Tacoma City Council unanimously approved a roster of tenants rights rules Tuesday that are meant to help renters in the city handle the rising rents. The slate of changes is the latest round in efforts to combat rising homelessness in the booming housing market.
The changes require a 60-day notice for any rent increase, requires landlords to provide information about tenants rights and responsibilities, allows tenants to pay move-in fees and deposits over time rather than in one lump sum and stiffens penalties for landlords who violate the law or otherwise retaliate against tenants for organizing or complaining about needed repairs. The rules also establish a relocation fund that would provide low-income tenants with $2,000 and assistance on finding a new residence when they must move out for renovations or reuse. The cost of the assistance will be split between the city and the landlord unless the property is deemed a derelict since, at which time the landlord covers the full bill. The new city code also requires advance notice of 120 days to vacant a rental property for a low-income tenants when a landlord intends to renovate or demolish the facility.
The swell of tenants rights activity started in the spring when low-income tenants at the Tiki Apartments were only given 20-day notices because the building was slated for renovations. Protests over their looming homelessness lead to an agreement with the landlord and the city to provide housing assistance. But the effort also led to the formation of the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee to push for more protections in the city’s rental housing code.
“It’s just amazing how what happened at the Tikis sparked this movement which has led to these protections. We’ve all done this hard work, and this is a big win for us. The protections will help people not live in so much fear” said Donna Seay, former Tiki tenants and member of the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee in an announcement.
The effort in the works now involves a “just cause” eviction policy that would require landlords to state a reason for an eviction or non-renewal of a lease.
“Right now, a landlord can do it without listing a reason,” tenants rights organizer Molly Nichols said. “All we are saying is that there has to be a reason.”
The group plans to champion the issue in the coming year both within the city and with state lawmakers during the next legislative session with the argument that just cause policies are needed to avoid landlords from discriminating against tenants who complain about needed repairs, organize other renters to address concerns or other reasons.
“That is an important piece of the protection,” Nichols said.
The average rent in Tacoma stands at $1,216 a month, from $1,017 for a studio apartment to $1,551 for a three-bedroom unit, according to city statistics.
“After years of skyrocketing rent increases tenants are living at the edge and need 60 days notice for all rent increases,” the group stated in a release. “We know of no hardships for landlords when they increase the rent. Tenants, particularly low-income tenants, are paying for the increased profits of the landlords and need that additional time.”
Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra welcomed the tenants right measures because they will help stabilize the city’s current stock of affordable housing but said work should also be done to add to the number of affordable housing units within the city. Two ideas already working their way to council action include the use of a housing trust fund to help finance affordable housing units and the expansion of tax credits and incentives to boost private residential development.
Several speakers during Tuesday night’s council meeting spoke about the tenants rights rules. Landlords and building operators had hoped that council would vote down the new rules because they needed the flexibility of the short-term notice for their own cash-flow and investment reasons. Several pointed out, for example, that many “mom and pop” landlords – about a quarter of all rental properties in the city – operated just a small collection of units and operate as small businesses that will face higher costs with the new rules. Those costs will trickle down to renters, which is something everyone wanted to avoid. Others fear the longer-notice requirements will allow problem tenants to run off more stable tenants, who flee unsafe conditions brought by a violent or troubled tenants.