Last week, a committee of the Seattle City Council rejected a proposed ordinance to limit late fees for apartment renters to $10 a month. The $10 limit was a proposal of Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, a renters-rights advocate who is leaving the council at the end of this year. Seattle’s newest council member, Sara Nelson, had the votes to replace Sawant’s $10 cap with a cap of 1.5 percent per month, with a maximum of $50.
Sawant had led the push for the $10 cap in her Sustainablility and Renters’ Rights Committee. But the vote on April 7 was 3 to 2 for Nelson’s less-radical 1.5-percent limit, with Tammy Morales supporting the $10 and Debora Juarez and Andrew Lewis supporting Nelson’s proposal of 1.5 percent. Nelson’s 1.5-percent ordinance goes to the full council on April 18.
Before the April 7 meeting, Sawant’s supporters had collected several pages of renters’ late-fee stories to back up the campaign for a $10-a-month cap. At the meeting, the committee listened to more stories on the $10 limit. People reported being charged $50 a day or more — “a tax on being poor,” one called it. Renters are living “paycheck to paycheck,” one said. “Ten dollars is all we can handle,” said a woman who a year ago was homeless. Another tenant labeled Nelson’s 1.5 percent proposal a “pro-corporate-landlord amendment.” Almost all the public testimony was against landlords and for the $10 limit, though much of it was obviously scripted. Several began their testimony by saying, “I urge the Democrats on the Council…” as if they were reading off cue cards.
The argument for a limit of $10 a month was about renters who are poor. In response, Councilwoman Nelson argued that a percentage limit is a better rule for all incomes. By one survey, she said, the median rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in Seattle is $1,787 a month. At that level, 1.5 percent is $26.80. Low-income people are presumably renting for less than the median and would be liable for less than $26.80. The 1.5-percent cap wouldn’t reach $50 unless the overdue rent was at least $3,334. Why the fee should be capped at rents above $3,334 Nelson did not say.
Councilwoman Juarez agreed with Nelson. Juarez called the 1.5-percent cap “a nice, straightforward, commonsense approach.” Councilman Lewis agreed, saying a 1.5 percent cap would be “a significant progressive step forward,” and that it would not “be sustainable to keep the number at $10 in perpetuity.”
“Why should [the $10] need to be revised?” Sawant replied. “There shouldn’t be any late fees, really. Why would you choose to be late in paying rent that you know you have to pay anyway?”
Sawant was miffed that her $10 limit had been derailed. She derided the “pro-landlord” councilmembers supporting Nelson’s “shameful amendment.” Still, in the end she voted to pass it on to the full council as “an enormous step forward for renters.” She assured her supporters that half a loaf was better than none. “If we didn’t fight,” she said, “we wouldn’t win anything at all.”
Sawant did have one supporter on the committee for her $10 limit: Councilwoman Tammy Morales. “Tenants shouldn’t have to pay for an investors’ obligation to maintain his investment,” Morales said. “The fact that we even talk about housing in this way as somebody’s business, somebody’s investment, is part of the problem. If housing is a human right, we shouldn’t be commodifying this.”
How to square the vision of “housing as a human right” with the reality of owners offering properties for rent? The issue is much wider than merely a question of late fees. The council has tried to strengthen the hands of tenants by passing ordinance after ordinance defining what owners cannot do, and requiring more things they must do. Here is the council’s list for City of Seattle actions of the past six years:
2017 – First In Time Law
2017 – Security Deposit Cap
2017 – Move-In Cost Installments
2017 – Criminal Records Ban
2017 – Tenant Packet/Voter Registration
2018 – Source of Income Law
2019 – Property Damage Law
2019 – Notice of Intent To Sell
2020 – Roommate Ordinance
2020 – Winter Eviction Ban
2021 – Fixed-Term Lease Mandatory Renewal
2021 – School-Year Eviction Ban
2021 – Tenant Right to Counsel
2021 – 10% Rent Increase Relocation Assistance
2021 – COVID Hardship Eviction Defense
2021 – 180 Days Rent Increase
2022 – Limit COVID Repayment Plans
2023 – Late Fee Cap (pending)
These came on top of ordinances already in place — the just-cause eviction ordinance of 1981, the 60-day notice of rent increase law of 1998, etc. – as well as several state laws and federal laws imposed in the past four years.
