On Jan. 8, the Washington state Legislature opened its 2024 session, setting off a frenzy to pass and review as many bills as possible by the March 7 cutoff. The Legislature serves in a part-time capacity, harkening back to Washington’s early pioneer days when members had to leave to manage their homesteads.
This year, the Legislature sits for a “short session:” 60 days instead of the 105-day “long sessions” during odd years. Members can introduce new bills and revive older ones from last year’s session. With such limited time, it’s unlikely most will be passed into law. The last day for legislation to pass out of committee is Jan. 31. Ahead of this critical deadline, Real Change surveyed some crucial or overlooked legislation being debated or considered this session.
Ambitious renter protections
House Bill (HB) 2114 and its companion Senate Bill (SB) 5961 could potentially become the most historic bills up for consideration this legislative session. If passed, the law would give new rights and protections to renters, including capping late fees at $10 a month, requiring 180 days’ notice for rent increases above 3% and limiting move-in fees to a maximum of one month’s rent. Many of these residential tenant protections have already been implemented in Seattle and Tacoma.
Importantly, under HB 2114, most landlords would only be allowed to raise rent and fees by a maximum of 5% in a 12-month period. This type of policy is called rent stabilization, and it aims to limit the impact of spikes in the housing market. It is similar to rent control, a system that freezes the rent of selected properties at a specific price.
Since 1981, Washington state has had a ban on rent control and stabilization that prevents local municipalities from implementing their own regulations on residential rents. Last year, outgoing socialist Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed a rent control policy that would have come into effect as soon as the state ban was repealed, but that ordinance did not pass the city council.
Although HB 2114 will not repeal this preemption clause, it would be far more ambitious than comparable policies in other states. In 2019, Oregon passed a rent stabilization law capping rent increases at 10% annually for buildings older than 15 years. HB 2114 exempts certain types of housing, including those owned by affordable housing developers and any under 10 years old. These exclusions are in part because many economists believe capping landlord profits could disincentivize the construction of new housing.
For Kate Rubin, organizing director and co-executive director of the renter advocacy organization Be:Seattle, HB 2114 is long overdue. She said she has been displaced before due to rent increases.
“Where I live now, I have a roommate, and we’re kind of both [paying] near the top of what we can afford to pay,” Rubin said. “We’ve been in our place for a year and a half, and we’re dreading any kind of rent increase. I mean a massive rent increase, one of 10% or more, would be huge. We love where we live; we don’t want to leave.”
Rubin added that this type of displacement is devastating for communities and in particular for Black people, who have faced historical residential housing discrimination.
Landlord lobby groups have come out strongly against HB 2114, arguing it could hurt the housing supply.
However, not all landlords feel that way. Small landlord Jake Magic and his wife own a four-unit apartment building in Capitol Hill. The couple lives in one of the units and rents out the other three. Magic said the bill would not impact his bottom line, and as a former renter he believes regulations like HB 2114 are needed to protect tenants.
“I have never foreseen needing to raise the rent more than 5%,” Magic said. “It’s also about stability, and raising the rent that much is not going to keep people in our building.”
On Jan. 16, HB 2114 passed out of the housing committee and is currently scheduled for a Jan. 24 hearing in the appropriations committee.
Furthering climate justice
Another important consideration for the state Legislature is Washington’s transition away from fossil fuels. Under the Climate Commitment Act (CCA), most large polluters must purchase permits when they emit greenhouse gasses. This is effectively a tradable tax, with revenues going to climate change adaptation and mitigation initiatives.
To date, four quarterly carbon allowance auctions have been held since the CCA went into effect at the start of 2023, raising $1.8 billion, with billions more expected from auctions in 2024 and 2025.
Under Washington’s signature environmental justice policy, the HEAL Act, state agencies must prioritize communities that have been the most impacted by climate change and other types of environmental destruction. The HEAL Act includes a requirement for at least 35% — with a goal of 40% — of CCA funds going directly to frontline communities and Indigenous nations.
In an October 2023 report, Washington’s Office of Financial Management stated that 43% of the first half of CCA revenues were allocated to frontline communities, with 7% going directly to tribes. However, an independent review by the environmental justice coalition Front and Centered disputed this, finding that only about 23% of the funds were prioritized for frontline communities. This discrepency is because the state defines investments in frontline communities more broadly, including things like free public transit for youth.
Front and Centered government relations advocate Guillermo Rogel Jr. said he was lobbying the Legislature to ensure the proper amount of money went directly to frontline communities and tribes.
According to Rogel, the coalition was also advocating for the passage of HB 2070, known as the CURB Act. The bill would require any big project that could cause significant disruption to the ecosystem, such as landfills, factories and sewer treatment plants, to undergo an environmental justice review as a part of the standard Environmental Impact Statement process.
Under the CURB Act, if a project poses significant community-level harm that can’t be mitigated, its permit could be rejected. In special circumstances, compelling public interest could override these environmental justice concerns.
Rogel said the bill is important to prevent harm to communities, especially those that have taken the brunt of pollution and environmental destruction.
“That’s what we want to see — is to stop the development of these really harmful projects,” Rogel said.
Passenger rail left at the station
One issue that didn’t pick up steam this legislative session is the expansion of passenger rail across the state.
In December 2023, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) received two $500,000 grants from the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Corridor Identification and Development program to study both upgrades on the Amtrak Cascades line and a proposed Oregon-Washington-British Columbia high speed rail project. However, the FRA also denied a $198 million application for a grant to do detailed planning on the potential line.
These decisions left some rail advocates to suggest the state Legislature prioritize less ambitious passenger rail projects before tackling high speed rail, which could cost tens of billions of dollars and take decades to complete.
Author and environmental activist Bill Moyer said the Legislature should consider repurposing the $50 million it already allocated to high speed rail to conventional rail, namely upgrading the Cascades line that runs alongside I-5 from Eugene, Oregon, through Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. These upgrades could expand capacity to 14 trains a day, increase top speeds to 110 miles per hour and fully electrify the line, an important step toward decarbonization.
So far, it seems legislators have not budged on the issue. Sen. Marko Liias, the chair of the state Senate’s transportation committee, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Charlie Hamilton, co-executive director of All Aboard Washington, said due to the short legislative session, legislators won’t do anything about passenger rail until 2025. He said this delay could limit opportunities for Washington to leverage once-in-a-generation funding opportunities from the 2021 federal bipartisan infrastructure act.
While WSDOT is still making progress on the north-south rail corridor — perhaps too slowly in the eye of rail advocates — the agency has not paid any attention to an east-west corridor that could run through Stampede Pass and connect Seattle, the Yakima valley, the Tri-Cities and Spokane. According to a 2020 report commissioned by the state Legislature, this rail line could serve more than 200,000 passengers a year, connect more than a million people to intercity transit service, and have significant environmental and disability justice opportunities to serve communities that don’t currently have accessible public transportation.
Hamilton said the state should fund a full cost-benefit analysis of the line, which would be a necessary first step before it can begin applying for federal grants. In an email, WSDOT spokesperson Janet Matkin wrote that the agency is following the lead of the FRA, which could fund a long-distance Amtrak route through Stampede Pass and thus pay for the upgrades necessary to rehabilitate the track for passenger rail service. WSDOT has previously stated a state-financed route would be too financially and logistically challenging.
In spite of the lack of progress on passenger rail this year, both Moyer and Hamilton are optimistic politicians can come together, since rail is one of the few areas that has substantial bipartisan support.
“The good news is ... I can talk to any number of people that I know, on both sides of the aisle, who don’t agree on much of anything except trains,” Hamilton said.
Read more of the Jan. 24-30, 2024 issue.