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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Tenants call for action, landlords ask for patience

Dec. 8, 2019 Updated Mon., Dec. 9, 2019 at 12:28 p.m.

Deb Ost expected to sign a new lease on the duplex she had already lived in for seven years in June. Instead, she received a 20-day notice to vacate.

She was never given a reason why her landlord forced her to leave, which is not required in Washington state, but has heard the rent increased from $750 to $1,300 for the new tenant.

“I still haven’t found a new place. I’m homeless basically, because I’m bouncing back and forth from daughter to daughter,” Ost said.

Ost said finding a new apartment has been challenging, despite having a steady income.

“I’m 62 years old. Now I have to start all over again. Where do I start?” Ost asked.

The Spokane City Council last week shelved a set of proposed tenant protection laws until March, but tenants are pledging to continue the fight for new regulations – and to shine a light on stories like Ost’s.

The Tenants Union of Washington State’s leaders in Spokane have called on a cavalcade of renters to blitz City Council members with phone calls and emails, lamenting what they think is a power imbalance in an ongoing debate over tenants’ rights in Spokane.

On Friday, the Tenants Union of Washington State asked its members to speak out at the City Council meeting on Monday and excoriate polical leaders for punting on the proposed set of new laws.

In a statement released hours after the council’s vote to delay – which took place without public testimony – Tenants Union leader Terri Anderson said the council “effectively silenced the voices of renters in Spokane who are experiencing record displacement due to a combination of a severe low vacancy rate, lack of affordable housing and a profitable real estate market.”

The Landlords Association of the Inland Northwest responded to the council’s decision on Monday by praising the council’s caution and promising to play a role in working toward a compromise. Its leaders repeated their assertions that the new regulations would negatively impact tenants and stunt investment in the city’s housing market.

But tenants are tired of waiting for compromise. To advocates for tenant protections, the housing situation in Spokane is an emergency, with landlords taking advantage of low vacancy rates by substantially raising rent, burdening many and forcing some into homelessness.

The average rent for an apartment in Spokane in 2014 was $749 per month. Five years later, that figure is now $1,091, an increase of more than 45%, according to data compiled by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.

“There are laws that say you can’t sell a case of water for $50 during a hurricane … that’s just gouging, and that’s just not right,” Anderson said.

The proposals

The proposals were broken into two parts, the first being a complex slate of new protections for tenants and the second being a law that would require landlords to cite one of seven specific reasons for evicting a tenant.

The centerpiece of the first proposal is a tenant relocation program, which would require landlords to pay $2,000 to help relocate a tenant if the rent increases more than 5 percent in a year – but only if that tenant is “rent burdened,” meaning he or she pays 30 percent or more of their income on rent.

The relocation program also would be funded by new fees imposed on landlords. The city would collect a $120 annual business registration fee on each apartment building, duplex or single-family home. Additionally, the owner would pay a $10 fee for each unit of housing they own.

The proposal also would have set limits on pet fees and security deposits imposed by landlords and would require a 90-day notice before a rent increase.

Any new unit on the market – meaning it hasn’t been rented out in at least two years – would require an inspection before it is rented.

The second component of the proposal is what is commonly referred to as a “just cause” eviction law, though termed a “specific cause” in the Spokane proposal. Under the law, a landlord would be required to cite one of seven specific reasons for evicting a tenant: failure to pay rent under the terms of the lease; failure to meet the duties of a tenant under state law; to allow a family member of the landlord to occupy the unit; to make renovations that will make the space temporarily uninhabitable; to “perform substantial rehabilitation work” on a unit; to take the unit off the market entirely; or to demolish the unit.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about exactly what it says and does, and I think landlords are really misrepresenting what exactly it does,” Anderson said.

But the landlords association has said the regulations are too broad and would punish mom-and-pop property owners for the abusive actions of just a handful of bad landlords. They also note that of the thousands of renters in Spokane, fewer than 1,000 evictions are carried out every year.

