In 2023, Pierce County had one of the highest number of eviction cases in Washington. Tacoma residents sought out to curb this number by voting the Landlord Fairness Code into law in November 2023.
The Landlord Fairness Code, also known as Measure 1, went into effect on Dec. 8, 2023, and is considered Tacoma’s strongest renters’ rights law to date. It offers renters a relocation fee if their rent increases by 5%; requires landlords to give renters a six-month notice of rent increases; restricts fees and deposits that are deemed unfair; prevents landlords from evicting renting families, if they have children attending school, between Nov. 1 and April 1 of every year starting in 2024; and bans any rent increases if the home violates safety codes. The code also grants tenants the power to dispute eviction notices, rent increases or code violations in court.
Even with these protections in place, some tenants are saying they are still facing issues with their landlords. In December 2023, Gwen Lewandowski discovered that her rent had increased by $300. As the sole income provider in her household, Lewandowski was left with no choice but to utilize the new set of regulations set forth by the Landlord Fairness Code.
However, the realty company that owns the complex Lewandowski lives in didn’t comply with the new regulations when it decided to increase her rent by over 5%. Lewandowski said she communicated to the company that it would have to provide a relocation fee since the rent increase went above 5%. Lewandowski, born and raised in Tacoma, has been renting much of her life, and the place that she’s resided with her son has not only become a staple in her life but also a constant reminder of her roots in Tacoma.
“I moved into a little apartment that I love with my son after he finished three years of leukemia treatment. This was just a fresh start for me and my son, who was 11 at the time,” Lewandowski said. “It was the perfect place for him. It was a couple of blocks from his school, it’s a few blocks from the school I work at now and it was just a big deal for us.”
Lewandowski said the rent increases throughout Tacoma have also affected her community. As a paraeducator, Lewandowski has seen students she works closely with have their lives disrupted and displaced in the middle of the school year by these increases. Looking to help prevent these instances of displacement, Lewandowski joined Tacoma For All, the tenants’ advocacy organization that pioneered the law, by first canvassing neighborhoods and communities to inform tenants about Measure 1.
“I realized that I love knocking on people’s doors, talking to people ... and engaging [them] in conversations. People were really passionate and had their own stories to share,” Lewandowski said. She said many of the people she talked to were renters “and struggling with their own rent going up, even though the buildings they lived in hadn’t been updated, [and] not having a lot of notice when their rents went up.”
Lewandowski first heard about the campaign for Measure 1 upon learning that the Pierce County Court requested that Tacoma remove its countermeasure to the measure from the November 2023 ballot. Devin Rydell Kelly, a steering committee member of Tacoma For All, called the countermeasure an attempt to confuse voters. According to Kelly, Measure 2 — the city’s countermeasure — was already a law in Tacoma in July 2023. Measure 2 would have changed specific parts of the rental code, such as requiring landlords comply with safety laws; have a city license before filing an eviction or increasing rent; and conduct a standardized screening of a tenant’s income and criminal history.
Kelly said that even if voters were to vote for Measure 2, it would have been ineffective, since voters already have these rights.
“It was a way to just undermine [Measure 1] without making any changes to theirs, and luckily, the judge agreed with us, and their language got pulled off the ballot entirely,” Kelly said. “Honestly, had [the city’s measure] been on the ballot with [that] very confusing and poorly written [language], the way it was originally expressed, then we would’ve lost, and that is unfair to voters.”
Once Measure 1 was passed, landlords raised questions and expressed concern that the law favors tenants and said the city would be unable to enforce it. However, Kelly pointed out that the law was specifically written to only go through the courts, as that would give tenants a much faster process and outcome.
“We’re trying to get renters the same rights and liberties that homeowners have, let alone landlords,” said Kelly. “Landlords still have more power than most homeowners, and we’re trying to get renters to a place where they can have that stability and they know they can stay in their homes.”
Tacoma For All has been able to support tenants in navigating the legal system by connecting them with Tacoma Pro Bono, which offers legal services through its Housing Justice Project. Recently, Pierce County Superior Court commissioners agreed to fully enforce the eviction protections for tenants who would be using it as a defense in court, according to Kelly. He further highlighted that it is the city’s responsibility to provide the necessary information to both parties by passing ordinances requiring that landlords inform tenants of their rights.
Tacoma For All intended to work closely with the city in engaging with tenants to inform them of their new rights, but it’s been quite the opposite, according to Kelly. Real Change reached out to the city of Tacoma, which responded that it is finalizing a revised version of its “Renting in Tacoma” booklet. It stated that the Office of Equity and Human Rights, which works closely with landlords and tenants, expects to publish the booklet online in the coming weeks. Tacoma For All is currently developing its own renter’s rights workshop that would break down the law to allow tenants to better understand their rights as renters.
“I want to stay in Tacoma, and I want to continue to connect with tenants and keep them in their homes and inform them of their rights. We’re working to empower them. We have to stand up for ourselves and stand with each other,” Lewandowski said.
Read more of the Jan. 31–Feb. 6, 2024 issue.