by José Camacho and Hana Alicic
There are well over 300,000 renters in the City of Seattle, but there are very few citizens who fully understand tenants’ rights. This is not for lack of trying. The Tenants Union of Washington provides empowerment-based tenant education services, and so far this year we have spoken with roughly 1,800 renters on our hotline and have worked with over 1,000 in our workshops. Unfortunately, we’re only able to speak with 1/3 of the people who attempt to reach out to us for help, and there are countless others who are unaware of the services that we provide. Because of the need, we were heartened by Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s 2016 budget amendment to increase funding for tenant education and organizing. This amendment was accepted as part of the budget in a vote earlier this week. This decision was inline with the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, which suggested that $750,000 be budgeted for landlord-tenant education and outreach as well as legal aid for low-income residents.
While many landlords have the resources, time, and business incentive to become familiar with landlord-tenant law, the vast majority of tenants have little or no housing or legal background and are simply looking for a stable place to call home. Landlord-Tenant laws are considered “self-help” laws, meaning that their enforcement depends heavily on the proactivity of tenants. A lack of awareness and education creates experiences of undue stress and hopelessness for thousands of tenants each year. We cannot imagine that someone would in good faith argue that tenants do not deserve to learn the full extent of their rights in an accessible manner.
No matter what the housing climate, tenants require resources to help them learn about their rights and how to assert them. The increasing income inequality and lack of affordable housing in Seattle, however, has created a special need for the empowerment of tenants: some landlords are implementing policies which force low-income tenants from their homes or deny them housing altogether. We have seen landlords raise rents to shocking levels in order to avoid relocation assistance; illegally deny units to Section 8 voucher holders; and intimidate tenants with unjustified 10 day notices.
Only through the concerted efforts of renters, both in their individual buildings and across the city, can we shift the current power dynamics. Education is a crucial component of these efforts, but informing tenants of their rights must be coupled with encouraging tenants to organize in order to change the current landscape. Reforms are only as strong as their implementation, and tenants need to apply pressure to ensure that current laws are abided by and modified as needed. As more and more renters are displaced from Seattle due to increasing costs, organizing is needed outside of city limits as well. The work of the Tenants Union is driven by the needs of those we serve, and we will continue to advise all tenants in how to best assert their power.
One fight on the horizon is for the implementation of the “Carl Haglund” Law, which would make it illegal to raise the price of rent in buildings that are not up to code. This law would help end one of the ways in which unscrupulous landlords force tenants from their homes in order to avoid the relocation assistance fees required prior to major renovations. We encourage any tenants who are experiencing rent increases in uninhabitable or unsafe buildings to contact us at the Tenants Union and start organizing themselves now. Tenants from across the city will need to come together to apply pressure to City Council in order to ensure that they understand the need of this policy.