State and local issues for tenants and landlords opens conference
The opening session of the 2020 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference brought calls to challenge unjust housing policies that leave tenants fearing they will lose their homes, and for the city to address both improving tenant-landlord relations and increasing affordable housing.
Terri Anderson, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington in Spokane, and Breean Beggs, City Council president, spoke on how rising rents and eviction policies increase homelessness.
The tenants union offers four walk-in tenants' clinics a month in Spokane to help renters improve their living conditions and organize.
Terri's presentation outlined several problems and priorities:
• One is expanding housing choice vouchers so people pay no more than 30 percent of income on rent. Funds cover only 20 percent of people in need nationally and just 12 percent in Spokane.
• Another is a cap on the rate of increase in rents. Some report rents rising from $550 to $750 in one month. The state has no rent control law. No city or county can establish one.
• A third is to require longer notice for all rent increases and to allow tenants to pay up-front costs in six monthly installments.
• Fourth, the city tenant protection proposals could also require landlords to possess a business license, require limited inspection on certain rental properties and require landlords provide tenant information and voter registration material when the tenant moves in.
"Currently a landlord can give notice on the 10th, after rent is paid, and the tenant has to be out on in 20 days," Terri said. "Rarely are damage fees returned.
She suggests the city adopt a Cause Ordinance that will require landlords to provide cause in order to terminate a tenancy and another to protect tenants to organize in their buildings free from retaliation.
Terri said Spokane is the largest city in Washington with no tenant protections beyond the Landlord-Tenant Act. Tenants lacking resources may lose housing. She also suggests Spokane adopt a prepaid tenants' relocation fund if the property is condemned. The city could pay the tenant to sue the landlord to recoup the funds.
The City Council will consider tenant protection ordinances in March.
Breean said policies are often set to benefit people with money and power, but when people organize, they can make changes.
"There need to be critical masses coming together to influence issues such as housing," he said. "I've been a social worker, lawyer, city council member and a street protestor. There are all sorts of ways to work for social change. We have to figure which tool works when and who will do it.
"Our community is housing burdened with many paying more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent. We are in a housing crisis because there are not enough units. Half the population, who are homeowners, don't understand the thousands experiencing rent increases on month-to-month leases," he said. "We need people to understand so we can lift the entire community."
He suggests expanding affordable housing and keeping mixed neighborhoods. One idea is to change the law that limits use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to infrastructure improvements and let it be used for building affordable housing, such as in West Central Spokane.
Breean said the city continues to improve landlord-tenant ordinances, adding to one passed two years ago creating loans for deposits and relocation assistance.
He said there is also need for new options, like single-room occupancy and cooperative ownership buildings.
"Clearly, there are some bad landlords and some bad tenants, but most are good," he said. "The ultimate empowerment is to have affordable housing and adequate pay."
Paul Warfield of the Mayor's office spoke briefly, saying the mayor seeks to meet people where they are and move forward, collaborating to communicate on issues, which she recognizes are about the price and number of housing units. She plans to work with the Council on addressing the affordable housing shortage.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March, 2020