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Thursday, June 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: When dealing with housing, start by defining the problem

Sue Lani Madsen. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s possible to develop decent policy without formal stakeholder meetings or a multiyear, million-dollar study by experts. But it’s difficult to impossible without a good definition of the problem. A problem statement was lacking at last week’s public meeting on future housing policy for the City of Spokane.

A draft ordinance patterned after Seattle is already circulating. A Public Records Act request by Arthur Whitten of the Spokane Homebuilders Association produced emails from June 2018 showing those working on drafting an ordinance included Councilwoman Kate Burke, City Council policy adviser Brian McClatchey and Hilary Hibbeln of the tenant-focused Center for Justice.

Burke and Councilman Breean Beggs are hosting four public meetings on future housing policy. The first took input from landlords and property managers. This week, it was the tenants’ turn. At first, Beggs said no policy work had yet begun, then clarified later “we haven’t put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Kind of started that way and then decided to take a time out.” Since a first draft of an ordinance is already circulating, denying it has created mistrust from many on the landlord side.

It was a disappointing discovery, according to Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest. Corker is still optimistic the initial missteps in the Council’s process can be overcome. “I’m pleased the vitriol seen in the past has not been a part of the meetings, and that has impressed me,” he said. “No shouting and name calling, as has been the case on some of the previous task forces. It’s a more conducive environment for success.”

The first meeting blurred the difference between homelessness and affordable housing. They are two different problems, according to Corker, and landlords are not equipped to be social workers. Affordable housing policy has to focus on quantity and quality at the right price point to serve low-wage workers and those on fixed incomes.

Most of the problems on the 15-point list handed out by city staff Wednesday are symptoms of the tight housing market. The number of available properties at every rent level is tight and going to get tighter. Fairchild Air Force Base is not building any new housing, and expects to receive 400 additional airmen and their families in 2019. About half of those will be at the E4/E5/E6 level with a $1,200 a month housing allowance. Amazon’s new warehouse center opens in October 2019 for the Christmas season, and Corker has also heard from the growing medical schools. Policies should be incentivizing landlords to invest in the community and increase the quantity of housing available at every income level.

Limited supply makes it possible for unscrupulous landlords to exploit desperate tenants with substandard housing, but the Snidely Whiplashes of the world are a minority in Spokane. According to Corker, out of approximately 42,000 rental properties, about 80 percent of the complaints to Code Enforcement for unhealthy or unsafe conditions target four landlords. The Landlords Association is eager to discuss more effective code enforcement for the benefit of its own reputation and tenants’ well-being.

A Seattle-style Tenants Bill of Rights doesn’t address these problems. The most common fear expressed by the tenants testifying in three-minute increments Wednesday was losing their affordable home because the property sold. Many of the small apartments, single-family homes and duplexes available at affordable rents are currently owned by older landlords managing just one or a few properties. These are the landlords who have the flexibility to give a little grace to someone on the edge of qualifying on their background check. They are also the landlords least able to cope with increasing regulatory burdens and death by a thousand fees.

“What’s proposed will hurt those they want to help,” according to Bill Prince, senior director of real estate for Greystar, which describes itself as the global leader in rental housing. “The big will get bigger and two-thirds of landlords with five or fewer units will be driven out. Those are the owners of the single family or duplex homes that many families want. All that will be affordable will be multifamily.”

Landlords and tenants have a shared interest in stability. Relocation is expensive for tenants, whether an eviction for cause or because a property has sold into a hot housing market. Landlords want to keep good tenants happy. Turnover is expensive and risky for them, too.

The next two meetings are scheduled for Jan. 8 and Jan. 16 for the two sides that shouldn’t be sides to talk.

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