Seattle Times: City Council approves limits on renters’ move-in costs, taking aim at housing crisis

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Seattle Times staff reporter

It’s not rent control, which state law prohibits Seattle from enacting. But City Councilmember Kshama Sawant thinks this ordinance is the next-best thing.

The council voted unanimously Monday to pass the Sawant-proposed legislation that will cap the move-in money landlords are allowed to charge and to give renters the right to pay their move-in costs in installments.

Property owners and tenants packed the council’s chambers to make their views known, spilling over into a room downstairs where the meeting was shown on a screen.

“You’re declaring war on us,” said one landlord among dozens who slammed the ordinance as unfair during the council’s public-comment period.

Not every property owner spoke against the legislation. One urged other landlords to “put people before profits” by trying to make housing in Seattle more affordable.

Supporters of the ordinance said many renters simply don’t have enough money to immediately cover a hefty security deposit, first month’s rent, last month’s rent, screening fees, cleaning fees and other costs.

One renter told the council that move-in costs kept her from leaving a living situation that involved domestic violence.

Gwendolyn Jimerson of the Seattle Education Association said many public-school educators can no longer afford to live in the city, partly due to move-in costs.

People of color are having a particularly hard time, said Jimerson, who represents her union’s paraprofessionals.

“I’m seeing it a lot,” Jimerson said. “98118 is the ZIP code I work in (Southeast Seattle), the most diverse ZIP code in the city. In three to five years, it’s not going to be that way, because families of color aren’t going to be able to stay.”

The ordinance will limit the combined costs of a security deposit and any nonrefundable fees to no more than the amount of the first month’s rent. It will limit pet-damage deposits to 25 percent of the first month’s rent.

Renters will have the right to pay their move-in costs in installments or according to alternative plans agreed to with their landlords.

The council voted 5-3 to approve an amendment sponsored by Councilmember Rob Johnson that exempts landlords who live on-site.

The property owners opposed to the ordinance described themselves as “small landlords” with modest holdings, as opposed to large corporations with multiple apartment complexes.

Some said the legislation would prompt them to raise rents, while others warned that the legislation would push them to sell their properties. That could result in older rentals being torn down and replaced with pricier buildings, they said.

By capping the size of security deposits and forcing landlords to take move-in money in installments, the ordinance will expose owners to greater risk, they said.

Frank Au, whose family inherited homes from his mother-in-law, was in the group urging the council to squash the legislation.

Au said he recognizes some renters are struggling to stay in Seattle. “They have a good point. They don’t have the money,” he said.

But some landlords work harder, longer hours than their tenants, and some renters don’t need the help, he said.

“My mother-in-law, she came over from Vietnam, six children, didn’t know how to speak English. She bought her first rental,” Au said.

“Walk around on a Saturday and a Sunday. Look at all the tenants who have big-screen TVs … Look at all the tenants buying these goodies, while all the landlords are working.”