Like many communities across our state, Seattle faces an affordable housing crisis. We’ve heard from tenants about unfair rents, short notice on rent increases and renovations, and high costs for actions as routine as filling out a rental application. People are facing these challenges every day, and they deserve action from the Legislature now to help address these issues.
The first step in getting housing is the application. A survey by Solid Ground found that the average renter pays $166 on screening fees for rental applications before they find housing, when most of those screening reports provide duplicative information. I’ve sponsored (joined by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles) Senate Bill 6291 to create a standardized comprehensive screening report to allow a prospective tenant to pay one fee and use that report to apply for multiple rentals for up to 30 days. If a landlord wants a special screening report different from the standardized report, they can do that, but the landlord would pay that cost.
Screening fees are expensive for everyone, but they’re an especially large barrier for people trying to get on their feet. I met a young woman just the other day—a barista—who had paid hundreds of dollars in screening fees before being accepted into a decent rental. A standardized single report would have helped her find a place sooner at lower cost.
It’s not enough to help people find affordable housing—we have to help them keep it. Right now, rent can increase nearly overnight. Renters receive little warning of rent increases or renovations and they don’t get enough relocation assistance when it happens. Especially when tenants are senior citizens or people with small children, it can be tough to move on short notice.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles has sponsored Senate Bill 6292, which I have also signed onto as a co-sponsor. It would expand the notification period for rent increases and other new rules of tenancy from 30 days to 90 and raise the income threshold for receiving relocation assistance from 50 percent of the area’s median income to 80 percent. This will provide renters the time they need to make new arrangements in the face of rent hikes or renovations to their building.
Our goal is not to be punitive to landlords. In a city where new developments are taking root every day, we need a system that works for tenants and landlords alike. These common-sense measures will do that. It’s also important that we don’t act like this is a Seattle-only problem. Other communities also face these challenges, and our push for renter protections should be statewide, particularly when state law sometimes trumps local ordinances that would be more protective for renters. Leaders from other cities, like Rep. June Robinson of Everett, are doing great work standing up for tenants, and we need to talk to and lobby legislators across the state to make progress on this issue.
We don’t want our cities to become communities of haves and have-nots where renters are faced with difficult choices at the prospect of rent increases and screening fees. We need to make sure that our cities remain affordable and accessible for all, and these are reasonable steps in the right direction.