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Sue Lani Madsen: How to make housing unaffordable

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s déjà vu all over again as the Spokane City Council takes up the Tenants Bill of Rights agenda that was first floated in December of last year.

It started with a series of four housing forums on new landlord-tenant rules at the beginning of the year. Or more accurately, new landlord rules. Tenant accountability isn’t the focus. Neither is expanding the supply of affordable housing.

A January 2019 rough draft of an ordinance was the basis of work sessions in June and August, with representatives of the Landlords Association of the Inland Northwest. Meetings were also held with the Tenants Union of Washington. City Council member and future City Council President Breean Beggs has been working with council member Kate Burke and city staff on a final ordinance. Now that the election is over, the ordinance is moving forward. Rapidly.

Steve Corker, President of the Landlords Association, said he received copies of two proposed ordinances on Nov. 15, and was told they would go to final reading for a vote on Dec. 9. Beggs confirmed the schedule but noted there are lot of things going on before the end of the year and said it might change.

Change would be good. It’s rushed, especially for ordinances set to kick in on New Year’s Day.

The focus of the 10 “Whereas” statements that begin both ordinances is fear, not affordability. Fear of a landlord taking advantage of a vulnerable tenant in a hot housing market with few alternatives.

It’s true that a fragile family or individual spending 30-50% of household income on housing each month is at risk of eviction if hit with any kind of financial emergency. Unexpected car repairs, illness or loss of job can tip the balance for an otherwise stable family with a good record of payment.

Corker would like to see a focus on keeping not-yet-homeless-but-headed-there tenants housed. It’s far easier to intervene before a tenant has fallen out of the market. It’s also a benefit for landlords, for whom flipping a unit and finding a new tenant always carries significant cost. Gap coverage for tenants on the edge would fill a need and reduce evictions. But it’s not on the table.

What is on the table works against keeping housing affordable or increasing the supply. Take the requirement for third-party inspections. Before it can be offered for rent, anything other than a new building less than five years old will require a private home inspection. And it will require an inspection again in two years, if it’s on the market again. The home or apartment inspection fee of $250 or so will be a cost of doing business.

The city already holds landlords responsible for utility bills if the tenant doesn’t pay. They’ll add a business registration fee per unit of housing.

And limiting damage deposits by ordinance, as proposed, will mean more cautious budgeting for the cost of repairing damages by irresponsible tenants. Getting a court judgment to recover damages from a tenant with no assets is futile. It’s a cost of doing business, but that just means all tenants have to pay for it.

It’s always the irresponsible ones who muck things up for everyone else. The few rogue landlords in the market don’t care what legislation is passed. The worst tenants invite freeloaders and strip the batteries out of the smoke detectors, putting everyone in their building at risk. Responsible tenants understand their landlord has to make a profit or they don’t have a home. And responsible landlords value housing stability just as much as tenants do.

The proposed residential tenancy ordinance and its companion “Just Cause” ordinance assumes the worst of landlords and the best of tenants. The national “Just Cause” movement is based on that inaccurate assumption.

“I was working on the (residential tenancy code) that had less conflict and more common ground,” Beggs said.

He said it was clear there was no inclination for compromise between the landlords and tenants on the “Just Cause” ordinance. Beggs said outgoing Council President Ben Stuckart was working on it separately.

Relabeled “specific cause eviction,” Corker ran the proposed ordinance by a few of his members. The typical reaction from small landlords is they’ll have to raise income requirements and background screening to make it work. Or they’ll sell the single-family homes most coveted by families and reduce the supply of affordable rental housing.

There needs to be an 11th Whereas: Whereas, forcing landlords to leave the affordable housing business and/or raise rents and requirements is counterproductive, the enactment of this ordinance should be postponed.

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