Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lawmakers say 2019 is the year for sweeping, statewide action on housing

Will James
Democratic lawmakers and housing activists unveiled a package of housing reforms at an Olympia news conference on February 7, 2019.

Democrats in Olympia have unveiled a package of bills designed to address what they call a “crisis” of housing affordability that has spilled out of Seattle into small and mid-sized cities from Tacoma to Aberdeen to Ellensburg. 

The more than 30 bills focus on increasing the supply of housing in an effort to drive down costs and strengthening legal protections for renters, including making it harder for landlords to evict tenants.

Some proposals are likely to face fierce opposition from landlords and their lobbyists, while others will compete for funding with other budgetary priorities, such as overhauling the state’s mental health system and saving the struggling Southern Resident orcas.

But Rep. Nicole Macri (D-Seattle) said the spread of affordability problems and visible homelessness to many corners of the state has created pressure to act — and an opportunity for consensus — in 2019.

"Coming into this session, things feel different," said Macri, who works on the leadership team of the nonprofit Downtown Emergency Service Center and is a point person on housing issues for state Democrats.

One bill, sponsored by Macri, would require landlords across the state to cite a "legitimate business reason" for ending a month-to-month rental agreement with a tenant. Macri called the state's current eviction process "archaic and sometimes cruel" and a cause of long-term poverty and instability.

Under the proposed law, reasons for ending an agreement could include the tenant’s failure to pay rent or the accumulation of waste. Current state law allows landlords to end a month-to-month agreement without explanation as long as they give 20 days’ notice.

Chris Heer, a disabled retiree who relies on federal housing subsidies in Tacoma, said she’s been scrambling to find housing since she received a 20-day notice to vacate her apartment in October.

Her landlord gave her an extension, but she hasn’t been able to find something she can afford after years of steep rent increases across Tacoma.

"I may have to just put everything I own into storage and move into my car at the end of the month," Heer said at a news conference with Democrats on Thursday, adding she always paid her rent on time. "I want to know what the hell I did wrong," she said. 

Macri’s proposal is akin to Seattle’s so-called "just cause" ordinance, which has been in place for nearly four decades. Tacoma’s city council rejected a similar proposal when it passed a new suite of housing regulations in November.

Washington landlords have rallied against “just cause” proposals, saying the laws restrict their ability to deal with problematic tenants.

"We're all in consensus that there should be some eviction prevention policy," said Heather Pierce, deputy director of government affairs for the Washington Rental Housing Association, a landlord advocacy group. "However, it can't be at the expense of the rental property owners, especially the mom and pop property owners." 

Pierce said the Washington Rental Housing Association supports a set of housing bills introduced by Republican Rep. Andrew Barkis of Olympia. The Republican's package would require landlords to give 60 days' notice if they're raising rent by more than 10 percent and 120 days' notice if they're displacing tenants due to a renovation or demolition. 

The Democratic package includes a bill that would allow cities and counties to hold onto a portion of the state sales tax to fund the construction of housing. "We need more affordable housing in every corner of the state," Macri said.

Another bill would make it easier for developers to build housing by requiring cities of more than 10,000 people to ease zoning and permitting requirements. 

Yet another Democratic proposal would give tenants who fall behind on rent more time to pay up before they're evicted. The bill would extend the amount of time tenants have from three days to 21 days after they receive a "pay or vacate" notice. 

"I am extremely hopeful that we can get done a really bold package of policies and budget investments that communicate to the people of Washington that we are taking the housing crisis seriously and we are responding," Macri said. 

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.