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We need a fighting movement to expand renters’ rights, stop corporate landlord discrimination and abuse

NEWS RELEASE

March 23, 2021

Renters’ movements will need to go up against powerful corporate landlords and the political establishment. Just this week, a Democrat-dominated State Legislature created serious loopholes in basic tenant rights bills.

SEATTLE – Vowing to push back against the continued drive by corporate landlords and the political establishment to limit renters’ rights,  Councilmember Kshama Sawant (District 3, Central Seattle), chair of the Council’s Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee, will preview Just Cause Eviction protections at today’s 2 pm Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee meeting. Sawant released the following statement:

“All tenants deserve basic rights, and the only way renters have won crucial victories in the last seven years is by their own grassroots fights, and by organizing alongside our socialist Council office. 

“This stands in stark contrast with how the political establishment in Seattle and Washington State – both Republicans and Democrats – for decades has tacitly or overtly defended the greed of corporate landlords, increasing evictions and human suffering.

“My office is bringing a package of renters rights legislation this year starting with the right to counsel for any renter facing eviction. We will:

  • Strengthen the City’s Just Cause Eviction Ordinance to close the big end-of-lease loophole,
  • Ban the latest form of legalized discrimination by barring landlords from using irrelevant credit checks in rental applications, a demand first issued by the City of Seattle Renters Commission,
  • Prohibit onerous, undemocratic, or abusive lease terms,
  • Allow rental history screenings to be transferable from one application to the next,
  • Extend relocation assistance to people ‘economically evicted’ by rent increases,
  • Protect renters from default evictions,
  • And ultimately, pass rent control.

“As we draft the legislation, we’ll be bringing together renters and community advocates to build a fighting movement. Renters’ movements will need to go up against powerful corporate landlords and the political establishment. Just this week, a Democrat-dominated State Legislature created serious loopholes in basic tenant rights bills.

I welcome any Councilmember who wants to fight alongside us for renters’ rights. 

“In the coming days, the renters rights movement will be fighting for the City Council to pass the Right to Counsel bill, which would give all tenants facing eviction the right to legal representation. That bill is coming up for a final vote next Monday, March 29. Some Democrats have indicated they will introduce amendments to weaken the bill with so-called ‘means-testing’ requirements, which are statistically proven to have a detrimental effect on even the most vulnerable and eligible people using the service.

Following the Right to Counsel legislation, Sawant intends to push for passage this spring of additional renter rights bills, including these:

Strengthening renters’ “just cause” rights

Sawant said, “We must update and bolster the City’s current Just Cause Eviction Ordinance, which has a gaping pro-landlord loophole that excludes thousands of tenants from protection.”

Originally enacted in 1980, the Seattle law prevents landlords from arbitrarily ending month-to-month rental agreements, by requiring the landlord to state a reason, or “just cause,” for terminating a lease. The landlord must cite one of 18 reasons allowed by the ordinance, and this requirement has reduced unfair evictions over the years. However, the Just Cause Eviction Ordinance has not protected renters on “term leases,” such as leases for six months or one year. That means that landlords can end term leases and evict tenants without any reason.

For several years, Sawant and tenant advocates have explored closing the loophole.

Sawant said her legislation will incorporate elements from the new Stable Homes Initiative that Federal Way voters approved in 2019. The Federal Way law requires landlords to offer term lease tenants “the opportunity to enter into a new rental agreement or to extend the existing rental agreement” as the lease expiration approaches.

“While closing the pro-landlord loophole in Seattle seems like basic common sense, we should be under no illusion about how much our movement will have to fight in order to win,” Sawant said. “We will have to take on not just the corporate landlord lobby, but also the Democratic establishment who will argue that we are demanding too much.”

As an example, Sawant pointed to the current debate in Olympia over House Bill 1236, which has passed the state House and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate. The original bill would have expanded “just cause” rights for tenants throughout the state, but unfortunately the Democrats inserted several amendments in the House creating large loopholes, including a loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants “without cause at the end of an initial lease term between three to 12 months,” and a loophole that allows landlords to evict tenants for an undefined “economic or business reason.”

The end-of-lease loophole amendment (amendment #385 on this page), proposed by Democratic Rep. Strom Peterson of Edmonds, was adopted by the House, which the Democrats control by 57 to 41.

“Shamefully, the Democratic establishment in Olympia has once again sold out the interests of renters,” Sawant said. “No doubt apologists for the Democrats will insist that this ‘compromise,’ was necessary to get the bill passed, but it completely eviscerates protections for tens of thousands of ‘term lease’ tenants in Seattle, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of tenants statewide.

“That’s why it’s all the more urgent that the Seattle City Council take up and pass our movement’s legislation to end this 41-year-old corporate landlord loophole. Our discussion later today in the Sustainability and Renters Rights Committee is the starting point for this battle.”

Stopping ‘the new form of redlining’

Sawant also announced she will begin drafting and community discussions around banning landlords from using credit checks in rental applications.

“As the City of Seattle Renters Commission pointed out in their letter to City Council last month, we’re now seeing credit checks used by corporate landlords as the new form of redlining,” Sawant said.

Sawant noted that a study by the National Consumer Law Center concluded that credit scoring systems inevitably “reflect stunning racial disparities.”

“Credit checks are inherently discriminatory against working people, and disproportionately harm people of color, immigrants, members of the LGBTQIA community, domestic violence survivors, and young people. It’s time to stop this discriminatory, racist corporate landlord abuse. We need to ban the practice of discriminatory credit scoring in rental applications.

“Over the coming weeks, my office will be working with the Seattle Renters Commission and other community members to develop legislation that stops this discrimination, which is contributing to the gentrification of our working-class neighborhoods and the displacement of Black and Brown renters from Seattle,” she said.

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