Advocates, tenants and legislators gathered today to present legislation to protect the affordability and fair availability of rental housing.
Four bills were introduced – creating a model screening report for prospective tenants to reduce costs from repeated screening fees for those struggling to find housing, outlawing discrimination in housing based on a renter’s participation in a government assistance program, ensuring accuracy in evictions reporting and providing a 90-day notice for rent increases.
“As rents skyrocket across Washington, we need to continue to fight for affordable housing for Washington families,” said Michele Thomas, Director of Policy for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. “Rent in King and Snohomish county jumped 8 percent in 2014 – four times the rate of inflation and some of the highest rent increases in the country. Some households have reported rent increases of 100 percent or more. You can’t expect working families, seniors, students or most anyone to be prepared for their rent to suddenly double. We need solutions, and our legislators have stepped up.”
The first step in getting housing is the application. A survey by Seattle-based nonprofit Solid Ground found that the average renter pays $166 on screening fees for rental applications before they find housing, even though most of those screening reports provide duplicative information. The Fair Tenant Screening Act would create a comprehensive screening report allowing a prospective tenant to pay one fee and use that report to apply for multiple rentals for up to 30 days. If a landlord wanted a special screening report different from this model report, they could acquire that, but the landlord would pay that cost.
“I was living in a homeless shelter in Tacoma and was trying to find a rental apartment,” said Thomas Green, who attended the event. “I had budgeted enough money for the average studio apartment in Tacoma, including first and last rent, a deposit, and at least three tenant screening reports, at roughly $35 each. My transition from shelter to home took three more months than I expected. I had to keep paying for repeat tenant screening reports that various landlords requested during my search. After I ran out of money paying for the reports, I had to stop my search until the next paycheck. If I could’ve purchased just one standard report that all landlords had to accept, then I could have applied to more places and moved into my new apartment much sooner. And had I been able to leave the shelter sooner, I could’ve saved Tacoma money and opened up space for someone whose situation was worse than mine.”
“We’re not trying to be punitive to landlords – we want a solution that works for all parties involved,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle and sponsor of the Senate Fair Tenant Screening Act. “The model report we propose would provide landlords with all the information they need to make a decision that protects themselves and their other tenants, while prospective tenants wouldn’t have to pay over and over for screening reports that all say the same thing.”
“If you’re a young person attending college or someone trying to get off the streets and into a home, it’s hard enough finding the money for your first and last month’s rent and a deposit,” said Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle and sponsor of the House Fair Tenant Screening Act. “These are people working hard and trying to get their lives on track the right way. We should make it easier for them to focus on school or get their lives on track, not harder. These screening fees are a real cost and a serious barrier to housing for people on the edge.”
Another piece of legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, would prohibit discrimination in housing based on participation in government assistance programs. Many rental ads now list “not accepting Section 8,” referring to those receiving assistance with their rent. These tenants should be subject to screening checks just like any other tenant, but Section 8 status alone is no reason to prevent a prospective tenant from even applying. Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Chicago and Austin have all passed legislation banning housing discrimination based on source of income.
The Truth in Evictions Reporting Act, sponsored by Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, and Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, ensures that tenant screening reports are accurate when they list past evictions. Currently, a tenant can be caught in a landlord’s foreclosure, win an appeal, be wrongfully named, settle to the landlord’s satisfaction, or not be evicted. Despite all this, their name can still show up with an eviction on their screening report. Tenant screening reports should only name evictions when the tenant has actually been found guilty.
The last bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, would guarantee 90 days’ notice for rent increases. Current law only requires 30 days’ notice for rent increases. But that’s not sufficient time for families to plan for major rent increases, particularly low-income people or seniors on a fixed income. As rent increases of 100 percent or more occur in buildings in some areas, renters deserve more warning in case they need to relocate to different, more affordable housing.
Together, this legislative package represents a major step forward for housing affordability in Washington.