The data

The vacancy rate of rental properties in Spokane is 3.3%, according to the most recently available data compiled by researchers at Eastern Washington University. Five years ago, in 2014, the vacancy rate was 7.5%.

In 2018, about 46% of tenants in Spokane spent 30% or more of their monthly income on rent.

Given the scarcity of available apartments and their cost, advocates say renting in Spokane is a challenge and support a relocation assistance program. To Anderson, the most important factor isn’t limiting the yearly percent increase in rent, it’s protecting tenants who become rent-burdened due to a rent hike.

In its draft analysis of impediments to fair housing in Spokane released in November, the nonprofit Northwest Fair Housing Alliance found that people of color are far more likely to experience housing instability in Spokane than the city’s white residents.

One recommendation to address that discrepancy is “to limit the reasons tenancies can be terminated, provide more notice to tenants of terminations, limit the amount of application, screening, and move-in fees that can be charged, and require increased notice prior to raising rent or limit rent increases to a certain percentage over a specific amount of time.”

Spokane would hardly be the first city in the country to adopt such protections.

Seattle, for example, has had a tenant relocation assistance program since 1990 and a just-cause eviction ordinance since 1980. More recently, it passed laws requiring landlords to offer an apartment to the first qualified tenant who applies and limiting security deposits.

While researchers at the University of Washington said it was too early to determine the impact those new laws have had on the Seattle housing market, they found in surveys that landlords “point to considerable misinformation about the intent and operation of these ordinances.” Tenants, meanwhile, often cited rising rent “as a major factor driving their consideration to move out of Seattle.”

“I don’t think it should be cheap and easy to be able to dispose of tenants. There’s a process for a reason, and when you’re in a business, that’s the cost of doing business,” Anderson said.

The debate

The California-based owner of the Vintage at Spokane Senior Apartments in northeast Spokane has refused to sign long-term leases with numerous tenants, instead insisting on month-to-month agreements that allow it more flexibility, according to Linda Trieber, a tenant there.

Trieber said the tenants believe the policy is in response to a new state law that prohibits rent increases in the middle of a lease. Like many seniors, Trieber is on a fixed income. She would move but fears there’s nowhere for her to go in Spokane.

“We’re all afraid we’re going to be a bunch of homeless seniors,” Trieber said. “We have nowhere to go, and we have no other resources other than Social Security.”

Opponents of the proposals contend that the increased costs associated with the proposals will be passed on to tenants and will disincentivize investment in housing in Spokane.

Art Ellwanger retired at 52 and helped found Ten Talents Ministries, which rents two duplexes in Spokane to refugees for $525 per month, save for one apartment that remains occupied by the tenant who lived there when the company purchased the property.

“We allow them to assimilate here at below-market rate,” Ellwanger said. With financial support from the federal government and employment , he said, “It’s easy to make rent.”

The company hopes to buy another building, and “any new unit we buy, we definitely have to raise the rents,” Ellwanger said. The fees and costs associated with the proposed laws would be passed along to tenants, he added.

“I just don’t like government getting in the way, because all they do is cost all money,” Ellwanger said.

David Baker managed about 150 properties before selling his business about seven years ago. Now, on top of hosting a financial advice radio show on KSBN 1230 AM, he is a financial adviser who uses real estate in developing retirement plans for clients. He’s helped about 25 to 30 investors acquire properties – mostly single-family homes and duplexes – in Spokane, he estimated.

“A lot of them live out of town, but they want the investment in Spokane,” Baker said.

Baker shares landlords’ concerns that the proposed regulations would only “come back to bite the tenants.”

“You’ve got to create an environment for investors to invest or your don’t have a rental inventory,” Baker said.

Editor’s note: Deb Ost was not evicted from the duplex she was renting. This article was changed on Dec. 9, 2019 to reflect that a tenant who complies with a 20-day notice to vacate does not have a formal eviction placed on his or her record.

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