Housing justice advocates warn that the Tacoma City Council may be trying to subvert an ambitious package of renter protections that voters will weigh in on during the November general election.
The proposal, titled “Landlord fairness code: A tenant bill of rights,” would introduce a suite of new protections for renters, including requiring a 180-day notice before any rent increase, banning late fees in excess of $10 a month, capping move-in fees at no more than one month’s rent, requiring big property owners to provide relocation assistance if a rent increase forces someone to move out and implementing limits on economic evictions.
To get the proposal on the ballot, volunteers with the grassroots coalition Tacoma For All collected more than 7,300 signatures from Tacoma voters. Elections officials approved 4,500 signatures, clearing the 4,200 threshold.
At a June 27 council meeting, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards stated that the council intended to put a competing renter protection code on the ballot, although that ordinance wouldn’t go as far as Tacoma For All’s. This move elicited hours of public comment from community members in opposition. The council’s ordinance would require for-profit landlords to provide a 120-day notice before any rent increase, add additional safeguards for subletters and cap move-in fees, but it did not go as far in restricting late fees, banning certain economic evictions or requiring relocation assistance for rent-hike-related displacement.
In explaining the decision to put the ordinance on the ballot, Woodards said that councilmembers needed to consider the voices of other constituents and not just housing justice advocates.
“We also, as a council, have to do what we believe is best for the entire community — and I know you are, too — and sometimes we may not agree on what that is,” she said.
Woodards added that the council also plans to implement the ordinance right away at the next council meeting, scheduled for July 11.
Tacoma For All strategic campaign director Devin Rydel Kelly said that the effort by the council is puzzling and that they could just pass the ordinance and let voters decide on the bolder proposal in November. By introducing two competing renter protection codes, the council could deter voters and ultimately detract from grassroots democracy, he said.
“We want to have just one item on the ballot; we think two will be confusing,” Rydel Kelly said. “We think it’s a giveaway to landlords, and it means we both lose. Whereas if they just pass it on July 11, we could win some of the boldest renter protections that have been won in the West Coast recently.”
Rydel Kelly added that the full tenant bill of rights is necessary to help halt further displacement and gentrification in Washington’s third largest city.
“Tacoma is not only one of the most diverse places in the Northwest; it’s also the most integrated, which I think is often overlooked by people and crucially important, and that folks live with people of different ethnic and racial and cultural and economic backgrounds in their blocks,” Rydel Kelly said, “and it’s one of the best features about Tacoma. And we had, you probably heard, the hottest real estate market in the country for three or four years, right before the beginning of COVID, which affected both property values and rents dramatically.”
Data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Pierce County rose from $968 in 2010 to $1,773 in 2023, an 83 percent increase.
Another aspect of the initiative that the City Council’s ordinance does not include is protecting against economic evictions of students, their families and educators during the school year. According to the Department of Education, 1,488 students enrolled at Tacoma Public Schools were homeless in the 2020-2021 school year.
The proposed tenant bill of rights incorporates different aspects modeled after legislation passed by other cities, like Seattle. This was an intentional decision made by the campaign to ensure that the law would be able to withstand legal challenges if passed, Rydel Kelly said.
However, this mirroring has not stopped some city leaders from questioning the proposal entirely. Tacoma City Councilmember Catherine Ushka said at a June 27 council “study session” that she did not support Tacoma For All’s ballot initiative because it would nullify the council’s years of work bringing stakeholders together to arrive at a compromise ordinance.
“If the initiative just goes and passes, then everything that we have [worked on] … is superseded by that initiative, and we can’t change anything for two years,” Ushka said. “And I have been very deeply engaged in this work for at least five of my six years [on the council]. I think that would have impacts that are unforeseen on our rental market and on our housing market.”
Tacoma For All claims that the City Council is aligning with landlord lobbyists and ultimately trying to sabotage its campaign.
“They’re trying to preempt us. The argument they’re using is a legal one, that maybe they’re gonna get sued by landlords; that this will hurt really small landlords and nonprofit landlords,” Rydel Kelly said.
He added that many of the concerns about small and nonprofit landlords are already addressed in the initiative.
“The real issue is that the landlords are lobbying them; the landlords are donors,” Rydel Kelly said. “Some of the biggest landlords in the city are donating to [Councilmember] John Hines, who’s running for reelection. Some of the council members are landlords.”
Read more of the July 5-11, 2023 issue.