Why the Landlord Lobby Should Fear the Washington Tenant Movement

by Gina Owens

Washington tenants face skyrocketing rents, unduly harsh eviction laws, and weak enforcement of tenant protections. Several years ago, I was in a car accident that rendered me disabled and unable to work. While I was in the process of getting Social Security Disability approved, I was evicted because I could not pay my full rent. Prior to the accident, I had had two decades of good rental history, but that did not protect me.

The eviction process took roughly three weeks. After that, my daughter and I were homeless for two years. Evictions for nonpayment of rent are unforgiving: if you are a dollar late, regardless of the reason—even hospitalization, temporary job loss, or a death in the family—you will be evicted.

Laws are heavily weighted in favor of landlords, largely because lobbying organizations like the Rental Housing Association and the Multi-Family Housing Association have a tight grip on our local and state legislators.

But tenants are fighting back.

In 2016, Move-in Fee Reform legislation passed, requiring landlords to accept payment plans for up-front costs. The Carl Haglund Law also passed in 2016, preventing slumlords from increasing rent on substandard units. Then in 2017, the Council improved the Rental Inspection Program and banned the use of criminal background checks as a part of tenant screening. Now, tenant organizing is spreading—from Seattle to Issaquah to Federal Way, Tacoma, and Spokane.

Tenants are not stopping at the local level. Several major pieces of tenant legislation were introduced this past session, and legislation to repeal the ban on rent regulation had sponsors from across the state. For the first time in decades, advocates introduced major eviction reform legislation. And, the state passed legislation banning discrimination against tenants based on source of income.

These wins have not come easily. Even during an unprecedented housing crisis that disproportionately impacts communities of color, women, LGBTQ people, seniors, and people with disabilities, landlord lobbyists have been a roadblock to every tenant state and local protection introduced over the past several years.

RHA is hosting a legal forum at the Frye Art Museum July 18 with a panel of landlord attorneys who profit from evictions. Evictions are one of the leading causes of homelessness, but time and again RHA has made it clear they will fight any and all tenant protection policies, either by opposing legislation, weakening policy, or waging lawsuits.

That is why Washington CAN and tenant advocates will be protesting RHA during their legal forum and why RHA has complained to Seattle City Council about this resistance.

An RHA official sent an email to the City Council saying, “Now more than ever we need to find ways to come together, not drive a deeper wedge between key stakeholders during a regional housing shortage.”

“Key stakeholders,” RHA? Who are these key stakeholders? Do they include renters like me?

When landlord-tenant issues come before lawmakers, RHA’s typical route is to deny a problem exists, claim any possible solution infringes on landlord rights, and—when those tactics fail—file lawsuits. It is difficult to imagine RHA is open to policies that would reform the eviction process or prevent rent gouging.

When renters passed move-in fee legislation to help low-income tenants overcome the initial cost barriers of moving into a new place, RHA sued to overturn the law, arguing it infringes on their free speech.

RHA has come out against Just Cause Eviction—a crucial protection for Seattle month-to-month renters that ensures tenants cannot be evicted suddenly or arbitrarily. Just Cause Eviction could be a protection statewide, except RHA lobbies against it.

RHA is also suing Seattle over a law that would prohibit landlords from using criminal background checks to screen prospective tenants. This law would address the deep-seated racism built in to the tenant screening process, but RHA continues to oppose it.

Our communities are desperate for affordable housing and stronger tenant protections. More than 12,000 people are homeless in King County , and that number continues to increase every year. We do not need more protections for landlords or more ways for landlords to abuse the flawed legal system. We need stronger tenant protections to pull our city out of this crisis.

RHA could use their resources to work with tenants and create policy that builds stronger communities. Instead they direct their resources toward lobbying against tenant protections.

They shouldn’t be surprised we’re fighting back.

Gina Owens has been a Washington CAN member for more than 16 years.