Each of these laws was written to promote tenants’ rights. The property owners argue that the measures were passed quickly, without careful thought of the consequences. One result is that it has become more difficult for the owner to evict a tenant for annoying and threatening other tenants.
Only a few of these cases have been reported in the media. A notable one is a story from December 21, 2022, by Isolde Raftery, investigations editor at KUOW-FM. The following account, condensed from the KUOW story, begins with Bobby Hawran, a retired longshoreman, who in 2021 rented a $2,150-a-month unit in the Janus Apartments in Seattle’s Greenwood district. The Janus was a new, upscale place that catered to young professionals. Shortly after, the account continues, a couple with a preschool son moved in with Hawran and began operating an illegal drug business. In the summer of 2021, Hawran stopped paying rent, but it was Covid time, and building management could not evict him or his invited company.
Hawran was reported to be a drug user, and on Aug. 5, 2022, he died of an overdose of fentanyl. His male guest had already died of similar cause. Someone, presumably the woman (whom the story does not name) quickly used his debit card to withdraw $12,500 from Hawran’s account before his sister was able to close it. At this point, no rent on the apartment had been paid for a year.
By this time, the moratorium on evictions had run out, and the Janus called police to have the woman evicted. She claimed to be Hawran’s fiancée. Under the Roommate Ordinance passed by Seattle’s City Council in 2019, that gave her the same rental rights as Hawran, though she had never applied to live there. The Janus could not evict her.
After Hawran’s death, a homeless camp sprouted on the public sidewalk across Northeast 85th Street. Residents of the Janus complained of comings and goings from the tents and of shouting on the back stairs. Residents filmed money changing hands, presumably for drugs. They complained to police, who said there wasn’t enough evidence of a crime.
The Janus hired a security company. In the alley behind the apartment house, an intruder shot and wounded the building’s new security guard. Finally, the police got involved. Janus management also exercised itself by paying the woman in Hawran’s apartment to get her out. KUOW’s Isolde Raftery concludes here story: “After the woman left the Janus, the encampment across the street dispersed. The Janus was quiet again.”
To small landlords, the Janus case is alarming. The owner of a big apartment complex, or many such complexes, can absorb the financial cost of an episode like that, but for the owner of a few rentals, it would be a disaster. Angie Gerrald, owner of three units in Seattle and an organizer of Seattle Grassroots Landlords, says the city’s Roommate Ordinance is particularly troubling. “If we have a lease with two people, they can bring in
up to two more without telling us, then add them to the lease,” she says. “I want to know who we have a contract with. We need to know who’s there.”
Gerrald and her husband have been renting units in Seattle for 20 years. So far, she says, they have done all right, but they are troubled by the layering on of obligations and risks. “So much has changed so quickly,” she says. “There’s landmines everywhere. Nobody’s looking out for us.”
Their friend on the council is Sara Nelson, a Fremont Democrat who had a hearing of “small business housing providers” (they
detest dislike the name “landlords”) in March. At the hearing (which was not attended by any of the other council members) Jennifer Lekisch, owner of several houses and duplexes in the Queen Anne and Capitol Hill areas, said, “It’s gotten really difficult to be a housing provider… There is just too much risk that our residents will not pay their rent, and there is no consequence when they don’t pay. I had a tenant last month that paid her rent 17 days late; had there not been a daily penalty, she might not have ever paid.”
Kaitlyn Jackson, an attorney at Dimension Law Group, Tukwila, says the new rules create an incentive for small apartment owners to get out the business. “A lot of them held on through Covid, thinking, ‘This is a Covid thing,’ but things have not changed for the better. My clientele used to be lots of mom-and-pop local investors. Now it’s large property management companies.”
City of Seattle data show the number of rental units consisting of houses and small apartment buildings (20 units or less) fell by 17 percent between July 2018 and August 2022. In the same period, the number of units in larger apartment buildings went up.
The cause, Jackson says, is the enactments that burden property owners with more and more risk — and that expose other tenants to risks to their safety and security. “Mom-and-pop housing providers are leaving the market in droves,” the attorney says. “We’re making big errors if we want to make housing more affordable.”