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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Senate rent stabilization bill’s fate hangs in balance with Sen. Cleveland weighing her vote

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: January 29, 2024, 6:29pm

The fate of a state Senate rent stabilization bill — one of the most eyed bills this legislative session — may lie in the hands of Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, according to housing advocates.

On Friday, the Senate Committee on Housing discussed Senate Bill 5961, which originally limited rent increases for tenants at 5 percent each year. But to the dismay of most Democrats in the executive session, the bill was amended to a 15 percent rent ceiling, with the option for local governments to require a lower percentage.

If passed into law, the amendments would also sunset in 2044 and increase exemptions for new construction from 10 to 15 years.

When the clipboard came around, Democratic senators had a choice — vote “yes” on the bill as amended or let it die in committee. Cleveland was the only Democrat not to vote, according to Michele Thomas, director of policy and advocacy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Cleveland said she has been continuing discussions with her colleagues, stakeholders and other housing experts to understand the ramifications of the policy.

“I agree that it is urgent for us to find relief for all who are struggling,” she said in a text message. “But my concern is that this policy will have unintended consequences that will be counter to that goal.”

Thomas said she spoke with legislative staff after the meeting.

“People were kind of confused and sort of like, ‘I don’t understand. I’ve never seen this before,’” Thomas said. “It has happened before, but it’s very, very, very rare that somebody chooses to not sign the board.”

Cleveland has until the end of the day Wednesday to decide whether to cast a vote. If she votes “yes,” the bill will move forward to the full chamber.

“If she doesn’t vote ‘yes,’ then the bill dies. Or if she doesn’t vote at all, then the bill dies,” Thomas said.

There is a companion bill — House Bill 2114 — with the original language of the Senate bill, which has passed through committee. But advocates expected the Senate bill to be the main vehicle to get rent stabilization into law.

“It complicates things tremendously. It’s well known that if one chamber kills a bill in the policy committee, that it makes it a lot harder for the other chamber to continue the process,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t make it impossible. It just makes it a lot harder.”

Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, the sponsor of the Senate bill, said although it lacks the signatures necessary to push it out of committee, she remains optimistic and hopes it will receive the support in time.

Locals eye outcome

Deb Bigelow hopes Cleveland will vote “no.”

She’s the owner of Whispering Poplars, an age-restricted mobile home park in Battle Ground, where lot rents are about $425, she said. Bigelow, 72, said the park is her retirement income, and she’s only raised the rents a few times in 20 years.

She’s scared of not having the ability to raise her rents to the amount she needs to keep the park operational if rent stabilization laws pass.

“I would feel like I need to raise rents on a yearly basis, and we totally don’t do that now,” she said. “Every time the Legislature is in session, my anxiety goes up. I worry that I’m being painted with a broad brush — the same brush that is for those Woodland East owners.”

The Columbian reported earlier this month on a senior mobile home community called Woodland East that has raised rents 250 percent since 2017.

If Bigelow had to sell her park, it might be bought by a group who owns many mobile home parks and cares less about the residents, she said.

“I think this legislation kind of backfires because they’re losing the people like us who actually (run) these parks in a very humane way,” she said.

Monica Zazueta, a renter, hopes Cleveland will vote “yes.”

A majority of her income goes toward rent on her Vancouver apartment, which she has struggled to pay. If her rent, now $1,895, goes up more than 5 percent, it’ll be even harder.

That’s why Zazueta and her 9-year-old child, along with housing advocates, will head to Olympia Tuesday — Housing and Homeless Advocacy Day — to ask Cleveland to vote in favor of the bill.

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“I’m just supposed to get two jobs? I don’t think (legislators) understand how it really works on a very low income,” Zazueta said.

“What if they lived in our shoes for a week? Have as much money as we had, have the bills we have and see if they could do it. Let’s see if laws change then.”

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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.