FILE — Seattle Construction

With the Space Needle in the background, demolition of existing buildings continues on the site of a planned twin-tower 45-story new apartment development in Seattle's Denny Triangle neighborhood, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, near Amazon.com's headquarters in Seattle. The building in the background at right is the Mirabella Retirement Community, which opened in 2008, and at left construction continues on a new 40-story apartment building. 

(The Center Square) — A bill in the Washington Legislature has landlords and tenants on edge about who will shoulder the higher costs of the state's eviction moratorium the day it finally ends.

Since February 2020, Washington's eviction moratorium bans landlords from issuing evictions for reasons other than criminal offenses or if they choose to sell or occupy their property. 

Under Washington law, rent control has been left out of the hands of cities and counties for generations, but state lawmakers are looking to change that.

Senate Bill 5139 would enact a six-month ban on rent increases around the state upon the eviction moratorium's expiration. It also guarantees tenants 60 days notice of rent increases and 30 days notice for those living in subsidized housing.

Landlords testifying to the Senate Housing and Local Government Committee on Thursday all stood in opposition to the bill, arguing the bill ruins any chance they have of saving their balance sheets through rent increases.

Currently, 36 states preempt local governments from passing rent control save for Oregon and New York.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Mona Das, D-Covington, is hailed by supporters as a lifeline for struggling tenants amid the nation's pandemic-induced recession.

“As a renter myself, I know how hard it is to find affordable housing,” Das said. “This bill would give renters time to breath, figure out next steps without having to worry about the fact that they will soon be priced out."

Affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as any housing costing a person 30% or less of their income.

In Washington, the price of a one-bedroom apartment sat at $1,617 in October 2020, according to Apartment Guide. That rate is 36% of the state's average annual income of $53,448 in 2020, state data shows.

The apartment finder site also pegged the price of a two bedroom apartment in Seattle at $3,317, or the eighth highest in the nation.

Isaac Organista, a community organizer with housing rights group Washington Community Action Network, testified in favor the bill, saying tenants stand to lose far more than their landlords.

“Landlords who own multiple properties are testifying that they could lose profits, lose income, and have to make business decisions to sell property,” Organista said. “The renters I work with could be pushed into homelessness and houseless and lose their health and lives. The stakes are just not the same.”

A Washington legislative staff report pinned the number of Washingtonians behind on rent at the end of 2020 at 75,000—a number housing advocates argue will only grow if the state's jobless rate of 6% worsens.

Landlords and tenants in Washington often agree on one thing: the state needs more homes.

Audrey Riddle, program ambassador for Goodman Real Estate, testified against the bill on behalf of the Washington Multifamily Housing Association on Thursday arguing that it outsources the problem to ill-equipped private developers.

“This bill fails to solve a core Washington problem a lack of rental units,” Riddle said. “Through this bill, the state is asking housing providers to support a public good without support.”

No city in the state has come to better illustrate the housing crisis better than Seattle, which shared more than 11,700 homeless with greater King County at the start of 2020, based on local government estimates.

For the past decade, Washington has welcomed some 931,700 people and seen its housing deficit swell to 225,000 homes in 2019.

A capital gains tax proposed in 2020 by Seattle City Council member Andrew J. Lewis would help pay for closing the city's 6,500 housing gap, but some argue the issue goes well beyond finance.

For Urban Design Professor David Blum of the University of Washington, the state's housing crisis boils down to a simple problem of supply and demand.

Zoning codes in cities like Seattle are still a bottleneck for speedy development, Blum says, and tax credits will never be enough to attract risk-averse real estate developers to build apartments for low-income tenants.

“You got to remember the average project in Seattle, if it can be financed, if you can find developers willing to take risk, takes a long time to come together and can be below 100 units,” Blum said. “If you’re 225,000 units short, and the average project that takes two to five years is 100 units, do the math. You're nowhere close to the production that you need.” 

In 2018, around 66% of Seattle's residential land was reserved for single-family homes or stand-alone residences with unshared walls and utilities.

In December, Minneapolis became the first major American city to do away with single-family zoning codes altogether. 

Seattle's Mandatory Housing Affordability policy, signed into law by Mayor Jenny Durkan in 2019, was sold as a solution to diversifying zoning rules in as many as 27 neighborhoods.

The policy is expected to see 6,000 more homes built over the next 10 years, but the city estimates it would change just 6% of single-family neighborhoods.

Spencer Anderson, vice president of the Washington Housing Management Association, said lost time could strain affordable housing development as much as rent control while testifying against the bill on Thursday.

“If you strain the long-term rental growth of an affordable housing project, investors will not invest because the return will not be there,” Anderson said.

Going into 2021, Washington lawmakers are looking to disincentivize single-family home construction with Senate Bill 5033, which limits property tax exemptions for the improving such units.

The state's Office of Financial Management still anticipates Washington could grow from 7.6 million people in 2020 to more than 8.5 million people by 2030.

Unless extended by Gov. Jay Inslee, Washington's eviction moratorium ends on March 31 in tandem with the recently extended federal eviction moratorium.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.