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Judge rules against City of Tacoma in renters' rights ballot battle

Ty Moore leads a chant outside Tacoma City Hall on May 25, 2023. Community members gathered to urge City Council Members to pass extensive renter protections for the city's renters.
Mayowa Aina
Ty Moore leads a chant outside Tacoma City Hall on May 25, 2023. Community members gathered to urge City Council Members to pass extensive renter protections for the city's renters.

Voters in Tacoma were about to choose between two measures on the November ballot related to renters' rights. But a judge ruled Wednesday only one measure can move forward.

After a citizen's group called Tacoma For All got a renter protection initiative on the ballot, the city of Tacoma passed its own renter protections into law. When the city placed that law on the ballot to compete with the initiative, Tacoma For All sued.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ashcraft ruled the city's measure created a false choice because whether or not it passed, the renter protections would remain law.

He called the city's measure "misleading and confusing to voters" and prohibited it from going on the ballot.

"We're thrilled at this ruling," said Ann Dorn, communications co-lead for Tacoma For All. "It's a victory not only for this campaign and for the voters of Tacoma, but also for the the democratic process."

About 44% of Tacoma residents are renters. The initiative, what the campaign is calling a Tenant's Bill of Rights, is trying to expand protections for them. If passed, the initiative would require more notice for rent increases, require landlords to offer relocation assistance if the rent increases more than 5%, and it would ban evictions during the winter and evictions of student and educators during school year, among other protections.

"Folks are just really struggling and we need real changes, we need some meaningful protections," said Dorn.

Here's what happened

Volunteers with Tacoma For All collected enough signatures earlier this year to place a citizen’s initiative on the upcoming November ballot.

At the same time, the Tacoma City Council passed its own updates to the city’s rental housing code in July. The ordinance went into effect July 24. It requires landlords to provide at least 120 days written notice for rent increases, instead of 60 days, and caps late fees at $75 per month. It also prohibits landlords from having a blanket ban on tenants with felony or drug convictions and arrest records, and places a cap on income to rent ratio requirements at three times the monthly rent, among other changes.

Community members rally to establish 'Tenant's Bill of Rights' in Tacoma
Foss High School student Tara Ryan speaks at a rally at Tacoma City Hall on May 25, 2023 in Tacoma, Wash. Ryan sits on the Mayor's Youth Commission which endorses a citizen's initiative that would increase protections for renters in the city.

Tacoma For All advocates said the city’s ordinance was a good step but didn't go far enough. Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said she was happy with where the ordinance landed and that the changes were effective almost immediately.

“We didn't go as far as Tacoma For All went, and we went further than our stakeholder group recommended, which some would say is a good place to be. But, what I want to be really clear about is, we've done some really good work.”

The measures go head-to-head

The council then voted to place the ordinance on the November ballot, calling it Measure 2, as an alternative to the citizen’s initiative. Councilmembers Kiara Daniels and Olgy Diaz voted against placing the measure on the ballot saying the council could do more for renters.

Two renter's rights measures will compete on Tacoma ballot

Diaz said the measure doesn’t do enough to meet the council’s own goals to make Tacoma affordable.

“If we are looking to get this diverse workforce, where will they live if they can't afford to live here?” Diaz said. “We know for a fact that historic redlining inequalities have made it so that folks who look like me have not been allowed to buy homes. We are renters."

Daniels called the vote disappointing.

“I'm incredibly disappointed in my colleagues, and I'm really disappointed in the pace of progress that we continue to move at. I think we can do better,” Daniels said. “I think moving in fear puts us in a place where our unintended consequences really are: the lack of action.”

Tacoma For All sues ... and wins

This vote to put the city’s measure on the ballot led Tacoma For All and union United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367 to sue the city, arguing the council did not have the authority to place an alternative on the ballot. The group claimed it was a confusion tactic.

Tacoma For All sues to remove city's renter ballot measure
Michael Hines, President of UFCW Local 367, speaks at a press conference announcing Tacoma For All and UCFW's lawsuit against the City of Tacoma on August 2, 2023. Hines said 65% of the requests that come in through their union hardship fund are housing-related.

Pierce County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ashcraft found the city does have the authority to place an alternative measure on the ballot, but because the city passed the ordinance and then placed the ordinance on the ballot it "ran afoul of the State Constitution." Ashcraft wrote placing the City's measure on the ballot "resulted in a false choice" because regardless of the vote, the City's measure is already law and would remain so. He agreed the city's measure was "misleading and confusing" and said it was "not a true alternative."

Tacoma For All said in a press release they spent nearly $15,000 fighting the city.

In an emailed response, City Attorney Bill Fosbre wrote:

"In today’s order, Pierce County Superior Judge Timothy Ashcraft validated the Tacoma City Council’s authority under the City Charter to place an alternative on the ballot to a citizen initiative petition. The Court also agreed with the City that an alternative to a citizen initiative petition would be correctly presented as a plurality vote (the measure that gets the most votes prevails) to the voters under State law. Nevertheless, the Court found a problem in the Council’s adoption of the ordinance prior to placing it on the ballot for voter approval (which would prevent the Council from changing it for two years without another vote). We are disappointed in this portion of the Court’s decision and we are in the process of determining our next steps."

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing