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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Terri Anderson and Kate Burke: Spokane should adopt protections for its tenant population

Nov. 6, 2019 Updated Thu., Nov. 7, 2019 at 2:37 p.m.

By Terri Anderson and Kate Burke

The debate on homelessness in Spokane is in full force. The current administration’s decision to shut down a major shelter without any sort of well-developed plan has brought an issue that many service providers and families are intimately familiar with into the public domain.

When it comes to addressing this challenge there are generally two camps. On one hand, there are those calling for “accountability” a catch-all phrase used to describe expensive and historically debunked policies like drug testing or forced treatment. On the other there are advocates for evidence-based strategies like housing-first, where people can get off the street so that they can be in a position to actually take care of themselves. Both groups like to talk about the complex and convoluted nature of this problem, but neither group acknowledges the four-word, four-hundred pound gorilla in the room: Rent.

It’s honestly pretty simple. Cities that see the price of rent outpace the growth in wages are the most likely to experience increased homelessness. Rent in Spokane is skyrocketing. There are about 50,000 Spokane tenants considered rent burdened, spending more than 30% of their monthly income on rent; within that group, more than 25,000 are “extremely rent burdened” spending around 50% of monthly income on rent. Folks in these groups are generally getting by but are an unexpected bill, medical emergency, or rent raise away from homelessness.

Landlords can displace tenants with no formal process or declared reason by issuing a 20 day no cause notice to vacate that terminates a month to month rental agreement. It is nearly impossible in this tight market for a tenant who is served this notice to find housing and pay the move-in costs in only twenty days. So what would someone do if they’ve been evicted in a market where over 99% of the affordable housing is unavailable? Some may live with a friend or family member, but many end up on the street.

Spokane tenants have few protections beyond the State Residential Landlord Tenant Act which is weak and difficult to enforce. The imbalance of power between tenants and landlords, and the ever-present threat of eviction, means tenants are less likely to report or demand repairs of poor rental housing conditions. This leads to deteriorated buildings and blighted neighborhoods in Spokane. This imbalance burdens the broader community in other ways. It is the taxpayers who have to pay the relocation of a tenant who has been displaced because a landlord did not maintain their building and it was condemned. In this current arrangement, our city’s housing stock deteriorates and tenants suffer from substandard living conditions.

This isn’t just about economic or housing justice, it’s also an issue of racial equity. Over 70% of the white households in Spokane are homeowners while 70% of black and brown households are renters. People of color are disproportionately impacted by a lack of tenant protections in Spokane, as are people with disabilities, domestic violence victims, children, seniors, LGBTQ individuals, and other vulnerable populations.

About half of Spokane rents their home. That means over 100,000 of our friends, family, and co-workers are tenants. Tenants are the workers that drive the economy and the diversity that makes Spokane great. We owe it to them and our city to make sure renting families stay in their home and off the street. Common-sense tenant protections are an important way to accomplish this.

Spokane needs a just cause ordinance that will require landlords to state a legitimate reason in order to terminate a tenancy. This will help protect tenants against retaliation. Having just cause means you won’t be evicted for simply reporting a health or safety problem. It also means that a landlord couldn’t evict a tenant for petty or discriminatory reasons. This will not prevent landlords from evicting tenants who don’t pay rent, cause damage, or break the rules outlined in the lease, it will only ensure that the reason for eviction is a valid one.

Cities and states across the nation have adopted similar laws. In fact, just cause is already here in Spokane. Tenants who live in HUD Section 8 project based buildings, low income tax credit buildings, and public housing are provided this protection. It is what keeps publicly funded housing stable and secure while improving the quality of life for tenants. All tenants in Spokane deserve this peace of mind.

Tenant protections are an upstream tool policy-makers should use to preserve current affordable rental housing, proactively prevent homelessness, and save money. This protection and other policies outlined in Councilwoman Burke’s Comprehensive Housing Plan are a step in the right direction. It is much cheaper and more humane to prevent homelessness with tenant protections than to wait for tenants to become homeless.

Terri Anderson is co-executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State. Kate Burke is a councilwoman for the city of Spokane.

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