Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rent spike at lower South Hill complex spurs city policy talks, pushes for further discussion

A deal has been brokered to calm a budding rent dispute at a lower South Hill complex struck by tragedy last winter, but the fight over how to deal with what is being called a rental crisis seems far from over.

Residents of the Westview Manor apartments will be offered $2,000 in relocation expenses and given up to 60 days to find new housing after they were told that two-bedroom rent payments would increase from $625 to $1,100 beginning in July. Tenants received the news of the rent increase last week, prompting involvement from the Tenants Union of Washington.

Residents were given notice of the rent spike just half a year after the building’s previous owner, Danette Kane, was shot and killed.

After two tenants, Jeremy Logan and Rick Schmidt, testified to the Spokane City Council on Monday night calling for policy changes to prevent significant rent increases elsewhere in the city, City Councilman Mike Fagan called a meeting with Steve Corker, a former city lawmaker and leader of the association representing the city’s landlords, and George Janosky, the new owner of the building. The trio announced the deal at a news conference Wednesday morning in front of City Hall, with Logan and Terri Anderson, who leads the local Tenants Union, looking on.

“This issue represents what the Spokane housing crisis is all about,” said Corker, referencing the historically low vacancy rates that have prompted the city to take stock of its available housing.

On Wednesday, Logan and Schmidt took in the afternoon sun overlooking the Latah Creek valley, swapping stories with neighbors about how they’d respond to their own crisis, not long after the tight-knit community was rocked by the shooting.

Kane was killed and the former apartment manager Mike Troy was critically injured in a shooting at the apartment on Dec. 19. Anne Marie Carpenter, the daughter of a tenant, was arrested and accused of the crime. Troy recovered, but lost his eyesight.

Schmidt’s move is made a little more complicated by piles of mementos from his father’s family home. The nine-year resident of the complex, who is friends with Troy, already was in the process of packing up books, board games and an old “Spokane Daily Chronicle” sales sign when he received his notice last week.

“I wasn’t really in any kind of hurry, but now I’m in a hurry,” said Schmidt. “That extra 30 days is going to make a big difference for me.”

The issues are clear: the rising cost of housing and the lack of available rooms at a price renters can afford. But the positions of lawmakers, and the interests representing land owners and tenants, shows a continued divide in how to address them.

Anderson, of the Tenants Union, met with Fagan and made a plea for policy changes that include controlling the cost of rent, eliminating “one-way leases” that are month-to-month agreements but include penalties if a tenant leaves within a year, and passing what’s known as a “just cause” eviction law, which lays out specific reasons a tenant may be kicked out of housing that must be proven by a landlord. Those policies were requested in a news release sent Wednesday morning by Anderson, before the news conference. The release also raises concerns that tenants like Schmidt hadn’t been included in the negotiations between Janosky and city officials.

“I think that the tradition of the city has been to behave like a small town,” said Anderson. “They just put out spot fires like this. But you can’t just put out spot fires in a city of 100,000 renters.”

The policies the Tenants Union are asking for already have been in place for decades in places such as Seattle and Portland, Anderson said.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said the city already is working on the details of a relocation assistance fund that would provide funds independent of landlords and nonprofits like SNAP, which require certain income levels for eligibility. That’s part of $2 million the city has set aside over the next two years to address the housing shortage. He said other suggestions, including rent control, wouldn’t address the problem and argued it was lack of housing options, not policies, that were driving the issue in Spokane.

“We can’t just address the regulatory framework,” said Stuckart. “We have a supply problem in the city.”

From the dais Monday night, Stuckart urged residents concerned about rental shortages not to oppose infill development projects in their neighborhoods.

Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke, who’s been fielding the concerns of tenants throughout town, including those at Westview, said the additional funding was needed, but also left the door open for discussing the types of policy changes tenants are requesting.

“It’s not really an either/or with funding for affordable housing and tenant protections,” Burke said. “Our tight housing market makes it a necessity to bring these protections for tenants.”

Corker said the proposed policies would hit small landlords the hardest, and suggested they might drive down the number of rental properties available. That includes elimination of the “one-way lease,” which he said amounted to renters seeking the same freedoms home owners enjoy. He said landlords are also waiting to hear from the city on what their quality standards will be following the outcome of its latest housing study, and that any efforts to change regulations right now would affect an already fragile rental market.

“The council members that I’ve talked to about some of the more progressive issues that the (tenants union) have brought up, is that until there’s a little softening of the housing market, that some of these standards would drive a lot of the small landlords out of business,” Corker said.

Burke praised the landlord’s association response to the situation, working with Janosky to forge an agreement that assists his tenants. But she said city policymakers should solicit suggestions for policies requiring landlords to provide some assistance, rather than relying on voluntary offers of help.

“We definitely want to make sure that all landlords are all put on the same, level playing field. Most of them are doing really good things, being really good landlords,” she said.

While the housing policies discussions play out at City Hall, the remaining five tenants of the Westview property are working to meet with Janosky. The landlord said Wednesday the rent increase he proposed about a week after closing on the building for $940,000 simply brought the units up to what he called “a market rate.”

“I’ve been a landlord in Spokane for 45 years,” said Janosky, noting that he owns more than 20 buildings, mostly on Spokane’s South Hill. “These rents have not been raised to keep up with current amounts.”

Janosky said the building included features, such as hardwood floors and views of Latah Creek, that would normally drive up costs in Spokane’s market. He offered to assist the remaining renters in his new building with other properties he owns, but also said none of those units had prices near what tenants were paying at Westview.

Jeff Anderson, Schmidt’s neighbor, has opted to move out rather than pay the new rent. He’s lived at Westview even longer than Schmidt, and said the rent increase was just a sign that it was time to move on.

“Right now, we’re looking, and we’ve got some rental stuff out, applications, you know,” Anderson said, showing off the original copper kitchenware in his single-bedroom unit next to Schmidt. “It is hard to find a rental in this town right now.”

Logan, who’s appeared multiple times on television speaking for his neighbors, is eying a unit in the building next door that will cost $400 less a month than what Janosky is asking. But the self-employed painter is worried that complex, too, could be snatched up by a buyer.

“Anywhere we go, we could possibly end up out on the street,” he said.

Schmidt is working with a landlord he knows from before his time at Westview to find another spot on the South Hill. But that view, that “million-dollar view” as a neighbor put it, will be gone, replaced by a painting of a mountain that was once his father’s.

“There is something to the fact, that they should have some kind of control,” Schmidt said of landlords like Janosky. “But you can’t mistreat the people that are already here, because this is a building, this is some land, you own it. This is our home, and we’ve been here for a long time.”