Sawant’s Cap on Move-In Fees Gets One Step Closer to Full Council Vote

By Larry

by Heidi Groover for The Stranger

Over the objections of landlords who claim Seattle is burdening them with over regulation, a majority of the Seattle City Council sided with renters today and voted in favor of a proposal to limit move-in fees.

The bill, sponsored by Council Member Kshama Sawant and delayed by other council members last month, would limit the nonrefundable fees landlords can charge tenants. More importantly, it would require landlords to offer tenants payment plans to pay their deposit and first and last months' rent over several months (exact timelines depend on the lease).

With six yes votes today—Sawant, Debora Juarez, Lisa Herbold, Mike O'Brien, Lorena González, and Rob Johnson—the bill will move from council committee on to a full council vote on December 12. If passed then, the new law would take effect sometime in January, depending on if and when the mayor signs it.

A report earlier this year from Washington CAN, an advocacy group that has pushed for this legislation, said high move-in costs are a barrier to housing for homeless people, victims of domestic violence, and other vulnerable groups. Landlords, meanwhile, have questioned whether those costs are really prohibitive. In public testimony today, landlords claimed the new move-in rules would encourage them to raise rents, leave Seattle, or sell their properties to big rental companies.

"I always wanted to be a fair landlord, but if you keep doing this, you're putting us out of business—and you are," one landlord told council members.

Advocates from Washington CAN, the Tenants Union of Washington State, and the Seattle Education Association, spoke in favor of the bill.

"One of the most important factors in students' success is safe and consistent housing," SEA president Phyllis Campano told council members. The bill is also important for teachers, who can struggle to afford Seattle's rising living costs, Compano said.

"If we truly want racial equity in this city," Compano added, "we need to move ahead and fight for the most vulnerable families, which wind up being families of color."

In a powerful email to council members, trans activist Danni Askini explained how over the past two years she has experienced stalking and domestic violence—and how the high costs of moving into a new apartment kept her in that situation.

"While the first time he hit me was in August," Askini wrote, "it took me until Christmas to save enough money with my friends and family to secure a down payment for a new apartment. Over those four months, I was repeatedly subjected to violence... This legislation would have allowed me to escape the violence I was facing far sooner. I would have saved months. I went back and checked my bank account. I would have been able to move out 22 days after I committed to leaving in August vs. the nearly 120 days it actually took me."

Council members made some changes to the bill today, though most were technical and all of them passed unanimously. The most significant change came from Juarez, who clashed with Sawant on the bill last month. Juarez changed the bill to allow landlords to skip offering a payment plan for move-in costs if those costs are no more than a quarter of the monthly rent.

Here's an explanation of how this would work:

Juarez said "well over 50 percent" of landlords don't require tenants to pay last month's rent, though it was not clear where she was getting that figure. Those landlords should be incentivized to keep offering low move-in costs, she argued.

"You have an asset you can sell over and over. I understand that's your investment and you want to protect that... I appreciate that," Juarez told the landlords who gathered in council chambers to oppose the bill.

But rents across the city have risen dramatically, she added. "We do have a marketplace and we cannot deny what is happening."

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