Malena Gaces, left, and other members of Washington CAN protest unfair move-out charges and alleged discriminatory behavior outside Kitts Corner Apartments in Federal Way in 2018. Sound Publishing file photo

Malena Gaces, left, and other members of Washington CAN protest unfair move-out charges and alleged discriminatory behavior outside Kitts Corner Apartments in Federal Way in 2018. Sound Publishing file photo

King County could increase tenant protections

The council is considering ordinances designed to help renters.

Renters in King County could have more protections soon if a slate of ordinances before the county council is approved.

The King County Council is considering tightening rules for when a landlord can evict tenants, creating a low-income assistance pilot program, creating a renters commission and looking at ways to preserve affordable housing in areas of South King County. The ordinances could end up before the council for a full vote by year’s end.

The county has seen displacement in recent years, as people are priced out and existing affordable housing is converted or redeveloped into more expensive units. Daniel DeMay, county council spokesperson, said rising rents have been part of the council’s considerations.

“I think that this is in response to that, and to just try to provide some more protection for renters in the county,” he said.

The most comprehensive ordinance would make it illegal for landlords to remove tenants from a property, reduce services or increase obligations without going through a legal process. Landlords also would be barred from retaliating against tenants for reporting housing violations to the department of Local Services.

Further, landlords wouldn’t be able to evict residential tenants without a court order, which would only be issued after the tenant has an opportunity to contest the eviction. Renters could be evicted by not complying with a 14-day notice to pay rent or vacate, or for breaking various rental agreements including conducting drug-related activity. A tenant who is late paying rent four or more times a year and notified in writing also can have a court order issued for eviction.

The department of Local Services will enforce the ordinance and investigate complaints of illegal termination and assess penalties. The protections would create just-cause evictions, meaning the landlord would have to have a reason to force someone out of housing.

The Washington state Legislature passed statewide renter protections this year forcing landlords into a 14-day waiting period before they could evict residents. However, there was a loophole built in, which let landlords who served three late rent notices evict residents without letting them appeal. Crosscut found that across the state, predatory landlords began issuing the notices almost as soon as the law came into effect on July 28.

At an Oct. 15 county Health, Housing and Human Services committee meeting, senior legislative analyst Sahar Fathi said the proposed county tenant protections were modeled after Seattle’s, but lacked some of the wrap-around services like tenant relocation licensing programs found in the city.

However, a separate ordinance before the county would create a pilot program to assist low-income tenants who are displaced by rent hikes in unincorporated parts of the county. The pilot would include relocation assistance, particularly for those who earn less than 50 percent of the area-median income. It would also require 90 days notice before raising rents and limit the instances when landlords could spike prices to housing demolition, rehabilitation, changes of use or property tax increases.

Another ordinance would create a renters commission which would make recommendations to the county government, and another would study ways to preserve affordable housing near Skyway and Highline.

“These are very complicated pieces of legislation we have spent a great deal of time on,” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles.

Kate Dunphy, deputy director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, said she was most focused on the just-cause eviction ordinance.

“The just-cause eviction protections for us are the most important, because we still very frequently hear from renters who receive what’s called a no-cause eviction,” Dunphy said.

Creating a legal process will also generate a dataset of evictions. Right now, Dunphy said they don’t know how many evictions are served in the county because there’s no legal mechanism to track them. Anecdotally, she said the Tenants Union receives calls every week from renters asking for help stemming from no-cause evictions. Some tenants have even been evicted for seeking help or speaking out about the condition of their rentals.

Burien recently passed a just-cause eviction ordinance, and Dunphy is proud of Tenant Union organizers and the city council for getting it passed.

“It’s something that is really incredible,” Dunphy said.

In coming weeks, the county council also will decide whether to approve its Housing Consortium 2020-2024 plan, which is required to receive federal community block grants to address homelessness, housing and community development. In total, the county could receive some $8.5 million in the next five years to implement the plan, which includes several recommendations from the Affordable Housing Task Force.

The funding would be used in unincorporated portions of the county and most of its cities, with the notable exception of Seattle. Economic segregation is a major issue throughout the county, and lower-income households and communities of color and immigrants have been particularly affected.

About half of the 132,000 single-person households in the county, excluding Seattle, are renters, and some 26,500 are low to moderate income residents in need of housing assistance. Many are seniors. Countywide, there are about 38,000 renter households with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area-median income which are severely cost burdened.

In the previous plan the county preserved or created 117 units of affordable housing and rehabilitated 43 rental units. Some 2,338 households received homeless diversion services and 824 businesses received assistance.

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