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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Tenants and landlords headed for a cliff

Affordable housing is headed for a cliff as surely as Thelma and Louise, and Gov. Inslee’s moratorium on paying rent is pressing the gas pedal. The state eviction moratorium is set to expire in June and it may be extended to September. It’s a lose-lose proposition for both tenants and landlords.

Keith Kelley is the kind of landlord Spokane can’t afford to lose. He lives in the same neighborhood where he has operated Kelley Rental Properties for 15 years. He runs his business with a tenant-centered mission statement of “providing high-quality, affordable housing to great people.” He has served on numerous affordable housing boards and is the immediate past President of the non-profit Spokane Housing Ventures. He works with organizations serving people with significant barriers to permanent housing, like Reclaim Project NW, providing opportunities to men coming out of the criminal justice system. It’s always been more than a just a business.

And now Kelley has listed one property for sale and has others lined up in appraisal, saying he can’t keep living off his retirement savings. But it’s not just the money driving Kelley out. “I can’t protect my tenants,” he said this week. He currently has several units vacant, but says he cannot in good conscience “put anyone in a property with unstable tenants wreaking havoc around them.”

Three months ago, Kelley provided housing to a woman fleeing domestic violence. Two days later she called frantically, reporting another tenant being extremely verbally abusive. A third tenant emailed to confirm, explaining the abusive tenant was the reason three other women had moved out, and describing serious physical health and safety issues I’d rather not repeat. Sometimes my grandchildren read this column.

Kelley gave notice to the problem tenant. When he called almost two months later to confirm the final walk-through, Mr. Health and Safety Problem said he needed to call an attorney. “Then I got the most threatening, unprofessional call from the state AG’s office … clearly meant to scare the living bejeezus out of me,” said Kelley. Even though the moratorium proclamation indicates there is an exception if a tenant represents a safety or health threat to others, Kelley said the state’s attorney “made it clear even though that’s what was written on

paper, they were going to pursue this aggressively. It makes zero sense that landlords can’t manage for safety issues.”

Kelley is also frustrated by the number of non-paying tenants whose income hasn’t been hit by the pandemic proclamations. “Our state is one of only a few that does not distinguish between tenants who have and have not been affected,” said Kelley. And lifting the obligation to pay rent has removed inhibitions to bad behavior. Kelley said he’d had more 911 calls to his properties in the last two weeks than in the last 15 years. “The social climate is changing dramatically.”

Steve Corker, president of the Landlord Association of the Inland Northwest, agreed. “Basically 1% to 2% of tenants are saying “up yours” and can’t be evicted unless they commit a capital crime. Landlords have lost control of their own property.”

Kelley took his story to a virtual meeting with Sen. Andy Billig, Rep. Marcus Riccelli and Rep. Timm Ormsby, all from Spokane’s 3rd Legislative District. Joining the call were Corker and Spokane City Council members Breann Beggs, Karen Stratton and Betsy Wilkerson.

In response to an email to the electeds in attendance asking about lessons learned, Sen. Billig said he felt there was a common goal to preserve good housing options “and for both tenants and landlords to be treated fairly.”

Breann Beggs wrote that he hoped to set up a formal system to address tenants posing a threat to others, so landlords can “complain to the AG’s office about tenants causing problems so that they can get clearance to exercise their rights under the moratorium without fear of retaliation or uncalled for sanctions.”

Karen Stratton said she has reached out to Keith, Steve Corker and Terri Anderson from the Tenants Union in the past for help understanding the challenges. “We have established an active landlord/tenant workgroup that has been discussing the needs of both organizations and the financial challenges that COVID-19 has thrust upon each group. In this case, there is great concern regarding the “cliff” and the desire to help both landlords and tenants survive.”

While citizens should not have to appeal to the Attorney General for permission to exercise their rights, getting the AG’s office on board with the common goal to preserve good housing options is a necessary step to keeping tenants safe and landlords solvent. Without landlords, there’s no affordable housing.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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