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‘We’re just asking for fairness.’ Democrats push affordable housing reforms at Legislature

This camp site near the Union Gospel Mission in Olympia was one of several in the downtown core on Nov. 27, 2018. The state Legislature is promising to address affordable housing and homelessness issue during the 2019 session.
This camp site near the Union Gospel Mission in Olympia was one of several in the downtown core on Nov. 27, 2018. The state Legislature is promising to address affordable housing and homelessness issue during the 2019 session.

Washington House Democrats on Thursday discussed a set of bills they hope to pass this session that would target the homelessness crisis and high eviction rates.

HB 1406 would encourage local investments in affordable housing across the state and has already been passed out of a House committee. Under the bill, local sales tax credit could be used to build more affordable housing.

HB 1923 would increase transit-oriented housing development. Density around transit centers is essential to affordable housing, said Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle.

HB 1656 would protect residential renters by ending no-cause evictions. Landlords would be required to provide legitimate business reasons for ending tenancies.

“The reforms that are being suggested would not put Washington state at the forefront of states,” said Macri. “All the provisions that are included in the reforms we are presenting are ones that are in place in other jurisdictions in other parts of the country.”

The push for legislation coincides with the release of a report from the University of Washington’s Eviction Project that illuminates the impacts that lack of affordable housing has on eviction rates and homelessness.

For example, 1 in 55 adults in Washington had an eviction between 2013 and 2017. In 2017 alone, Pierce County had 3,219 evictions, according to the report. Benton County had 587.

Adults of color are over-represented in evictions in Pierce County. Black adults were evicted at a rate of 1 in 6 in Pierce County between 2013 and 2017, according to the study.

“We once believed that eviction was an outcome of poverty, but we now understand that eviction can be a cause of long-term poverty,” Macri said. “That’s why we’ve introduced legislation to protect the people of Washington from today’s archaic and sometimes cruel eviction process.”

Macri said the Democrats’ agenda is simple: build more, build up, build better and build stability.

“Build up” means increasing the pace of well-placed affordable housing across the state and using resources such as publicly owned properties to house the homeless, she said.

“Build better” would require cutting the red tape that currently prevents affordable housing options now, like restrictive zoning and permitting.

“Build stability” would require confronting the eviction system, which is based on The Landlord-Tenant Act that was enacted in 1973, said Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland.

The act hasn’t been amended in 50 years for overall tenant’s rights, Morgan said. It leaves tenants vulnerable because there is no protection or enforcement for them.

“I did every step I was supposed to do as a tenant to enforce my rights, but yet I am still homeless as your state representative,” said Morgan. “The barriers of a judgment from attorneys fees and the barriers of an eviction cause me to stand before you without a house key in my pocket. Times have changed, our policies need to keep up. We all deserve to be in a home.”

Morgan said she experienced homelessness twice in one year because of substandard housing. She sued one of the property managers but was awarded only $85, which she still has not been paid.

Tenants are always seen as the problem, and that needs to change, said Morgan.

“Special interests are lobbying hard against the bills we are highlighting here today,” she said. “They’re not going to mention the corporate landlords who are really driving the force behind this opposition. These special interests want to frame this as a landlord vs. tenant battle.”

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said bills that would extend the three-day pay-or-vacate notice are crucial to keeping people in their homes.

Kyle Woodring works for the Rental Housing Association. Woodring said that pay-or-vacate extensions would force landlords out of business, which would lead to less availability of rental housing.

“We want to work with tenants to find a way to deal with crisis in their lives where they can’t pay a single day of rent,” he said. “What we would like to see is more regulation dealing with eduction — trying to find sources of money to pay these judgements or if somebody is behind on rent.”

Other housing reform bills will continue to be discussed as the Legislature moves forward.

“We’re just asking for fairness across the board,” said Morgan. “Going forward it makes it more of an equal playing ground for tenants and landlords to come together on an equal playing field.”