Renters get stiffed

Some of Judy Nicastro's big plans to help tenants are being shot down.

THE ELECTION of City Council member Judy Nicastro on a renters' rights platform had political observers proclaiming 1999 as the Year of the Tenant in Seattle.

That lease didn't get renewed.

A recent state Supreme Court decision seems to have placed new limits on City Hall's ability to protect affordable rental housing. On November 9, the high court struck down a Washington law that grants people living in mobile home parks the right to match a third-party offer to purchase their site.

The court's decision could permanently sidetrack efforts to pass a so-called "right of first refusal" law in Seattle, which was one of the six major policy areas addressed at Nicastro's Renters' Summit in June. Such a law would grant tenants of low-income apartment buildings the chance to purchase the building before it's converted to market-rate housing or condos. When considered along with a string of other court decisions over the last two decades, it appears future legislative gains by Seattle renters will be small-scale and incremental, unlike rent increases.

Despite this latest legal setback, Nicastro says the council will continue to work for renters on several fronts.

She's already notched a few legislative victories this year. The daily penalty for property owners who refuse to bring abandoned housing up to code has been increased fivefold (from a $15 per unit daily fine to $75), and a pilot program to reduce parking requirements for new apartment buildings when affordable units are provided has been approved in the Pike-Pine neighborhood. The council has also given its support to a proposed state law requiring interest earned on tenant deposits to be paid to tenants, not kept by landlords.

Her most controversial proposal involves cases in which a landlord retaliates against tenants who complain by evicting them or raising their rents. Right now, the city can file criminal claims against such landlords. But Nicastro wants to be able to file in civil court, where the burden of proof is lower. She says the current law has led to few cases being filed and even fewer convictions.

But the Apartment Association of Seattle-King County, which represents some 2,400 rental housing owners, is gearing up to oppose the change. And the organization hasn't been afraid to back up its opinions in court—it was an AASK lawsuit that struck down the city's rental housing inspection program in the mid-1990s. AASK also opposed the right of first refusal law. Says Executive Director Jim Nell, "When you look at two or three of the City Council members, it's my opinion they'll keep trying anything. We'll fight when we have to, but we prefer working with them."

The legal hurdles to city action aren't just from lawsuits. Nicastro and colleague Nick Licata had proposed legislation which would allow apartment hunters access to the information from their first credit check so they wouldn't be charged by multiple landlords for the same service. But logistical problems led to the ordinance being set aside for the time being. "I still think there ought to be a way to streamline and reduce credit checks from the agencies," says City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, "But it may take a state law to sort that out."

Nicastro says the big item on her renters' agenda also requires action from Olympia: convincing the state Legislature to allow local control of rental housing regulations. Under current state law, any regulation affecting the cost of rental housing is illegal, she notes. This not only bans rent control or rent stabilization programs but also prohibits milder protections, such as giving tenants the right to sign a lease. "Until we get that power," says Nicastro, "it doesn't matter what the city wants to do because we can't do it."

She is hopeful that her colleagues will agree to add repealing this state law to the city's legislative agenda.

MEANWHILE, LOCAL housing advocates aren't convinced that right of first refusal is dead. The court ruled that the state constitution prohibits government from forcing landowners to transfer their private property to a private entity. This seems to torpedo one Seattle proposal, which envisioned forcing the sale of apartment buildings serving poor people to nonprofit housing developers or tenant-organized housing cooperatives.

But John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition argues that a public agency, such as the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), could be the designated beneficiary of a right of first refusal law. "For every one unit of low-income housing we produce with our limited public funds, three or four times that number of units are lost to speculative sale, abandonment, demolition, or increased rents," he says. "For every step forward we take, we take three or four steps backward."

However, since state law grants the SHA condemnation powers to acquire properties for low-income housing, most city staffers agree there's no need to create complex legislation that could land the city in court again. One concern among advocates: The SHA has rarely taken advantage of its condemnation powers. A recent exception is the SHA's efforts to condemn a building at Second Avenue and Pike Street with the intention of renovating some 80 housing units.

An obvious target for future SHA condemnations could be buildings whose owners are seeking to opt out of the federal Section 8 housing subsidy program. Many of these buildings were constructed using low-cost government loans, so city officials, including council member Peter Steinbrueck, argue there is a clear justification for placing them into public ownership. However, the city has already been quite successful in preserving Section 8 units by persuading property owners to negotiate their sale to nonprofit housing organizations.

Steinbrueck, who recently led an effort to increase funding for housing and homeless programs in next year's budget, says the creation of more subsidized units is the most important factor in increasing the amount of affordable housing in Seattle. His suggested goal is that 25 percent of the city's housing stock be covered by some sort of subsidy (currently, about 10 percent of all housing units in the city are subsidized).

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, says Steinbrueck, "Ultimately, the property has to be purchased, whether you have right of first refusal or not."

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