Move-In Fee Cap Kicked Back To Committee (BUT MAYBE NOT DEAD?)

by Hanna Brooks Olsen

(This article was originally published on Seattlish and has been reprinted with permission.)

Last week we got a tip that the fairly conservative landlord group Washington Multifamily Housing Authority had reached out to every City Councilmember but Kshama Sawant to express their concern about Sawant’s proposed ordinance which would cap move-in fees for renters and allow them to establish payment plans for deposits. 

In September, the proposal was voted out of committee and into full council, where it was expected to be lightly amended, then voted on and, you know, then made into a law. The letter encouraged councilmembers to kick the proposal back down to a committee, rather than taking a vote today. 

And, to the dismay of many renters and landlords who came out in support of the bill, in front of a packed Chambers, the Councilmembers pivoted. 

The letter was a pretty classic delaying tactic that falls squarely into what we refer to as The Seattle Process—which Sawant called out in her opening remarks. Noting the numerous public meetings and table conversations around the bill, as well as the fact that it was referred out of committee 20 days ago, Sawant commented that there had been “ample” time to make a decision.

But CM Debora Juarez disagreed, reading a lengthy prepared statement about why she was suggesting that the bill be referred back to committee. Noting that she’s used to being unpopular, she said that she wanted to ensure the law passed muster and was sound that it would hold up to scrutiny.

CM Mike O’Brien disagreed, calling the bill “sound policy as-is.”

Though the WMFHA didn’t specify which committee they wanted to see the proposal sent back to, we assumed it would be the one most friendly to quietly killing a Sawant-sponsored bill, like CM Tim Burgess’s Affordable Housing committee. 

But apparently, on the second floor of City Hall, CMs were working together today to determine what, exactly, to do. And they came with a plan: Send it to committee, but do it with a deadline and a few rules to ensure that the bill would be improved upon, but not sent away to die.

In her remarks, CM Lisa Herbold explained that she actively did not want to send it back to committee. In fact, she said, following the reception of the letter, she had been approached by ~someone~ asking first if it could go to her committee, then asking which committee it should go to. 

CM Harrell admitted that he didn’t even know the bill might be referred back to committee until this afternoon which means a.) the decision to stage a small coup against Sawant’s bill happened quickly, and b. ) it would not have happened were it not for the landlord letter. 

According to Herbold, when asked, she made it clear that if the bill was going to go back to committee, it would have to be Sawant’s, as that’s where it all began. 

CM Lorena González echoed her support of the bill, but added that she’s like to see several additional provisions, including an anti-retaliation clause. She also said she would vote to send it to committee, but only if it was Sawant’s committee. 

After quite a few jabs were exchanged, a vote was taken and, by a 7-2 margin (O’Brien and Sawant voting against), the bill was referred back to Sawant’s committee under the express instruction that it must be brought to a table conversation before December 13, and with the intent of passing it into law in time for the original effective date, January 1. 

It deserves note that the WMFHA also has a PAC and made campaign contributions to most of the council—a fact that numerous people who testified today pointed out—but it does seem as though the members of the Council do actually intend to pass the bill at some point. It’s just a matter of how many teeth the bill has, and whether or not it’ll happen in a timely manner. 

Washington CAN’s Xochitl Maykovich, a key organizer behind the bill, is skeptical that the bill will remain as strongly in favor of renters as it is now, even though it was kept in Sawant’s committee. 

“Any councilmember can vote in any committee, so that can change what the legislation is,” she says, expressing concern about language or changes that could “weaken” the bill.

Additionally, advocates are concerned that sending it into further conversations with landlord groups could ultimately delay or fully scuttle the bill. 

“A stakeholder’s group is where legislation goes to die,” she explains. “this has been worked on for months, even though we’ve had dozens and dozens and dozens of tenants…yet they went and delayed it.” 

Though every single Councilmember who voted to delay the vote on the bill today underscored that they support the intent of the law and the law itself, it was difficult to ignore two glaring realities.

The first was that just last week, Council Chambers was packed with angry neighbors yelling directly at CM Sawant that she needed to “find solutions!” about homelessness—yet, when presented with a solution that is inexpensive, legal, tested, quick, and will directly help people get into and stay in their homes, Council failed to act with any kind of urgency.

And second, that just minutes before the decision to act at the behest of a lobbying group, the City Council unanimously voted to adopt a resolution in support of a statewide initiative whose goal is to get money out of politics. 

“I find that incredibly ironic,” Maykovich said. “It’s incredibly clear that money says a lot.”

Herbold, Sawant, and González all seemed emphatic that the delay in voting wouldn’t actually delay the bill—which, again, had an original effective date of January 1—but the substance of the legislation in its final form remains to be seen. 

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