Slate of controversial renter protections passed by Spokane City Council
Feb. 28, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 28, 2023 at 8:04 p.m.
After months of debate, the Spokane City Council has passed a bevy of controversial rental reforms to provide greater protections for tenants and increase enforcement of substandard housing.
In large part, the reform’s advocates sought to make it easier to look for a new rental, to ensure rentals are habitable and meet various requirements, and to support tenants if a landlord violates their rights.
The ordinance, brought forward in November and delayed multiple times for more debate and compromise, underwent a number of changes before Monday’s vote. At the last minute, the reform package was split into two, with one ordinance that had unanimous support and another opposed by the Council’s conservative members.
Ordinance 36330, focused on a registry of rental units in Spokane and increased enforcement of substandard rental units, received unanimous support from the seven Council members.
“That 7-0 vote, I thought, was pretty powerful,” Council President Breean Beggs said in a brief interview.
The compromise ordinance also clarifies an existing but rarely enforced requirement that landlords have business licenses. In addition to paying licensing fees, landlords will have to pay a fee of $15 per rental unit, with some exceptions.
Those additional revenues will be used to help fund at least three extra code enforcement positions specifically to inspect rental housing. Fees collected by the additional code enforcers would also help to pay for the program.
“It is a sad statement for us as a city that we had not been enforcing the laws already on our books,” Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said shortly before the vote. “We are trying to get this dedicated funding to up our game, to make the units that are out there safer and more habitable.”
In addition, the Spokane Office of Civil Rights is now authorized to hire a housing ombudsman who can help both landlords and tenants.
Ordinance 36366, which contained broader reforms to make it easier to find a rental, was opposed by Council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle, who cited in part concerns about overregulation and downstream effects on rental stock and renters.
“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.”
That latter ordinance creates new anti-retaliation protections for tenant-rights advocates and requires landlords to disclose a history of mold or meth manufacturing in the unit.
It also sets aside funds to support tenants who need to relocate because of uninhabitable living conditions, and to mitigate damages to landlords caused by a 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.
Cathcart strongly supported the creation of a mitigation fund to support landlords, and had called for a broader version than what was passed Monday. He expressed doubt that it would function as it was drafted.
“I have heard that we likely need millions of dollars in a mitigation fund, not $60,000,” Cathcart said. “So I fear that creates a false promise, that we’re going to have this mitigation fund, that is probably just going to address three to seven units.”
Ordinance 36366 also creates a “portable” background and credit check that landlords can voluntarily accept.
Originally proposed as a “universal” background and credit checks, where a tenant could pay for the service once and all Spokane landlords would be required to accept it, landlords would not be required to accept the portable check. While this change may seem to defang the 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.
In a Monday night news release, Mayor Nadine Woodward reiterated her support for the ordinance supported by Cathcart and Bingle, and her opposition for the broader reforms passed by the left-leaning Council supermajority. She argued that the new portable background check and other regulations could hurt the city’s already insufficient affordable housing supply.
“While I appreciate that some give and take occurred, the risk is still very real that the new regulations imposed on landlords will harm the very tenants it is intended to help,” she wrote.
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