City crafting a tenants bill of rights

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As rents spiral upwards in the city, Tacoma City Council is considering a tenants bill of rights. The topic was discussed during the Council’s Community Vitality and Safety Committee meeting on June 28.

Earlier this year all residents of the Tiki Apartments received eviction notices after a new owner purchased the complex. He plans to renovate the units, increase rent and lease them. Some tenants had less than a month to find new housing. In response, the council passed a temporary law requiring landlords to provide 90-days notice for such situations. This law expires in September. Staff recommends making it permanent.

For other reasons for eviction, staff recommends requiring 60 days notice.

One proposal would require landlords to provide 60 days notice on rent increases of more than 10 percent over the course of 12 months. 

Another would require landlords to provide new tenants with paperwork explaining their rights. Seattle has such a requirement. Also, the bill of rights would prohibit landlords from retaliating against tenants, such as evicting someone who complains about a maintenance issue.

Landlords would have to notify new and existing tenants of any currently open code enforcement actions against the property.

Many people struggle to cover moving expenses. The bill of rights would address this by allowing tenants to make installment payments for the last month’s rent and security deposit. Most landlords demand all this money up front.

A final recommendation would affect the city’s human rights code. It would prohibit discrimination based on source of income. For example, a landlord would have to accept a housing voucher from a state or federal agency.

ChiQuata Elder, the city’s landlord/tenant coordinator, said another item that was considered was allowing current tenants the first right of refusal if the property is put up for sale. She said a court decision has ruled this unconstitutional in this state. There are challenges to that ruling, but she said it would be difficult for a city to enact such a requirement at this time. 

Elder said tenant laws in several cities around the state were examined. Input came from Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) and several organizations that represent rental property owners and managers.

The 90-days notice usually has another 10 days or so to meet notification requirements. Elder said many landlords would prefer to make this an even 120 days

Current state law requires 20 days notice of eviction. THA and non-profit landlords generally agree with raising this to 60, while some for-profit landlords object. Elder said they want language allowing them to evict nuisance tenants in less than 60 days.

Elder said her research shows most rent increases are three to six percent a year. From July 2016 to May 2018, the city received 50 calls about rent increases. The largest was 100 percent, with the next highest being 87.5 percent. Many were more than 10 percent.

In some cases of tenants reporting maintenance problems, landlords will issue a 20-days notice to vacate. This is why protection against retaliation is being considered. “We see that a lot when a tenant calls code enforcement,” Elder remarked.

Seattle has a law allowing tenants to make installment payments on security deposits and last month’s rent. The Rental Housing Association of Washington has sued the city over this. Elder said landlords fear they would not be able to collect all money owed to them. Some may start charging higher amounts in response to such policies, she observed. She wants Tacoma to hold off on this until after a court hearing on the Seattle case in August.

Councilmember Chris Beale wants a required meeting for situations like the Tiki Apartments. “I think it is valuable for information sharing,” he said. Tiki residents had notices taped to their doors. Beale would like them to be sent via certified mail. Also, a blind Tiki resident was unable to read her notice. Beale would like a 60-days notice for rent increases of five percent, and 90 days for 10 percent or more.

Beale wants to require landlords to reveal all code actions, not just closed cases. He also wants this to include cases of discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and other protected classes. 

“A landlord should be required to disclose that they were guilty of a discriminatory housing practice,” he declared. “That needs to be disclosed to future tenants.”

Information on tenants rights should be available in multiple language, he feels. Beale also wants voter registration information provided to tenants. He also wants to protect prospective tenants who have a felony conviction for a non-violent offense.

Dale Tichgelaar is someone who might benefit from some of the proposed tenant rights. Since 2006 he has lived in a complex near Orchard Street with about 100 units. He is retired and living on a fixed income, as is his disabled roommate.

New management took over at the first of the year. They raised rent by $100 a month. Rent on his two-bedroom unit was $680 when he moved in. It later rose to $750. The latest increase puts it at $850. Tichgelaar said they want to increase it by another $85.

He provided a list of maintenance needs to management. His dishwasher does not work and there is damage to a ceiling. A pipe in the bathroom was replaced, but the wall was not repainted. “The building is rotting away,” Tichgelaar said. “They keep raising the rent and they do not do anything.”

The committee is scheduled to revisit the topic on July 26.

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