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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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After months of delay and edits, landlord-tenant reform package comes before Spokane City Council

As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021. The Spokane City Council is scheduled to vote on a long-delayed slate of policies related to landlords and tenants on Monday.   (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021. The Spokane City Council is scheduled to vote on a long-delayed slate of policies related to landlords and tenants on Monday.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW) Buy this photo

As the Spokane City Council prepares to vote Monday evening on a controversial package of landlord-tenant reforms, after two deferrals and months of negotiations and stakeholder engagement, lawmakers are working down to the wire to hash out final details.

While the council majority pushes for broader renter protections, its conservative members have argued against regulation they say will drive up rent prices. Both sides agree on a number of goals, including better enforcement in the cases of problem landlords, collecting better data on the state of the rental market and encouraging landlords to take on traditionally less attractive tenants.

The package sponsored by Council President Breean Beggs and Councilwoman Karen Stratton has undergone major changes since the ordinance was first deferred in December to allow for more community feedback and then for additional legal review.

Per-door fees for landlords disappeared from a second version of the bill in January, for example, only to since reappear at a higher rate but applying to fewer landlords. An entire section has been added to allow the Spokane Office of Civil Rights to hire a housing ombudsman that can help navigate both landlords and tenants. Landlords would be required to disclose mold problems to prospective tenants.

Instead of the originally proposed “universal” background and credit checks, where a tenant could pay for the service once and all Spokane landlords would be required to accept it, the current version of the ordinance instead creates a “portable” check that landlords can voluntarily accept. While this change may seem to defang this provision, many local landlords and property managers use the same company for background checks, which Beggs argued makes an effective voluntary system seem more plausible.

But the broad strokes of the reforms remain the same as last year. If passed, the ordinance would hire more code enforcers to inspect rentals for subpar living conditions, create new anti-retaliation protections for tenant-rights advocates and would require business licenses for landlords. It would also set aside funds to support tenants who need to relocate because of uninhabitable living conditions, or to mitigate damages caused be a low-income resident receiving rental support from a government or nonprofit.

“Landlords wanted a mitigation fund when they rent to riskier tenants who cause damage, and tenants want a fund for relocation when they have a really bad landlord and it takes months and months to go to court for the state-authorized relocation fees,” Beggs said.

These programs would be largely funded by landlords, including through fines from increased code enforcement, business license fees, and fees per door for landlords with a certain number of units, though the details of these funding mechanisms are likely to change before the final vote.

As of Friday, both sides were still working to find compromises between the version sponsored by Beggs and Stratton, and an alternative and much pared-down version. The differences range from how to pay for the program to whether certain protections should be mandated, with City Councilman Michael Cathcart’s proposal scrapping the per-door fee and the relocation support fund and limiting the business license fee, but broadening the kinds of landlords that would be eligible for support for damages to their property.

“One of the big things I wanted to avoid as much as possible was any direct fees to tenants,” Cathcart said in an interview. “Affordability is the first and loudest thing I heard from tenants.”

Mayor Nadine Woodward has expressed similar concern about the impacts the reform package could have on rental prices while Spokane already struggles with an affordable housing crisis. Between the two versions being discussed, she prefers Cathcart’s.

“One is definitely more regulatory,” she said. “And one is, the intent is to address the issue of derelict landlords, which I think is a small percentage of the broad number of landlords that we have in this community, but doing it in a way that won’t hurt tenants with door fees that will get passed down.”

She added that she supported the concept of a rental registry, which both versions would require, so that city leaders had a better understanding of the state of the rental market.

Whether more tweaks happen in the meantime, a final vote is expected during Monday night’s City Council meeting, barring yet another deferral.

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