In April of 2016, the Washington Community Action Network (WCAN), an advocacy organization working on behalf of tenants in Seattle, ran a survey to determine the state of the rental market there. Some 303 renters who were reflective of the demographics of low to moderate-income Seattle tenants were surveyed. The results triggered several issues facing Seattle landlords.
The survey questions asked:
– Are most tenants in the city able to access housing within their income?
– Are most tenants able to access healthy housing? If not, how does unhealthy housing impact public health?
– What barriers prevent low-income tenants of the city from accessing healthy, affordable housing?
– In what ways does the experience of renting in Seattle differ by race, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or the source of income paid by tenants?
The findings revealed
For 95 percent of the respondents, Seattle housing was deemed unaffordable. Additionally, 90 percent of those surveyed said high up-front fees charged by landlords were making it difficult to move into more affordable housing. Some 70 percent of the respondents said poor housing conditions were impacting their health in a negative fashion. The survey also found minority and LGBTQ renters were likely to have problems with the condition of their rentals leading to health issues.
In June, partly in response to the results of the survey, as well as proposed legislation put forth by WCAN, Seattle’s City Council voted in favor of prohibiting landlords from raising rents on units that don’t conform to a set of basic maintenance standards.
Then, in August, the City Council approved another ordinance banning discrimination against renters whose sources of income includes Social Security benefits, veteran’s benefits, unemployment insurance, child-support payments and other assistance programs. It had been alleged that some Seattle landlords were using the source of an applicant’s income as a tool to implement racial discrimination.
Another aspect of this new ordinance requires landlords to review rental applications in the order in which they are received and to then accept the first tenant who meets the screening criteria. It also requires landlords to work with community-based organizations who offer to help a delinquent tenant facing eviction to get their rent payments up to date.
Further, with Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon having such large presences in the area, some landlords had been accused of offering discounts to people who worked for these companies. These included waiving all, or a portion of move-in deposits required for new apartments. As you might imagine, issues like these can make managing property somewhat tricky. In these instances, a Seattle property management company like Onerent, familiar with the area and its nuances can be a useful tool for investors.
While on the face of it, this “preferred employer” policy might seem like a smart move for investors who are seeking stability with gainfully employed tenants, it can also be plausibly considered discriminatory. After all, some people were benefitting from preferential treatment while others were being excluded. It could also be argued that people with jobs at those companies are likely to be easily capable of affording market rates. Meanwhile, lower income people — who really need the break — are being denied equal treatment. Costing them equal housing opportunities, this could have the effect of forcing them into substandard living situations.
With rents spiraling ever higher in Seattle, tenant’s organizations in the area are making efforts to ensure affordable housing for all of its residents. They are also trying to make sure people aren’t forced to live in substandard conditions while facing ever more significant rent increases. Investors doing business in Seattle, or considering buying into the market, should be aware of these potential issues facing landlords in the Emerald City.