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Landlords Rally Against Seattle's Proposed Cap On Move-In Costs

"Seattle" by Chris Yunker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Housing advocates say up-front costs of renting a new apartment, like security deposits and non-refundable fees, are a major barrier to finding a home in Seattle.

City lawmakers are moving ahead with legislation that would cap those costs and allow tenants to pay them in installments over six months. Members of the City Council's Energy and Environment Committee voted 6-0 on Tuesday to move the bill to the full council on Dec. 12.

But the law is moving forward over the objections of landlords. More than a dozen of them spoke against the bill at the meeting. Most identified as small-time landlords and said they provide ever-rarer affordable housing in Seattle. 

Hugh Brannon, a landlord who sits on the board of the Rental Housing Association of Washington lobbying group, said excessive regulation risk forcing "mom-and-pop" landlords out of the city -- potentially clearing the way for corporate landlords to move in with higher rents.

"You're attacking the very people who provide affordable rents," Brannon told council members.

Chuck Cady said he's been accumulating and improving his rental homes for 40 years. He challenged city lawmakers to fund security deposits and assume the risk of a tenant stealing or damaging his property.

"I really am offended by the city to tell me that I cannot protect my own investment," he said.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant is the lead backer of the law. It would limit a security deposit plus non-refundable fees, like those for screening prospective tenants and cleaning apartments before move-in, to the cost of one month's rent.

But the most significant provision would allow renters to spread those costs, as well as last month's rent, over a six-month payment plan.

Housing advocates say some tenants get stuck in poor conditions or with soaring rents because it's too costly to move. An April survey by the social-justice group Washington Community Action Network found high up-front costs are the biggest barrier to switching apartments.

"Renters experiencing domestic violence stay in those situations because they're unable to move," said Hana Alicic, a community organizer with the Tenants Union of Washington State. "Renters remain in unhealthy housing. Renters who have lost housing and are experiencing homelessness are unable to regain housing." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.