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Friday, December 1, 2023
Dec. 1, 2023

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Washington bills aim to slow rent increases

Supporters say measures would be part of multifaceted solution to homelessness in state

By , Columbian staff reporter

Two parallel rent-stabilization bills have hit the legislation table this year.

Introduced by state Reps. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, and Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, House Bills 1388 and 1389 aim to ensure reasonable and predictable rent hikes in Washington. Supporters say the bills could also help address homelessness in the state.

Macri’s House Bill 1388 prohibits “excessive rent increases” if not justified by the cost necessary to maintain a unit. An excessive increase is defined as a “12-month period that is greater than the rate of inflation.” The bill also provides tenants with resources to challenge excessive rent that could result in displacement.

House Bill 1389, introduced by Ramel, also focuses on stabilizing rent increases. If passed, it would install a cap on how much landlords can raise rent in a 12-month period: no more than 3 percent or based on inflation metrics, whichever is higher, but it can’t be raised more than 7 percent if based on inflation. Landlords would be allowed certain exemptions for newly built buildings and be allowed to save rent increases for a later year.

“Rent increases are unpredictable, destabilizing and are causing displacement,” said Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “Rent stabilization is the only policy that can act with the speed needed to immediately provide relief to Washington’s renter households.”

According to data from the American Community Survey, 40 percent of Washington households are rentals. From 2020 to 2021, those renters saw, on average, a 63 percent increase in their rents.

During a Wednesday legislative hearing, Macri and Ramel spoke about their proposals. Representatives and supporters of the bills said during the hearing that the time to act is “now.”

‘We are in a housing crisis’

As Ramel faced the panel of legislators and spoke to HB 1389, a sea of residents in matching printed T-shirts sat behind him. He kicked off his proposal with the claim that the housing crisis needs a broad solution that includes rent stabilization.

“I think if there’s one thing that everyone in Olympia can agree on right now, it’s that we are in a housing crisis,” Ramel said. “I believe that the solution to our housing crisis has to be multifaceted and that rent stabilization has to be part of that.”

He said subsidized housing will be a critical part of the solutions to the state’s problems, adding that building more homes will take years to “catch up” with the demand in Washington.

“Meanwhile, we are hearing every day more stories about how a destabilized rent market leading to double-digit rent increases (is) driving people from our communities and driving more people into homelessness,” Ramel said.

According to the bill, many low-income households spend more than half their incomes on rent. Many are forced to move, or to choose between food, medication and other basic needs, including rent. During the hearing, it was mentioned numerous times that high rent increases disproportionately impact vulnerable populations like people with disabilities, seniors, single parents and veterans.

“If we protect the status quo, if we choose not to act this year, then we’ll be protecting those who have wealth and power — landlords, property owners, land owners,” Ramel said. “And we will be doing so to the detriment of those without power and wealth.”

‘People are not the market’

The hearing was attended by dozens of people eager to voice their views on the legislation.

Shannon Corrick of Cheney said that during the pandemic, she was grateful that she could consistently pay rent on time due to her essential-worker job. But in 2021, her landlord increased her family’s rent by $300 per month.

“We were forced to go from a house with a yard where my grandson had a swing set to play on to a tiny apartment that we had to borrow money from our family to be able to afford,” Corrick said. “We are told over and over by our small, mom-and-pop landlords that he was raising the rent because it was what the market could bear. But people are not the market, and they cannot bear these drastic rent increases.”

Saree Adams joined in virtually from her Washougal home to share her story. She said she has paid her rent on time every month for the past decade. But in December, her rent was raised from $976 to $1,365 — a 40 percent increase. Her family’s fixed income is $1,275.

“Extreme rent increases force people out of their homes and especially those on fixed incomes,” Adams said. “Our community, cities and state deserve better.”

Emily Noel, a small-scale landlord from west Seattle, also spoke in favor of the measure.

“Increasing rents simply because we can is wrong,” Noel said. “Fair rent prices, especially for (an accessory dwelling unit) like mine, means more income diversity in our neighborhoods, ensuring that people can continue to live with their families and careers instead of being priced out of their homes.”

But other landlords and property owners voiced concerns about the legislation.

Mary Hull-Drury, a commercial government affairs director for Washington Realtors, said the bills could deepen Washington’s housing crisis or “delay” the state from addressing it.

“Though we recognized the need and agreed with the governor’s policies to maintain health and safety during the pandemic, many small landlords are still impacted, and these proposals will continue to apply pressure to an already stressed market,” Hull-Drury said.

McKenzie Darr, a development manager from Seattle, also spoke in opposition, citing a University of Southern California study that found rent-stabilization laws in St. Paul, Minn., disproportionately impacted high-income tenants and caused declines in property values.

“Rent control benefits a limited number of current residents while adversely affecting the long-term affordability of our communities,” Darr said.

Successes, drawbacks of rent-stabilization laws

Over the past couple of years, California and Oregon have approved their own rent-stabilization laws. Like the proposal in Washington, those laws don’t prohibit rent increases but protect tenants from rent gouging. According to Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis, as of Jan. 1, rent increases in that state may not surpass 14.6 percent, with some exceptions.

Those opposed to the law say it is a temporary solution and will only hinder progress toward housing stability. In a study by Portland State University, Oregon’s rent law was noted as “problematic.” The research said a landlord who had previously listed property as below market value would lose out on profit in the long term due to the bill. It also says the reduced investment will lead to a long-term deterioration of housing quality in Oregon.

However, supporters of the bill say it will help low-income people in the long run and address part of Oregon’s homelessness crisis.

“When (rent-stabilization policies) are paired with supply and subsidy, (it) will move Washington toward a future without a housing crisis, where people can retire with peace of mind, where renter households can put money aside to buy a home and where people of all incomes can keep roots in their community and where homelessness ceases to exist,” Thomas said.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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