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Oct. 30, 2020

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Legislature: Bills look to build on progress in housing aid

More protections for tenants, tackling homelessness, tiny house laws among proposals

By , Columbian political reporter, and
, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published:

While the legislative session underway in Olympia has focused on mental health, clean energy and the state budget, lawmakers have also been at work on another pressing issue: housing.

Washington has struggled with housing in recent years, as rents and home prices have soared while homelessness has risen.

According to a report from the state Department of Commerce, median rents increased by 18 percent between 2006 and 2015. The report projected that by this year, the state will see a shortfall of 337,974 housing units affordable to households earning less than 50 percent of area median income.

A study by Tim Thomas, a researcher at the University of Washington, found that 46 percent of renters in Washington are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. His study also found that 80 to 90 percent of households were evicted for falling behind on rent.

According to the Washington State Health Assessment, the number of people experiencing homelessness rose from 17,760 in 2013 to 21,112 in 2017. In Clark County, the 2018 count of people living outside rose 39 percent. Evictions in Clark County also rose over the last year from 1,179 in 2017 to 1,235 in 2018.

Lawmakers have taken note and introduced bills this session aimed at reducing evictions and homelessness while boosting the state’s housing stock.

“We are really pleased with the attention that is being paid to housing and homelessness at the state legislative level,” said Kate Budd, executive director of Council for the Homeless, which sent a 55-seat bus Thursday to Olympia to advocate for housing bills.

She said last year’s legislative session saw major wins: Income discrimination was outlawed, a landlord mitigation fund was created and there was an increase in document recording fees, which fund homeless services.

Dan Bertolet, senior researcher at Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute, summed up the intent of this year’s housing bills with one word — more. He said that the bills are seeking more protections for tenants, more funding for housing and more housing in general.

Some bills seeking more high-density housing around transit and more “missing middle” multifamily housing didn’t make the Legislature’s first cutoff. But many other bills concerning housing remain viable.

Tenant protections

Among them is a package of bills intended to provide more protections to tenants facing eviction.

Under current state law, if a tenant falls behind in rent a landlord can serve them with a three-day notice to pay rent or vacate. Senate Bill 5600 and House Bill 1453 would lengthen that period to 14 days. Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Vancouver Democrat who’s co-sponsoring SB 5600, said in a text that the legislation “is a common sense, compassionate approach to preventing homelessness.”

During a hearing for SB 5600 in January, the bill’s primary sponsor Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said tenants can end up being evicted as a result of an unexpected emergency or medical bill. She said 26 states have notice periods longer than three days.

Lawmakers heard stories during the hearing of tenants pushed into homelessness and strapped with court fees after being evicted. But the committee also heard from landlords who said they work with tenants rather than evicting them. Rob Trickler, the president of the Washington Landlord Association, said the bill could hurt mom-and-pop landlords who might be struggling themselves. He said the bill would push landlords out of the business.

“It’s going to devastate the amount of inventory that’s out there,” he said. “And to think that won’t impact the cost of housing is just ridiculous.”

Camas-based attorney Cliff Coulter thinks a 14-day notice would reduce, or at least delay, evictions and could reduce homelessness, he said. However, he questioned if lengthening the eviction process was the best solution.

“A landlord has the potential of waiting over a month and a half for a tenant to relinquish possession of the rental,” Coulter wrote to The Columbian. “I tend to believe that we need a change, but not without a workable compromise for tenants and landlords.”

The Seattle-based Tenants Union of Washington supports both bills. Terri Anderson, co-executive director of the tenants union, said her organization believes the bills only work if the Legislature also enacts HB 1656.

HB 1656, and its companion SB 5733, would prohibit landlords from evicting tenants without just cause, such as failure to pay rent or the owner withdrawing a rental from the market. She said landlords who don’t want to deal with the extended eviction process may instead issue more 20-day notices to vacate.

“Cities around the state are experiencing severely low vacancy rates,” Anderson said. “There’s nowhere you can move to in 20 days.”

Budd, with Council for the Homeless, said the bills help “address the disproportionately that exists for people of color who rent across Washington state.” The study by Thomas, at the University of Washington, found that black and Latino renters were more likely to face eviction than their white counterparts.

Finally, the Legislature is also considering HB 1440, which requires landlords to give tenants a 60-day notice of rent increases. The bill has the support of the tenants union and the Council for the Homeless. Budd said the bill would give renters more time to budget or find other housing.

She also said it would provide more uniformity statewide. In the city of Vancouver, for instance, renters must have at least 45 days’ notice of rent increases, whereas those living in the county have 20 days.

More funding

Before the Legislature are requests to increase the state’s Housing Trust Fund by $200 million, as well as a $69 million increase to the Housing & Essential Needs program, which provides rent and utility payments to disabled or low-income people. Legislators are also looking at ways to give local jurisdictions options to increase funding for affordable housing.

“We’re trying to offer a range of tools that would be used in a variety of settings,” said state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.

Legislation extending cities’ abilities to extend property tax exemptions for affordable apartment buildings is moving forward. Other bills, SB 5646 and HB 1406, would allow counties and cities to impose a local sales tax, credited against the state sales tax, that would be used for affordable or supportive housing. There are also several bills that would allow counties and cities to use real estate excise tax to fund affordable housing.

Bertolet, of the Sightline Institute, pointed to an analysis showing that a 0.25 percent tax could generate millions for a city. For example, the city of Everett could get up to $2 million a year. But he said that his organization is cautious about the tax because it could add to the cost of housing.

He said he preferred another set of bills that would apply the tax progressively on sales on property worth $500,000 and up. During a hearing for one of the bills, HB 1921, representatives from business and building groups pointed out the volatile nature of the tax and how it could add to building costs. The bill appeared to be stuck in committee as of press time.

Wylie has also signed onto bills that would allow cities and counties to impose a sales tax for affordable housing or create their own affordable housing trust funds. Another would give tax breaks for affordable housing.

But she said she suspects that jurisdictions, such as the city of Vancouver, wouldn’t use these new mechanisms any time soon. Vancouver is currently focused on implementing Proposition 1, a voter-approved $42 million, seven-year affordable housing levy.

More housing

Legislators are also looking at creating more housing in general. On the table is a change to the defect liability law for condos. The law has been blamed for encouraging lawsuits and causing fewer condos, which are sometimes a more affordable housing option, to be built.

A series of bills intended to make tiny houses more viable are also moving through the Legislature. Sen. Lynda Wilson, a Vancouver Republican who sponsored one of the bills, said in a text they would add another housing option.

Another bill, HB 1923, would require cities to increase housing capacity and affordability or lose out on funding is also moving forward. Bertolet said that like bills represent a shift in housing policy moving from the local to state level. Although housing has become an issue outside of Seattle, local politics in some areas have prevented cities and counties from seeking solutions, he said, and blocked needed housing from being built.

Bertolet said that Sightline prioritized a bill prohibiting common local restrictions on accessory dwelling units, small dwellings often attached to existing homes. Both Clark County and Vancouver have eased requirements on accessory dwelling units. Bertolet said the bill would have gone even further.

The Legislature may be taking political risks on some of these bills, he said, but they’re worth it.

“We are sort of on the same path as California,” Bertolet said, referencing the state’s high housing costs. “If we can get out ahead, we can avoid their pain.”

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