The same pandemic forcing Spokane city leaders to pour millions of dollars into rental assistance is giving them pause before implementing new protections for tenants.
The Spokane City Council agreed to indefinitely delay a set of proposed protections for renters, citing the inability for advocates for landlords and tenants to meet in person during the pandemic.
The vote on Monday was the fourth time the council has delayed the proposal, which has evolved over the course of several months, but the first time it’s done so indefinitely.
Council President Breean Beggs, who first introduced a tenant protection proposal in 2019, said Monday that representatives for landlords and tenants have been unable to meet with a mediator in person because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Spokane County remains in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan.
“We had hoped we would be into Phase 3 by now so we could meet in person with a facilitator who we’ve selected,” Beggs said. “We have not accomplished that work yet, which is disappointing, and I feel like we need to make it a higher priority, because housing is such a crisis right now.”
Terri Anderson, interim executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, told The Spokesman-Review in an email that she was “extremely disappointed” by the council’s delay.
Councilwoman Kate Burke, who has also taken a leading role in the negotiations, was the only council member to vote against tabling the proposal Monday. She acknowledged that the indefinite delay does not prohibit the council from taking the issue up again, but said she fears it sends a message that it is not a priority for the council.
“This is one of my biggest priorities,” Burke said. “If COVID has taught us anything, it’s really shown us how essential protections around renters are.”
Inslee issued, and subsequently extended, a moratorium on evictions in response to the economic collapse caused by COVID-19, but it’s set to expire this month. The city adopted an emergency declaration of its own, which has since expired, that also paused evictions earlier this year.
Burke urged the council to “stand up for what is right” and approve a “flat policy around keeping tenants in their homes.”
Beggs agreed that housing remains a crisis but said he was heartened that Inslee’s moratorium on evictions has made “most of it kind of moot.”
“We aren’t as far behind as we otherwise would be … we still need to get to work on getting it done,” Beggs said.
Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest, agreed.
“Most of us had thought it was a not a critical issue,” Corker said, noting the federal moratorium on evictions on tenants who are unable to pay rent because of a loss of income.
It’s unclear what final form the city’s tenant protections proposal will take if and when it is reintroduced.
Beggs’ initial proposal was a suite of reforms that would have required landlords to cite one of several specific causes for evictions, restrict the type and amount of fees landlords can impose on tenants, and force landlords to pay a relocation fee if they raise rent beyond a certain amount.
Landlords rallied against the proposal and, fearing he did not have enough votes for its passage, Beggs agreed to hold off.
Although the pandemic has forced renters and landlords to lean on government assistance, the economic fallout has done little to ease the demand for housing in Spokane County.
What’s eventually introduced will likely differ from Beggs’ original proposal, following the negotiations between representatives for landlords and tenants.
The landlord-tenant group had continued to meet virtually through the pandemic but had not convened in several weeks, Beggs said. The group is attempting to construct a document that identifies issues, potential solutions to them and specific legal language to embed into city law.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll move forward and get the consensus necessary to get the votes necessary to pass these, but we have not reached (it) yet,” Beggs said.
The group agrees on many of the city’s housing problems, Anderson said, such as racial disparities in access to housing, poor housing conditions in many neighborhoods and that rent increases have displaced tenants.
“We agreed on most if not all of the problems,” Anderson said. “I have no idea if landlords and tenants agree on solutions because we have never gotten to that discussion.”
Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she shared Burke’s uneasiness about an indefinite delay but still supported it. She credited Burke for working toward a resolution and agreed the council needs to “step up and make a decision.”
However, Stratton said she would like the landlord-tenant group to reconvene first “so some of us know that work has been done, voices have been heard and we can move forward.”
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