Tacoma to consider new tenant rights measure on Nov. 7 ballot

The debate over renter protections in Washington’s third-largest city could foreshadow broader statewide action.

A picture of the city of Tacoma with Mount Rainier in the background.

In this May 7, 2018 photo, Mount Rainier is seen at dusk and framed by the Murray Morgan Bridge in downtown Tacoma. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In a matter of weeks, voters in Tacoma will choose whether to approve an ambitious slate of measures intended to protect tenants from evictions and rising rents. If voters pass it, Measure 1 would bring a sweeping package of progressive policies to Tacoma, while giving policy makers statewide an idea of how these laws might or might not work across Washington.

The long-simmering fight over Measure 1 and strong renter protections is only just heating up, as supporters and opponents ready a final blitz of campaigning over a vote that could have outsized impact on statewide policies.

The measure on the Nov. 7 ballot is being brought by Tacoma For All, a coalition that includes the Tacoma Democratic Socialists of America and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367, which worked to secure enough signatures to get the initiative on the city ballot.

Among other things, Measure 1 directs landlords to comply with tenant protection laws before they can raise rents or initiate an eviction. Evictions would be barred during cold weather or, if a tenant is a student, during the school year. If approved, landlords would have to give a six-month notice of a rent increase, and must also pay a renter relocation assistance in the case of significant increases. Also included is a cap of $10 per month on late fees.

In crafting its initiative, Tacoma For All looked at policies that other cities – including Seattle – have enacted around the state, according to Ty Moore, campaign manager for the group.

“We took what we thought of as the most important things that have already been passed in other cities, and catch Tacoma up,” Moore said, adding: “I think this would significantly give tenants a leg up in a very unequal power dynamic they currently have with landlords.”

Tacoma For All faces a fight from landlord and realtor groups, which contend that the combination of measures will ultimately drive small landlords out of business, drive up taxes to fund compliance with the new slate of protections, and not achieve the desired results.

The measure would give Tacoma “the most draconian landlord restrictions in the state,” said Sean Flynn, president and executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Washington.

Tacoma substitute teacher Cathy Pick and her family are being evicted by the private equity firm that owns their apartment complex. Demonstrators gathered Wednesday, Sept. 27 in support of Initiative 1, calling for the company to revoke the eviction order, at the Lakeside Landing Apartments in Tacoma. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

The debate about renter protections in Tacoma arrives as Washingtonians are feeling the crunch of increasing rents and home prices. The Washington Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee this year approved new measures intended to spur building and increase home supplies. That effort is expected to take years, however, even as more people move into the state. Meanwhile, the Legislature has taken some steps to increase tenant protections in recent years, but other bills have stalled.

State Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, who has endorsed the measure, said a win by Tacoma For All could reverberate across the state.

“I think that’s why the landlord associations are so nervous … If the city of Tacoma can pass something as bold as Measure 1, what does that mean for the rest of the state?” she said.

Trudeau, who has proposed a rent-stabilization bill in the Legislature and legislation to increase housing supply, said the Measure 1 campaign is also a message to other state lawmakers to enact more statewide protections.

“We should probably do something that supports everyone across the state, because … I think you’re going to see other measures pop up,” she said.

Flynn and Sean Martin of the Tacoma Pierce County Association of Realtors point to the measure’s direction that landlords provide relocation assistance. It’s a version of a Seattle program that requires property owners to pay up to $2,243 for people who qualify as low-income. The city then matches that sum, for a total of $4,486 in moving assistance.

Tacoma’s Measure 1 takes aim at larger landlords but goes farther.

When rents go up more than 5%, eligible landlords must offer two months of rent assistance to tenants who can’t afford the increase and move out. For a rent increase of over 7.5%, the assistance goes up to two-and-a-half months of assistance, and for increases over 10%, that dials up to three months of assistance.

Exempted from that assistance program are landlords and tenants who live on the same site, if that location has four or fewer units; tenants who have lived in a unit for less than six months; and landlords temporarily renting out their primary residence, such a member of the military on deployment.

Tacoma substitute teacher Cathy Pick at a demonstration Wednesday at Tacoma's Lakeside Landing Apartments in support of Initiative 1, calling for the company to revoke the eviction order. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

The Tacoma election pits the modest group of community organizers against much more entrenched political powers. Tacoma For All has raised nearly $76,000 but has already spent most of that, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. The group has been sending doorbellers to persuade voters, and last week hosted a rally outside the Lakeside Landing Apartments in support of a tenant who said they are facing eviction.  

They face an ambivalent political establishment and opponents such as landlord and realtor associations. Case in point: When the Tacoma City Council in July sent the measure to the ballot, the Council also passed its own, more modest set of tenant protections that were intended to appear as a competing measure on the same ballot.

But the Council voted its protections – which include a four-month notice for rent hikes and a $75 cap on late fees – into law while also offering it as a ballot measure. In August, a Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled that doing both ran afoul of the state Constitution and presented “a false choice” to voters, according to The Seattle Times.

Now landlord and realtor groups are gearing up to fight for votes. The City Council’s renter protections came out of a long string of stakeholder talks that included Tacoma For All members, said Flynn of the rental association.

“We have a new code, and it went into effect, like, seven seconds ago,” Flynn said, adding: “Tacoma For All wasn’t happy with that process, and so this [measure] is a protest. This is them saying we didn’t get what we wanted.”

Demonstrators hold signs in support of Initiative 1 during a protest by Tacoma For All against the eviction of Tacoma substitute teacher Cathy Pick outside Tacoma's Lakeside Landing Apartments on Wednesday. (Jason Redmond for Crosscut)

“I think we’re going to put a lot of small owners in a tough position whether they’re going to choose whether they want to provide housing or whether they’re going to get out,” said Martin, CEO of the Tacoma Pierce County Association of Realtors. “The relocation assistance is really difficult.”

The realtors this week registered a spending committee with the state Public Disclosure Commission; Martin said it’s too early to know how much money they’ll have to spend against Measure 1.

If Measure 1 is successful, “I would not be surprised if it repeated itself” elsewhere around the state, Martin said.

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