the proposal would still leverage the Consumer Protection Act, and keep the state attorney general’s office as the main enforcing entity in all disputes surrounding rent stability.
“That would give the attorney general and manufactured home owners, as well as residential tenants, multiple pathways for remedy,” she explained. “Where right now – they have to file a civil suit against their landlord, or the property, the mobile park owner and it's just a very high bar. You have to hire an attorney, take the risk, put out your own money – and most people are just not in a position to be able to do that.”
Tax breaks instead of new oversight
One of the first rent stabilization bills to stall in committee was SB 5697, authored by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim. The measure would have prohibited rents in mobile home communities from increasing more than the rate of inflation, and empowered the Utilities and Transportation Commission to oversee compliance with rental regulations. The bill would have allowed fines of up to $100,000 against landlords for violations.
Van De Wege said he received pushback from multiple sides, describing the collective reaction from mobile home park owners as “visceral” and the UTC as “less than thrilled” to take on the additional responsibility. The idea has been shelved going into 2024.
Baldwin said he favors oversight from the attorney general’s office rather than UTC “given that [UTC has] no knowledge, no expertise and no real reason why they would be a good choice to determine how much rents should be anywhere.”
As for the next session, Van De Wege’s office plans to look into potential pass-through programs to enact property tax exemptions for low-income seniors who own their homes or the lots underneath. A legislative assistant in the office noted that a reduction in lot fees is something “traditional rent control or rent stabilization policies couldn't offer.”
“Anything … to help put more revenue into the hands of those people who are on fixed incomes and low income in those communities is welcome,” Baldwin said.
Other efforts to watch
HB 1124, drafted by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, required landlords to provide their tenants with a six-month notice for rent increases of 5% or more, and limited late fees to $75. The bill did not advance beyond the rules committee.
As the law currently stands in Washington, landlords must provide 60 days notice of rent increases, and 90 days to those living in mobile homes. Some cities across the state have passed their own ordinances to expand that notification period. For example, in July, the city of Aberdeen expanded that period to 120 days for mobile home tenants in response to pressure from organizers.
Peterson, who also serves as the chair of the House Housing Committee, said he plans to join his house colleagues in pursuing new rent stabilization measures. He hopes to include language from HB 1124, which he believed failed as a result of the landlord lobby’s opposition to a specific aspect of the bill that allowed for tenants to simply “walk away” from their lease if not given a proper notice.
Baldwin told Crosscut he hopes to connect with Peterson to draft legislation that would create more manufactured housing outside of the Growth Management Act, which requires cities and counties to draft comprehensive plans to manage their population growth.
“We've got some places, where you know, there's a street and on one side of the street we have a manufactured housing community, and on the other side of the street, you're outside of the UGA (Urban Growth Development),” he explained. “ It cannot be filled, but it's prime land already served by water, sewer and power – all of those things that would make it expensive to put something outside of the UGA.”