The median rent for a one-bedroom in Renton is $1,654, according to ApartmentList.com. That’s up 3.9 percent from last year.
With rents up, tenants in substandard apartments, duplexes or rental homes might be hesitant to leave for fear of finding another affordable rental property. This is a problem Patience Malaba, Housing Development Consortium Advocacy Manager, spoke to city council about on Jan. 14. She attended the council meeting to show support for a housing ordinance Renton was looking at to protect tenants.
“One of the biggest issues has been the standard of housing in some parts of south King County,” Malaba said. “We have worked with cities to ensure that we adopt rental inspection licensing ordinances, so that tenants who are lower income and do not have the luxury to move out of housing that is substandard, are also protected.”
The program Malaba supports was originally called the Safe and Healthy Housing program, introduced to council almost a year ago after revising a separate proposal from three years earlier. It was renamed the Residential Rental Registration and Inspection Program in December 2018.
Others, including the Rental Housing Association of Washington, were concerned with the price of the new program. Members of the association attended council meetings and talked with city administrators about the $150 business license that would be required of all landlords.
The ordinance was changed after Malaba and Rental Housing Association spoke to city council, and the $150 business fee was removed.
Instead of a business license, the city will develop a registration system landlords will need to fill out.
The city will use the first couple years to determine how much the cost of the program is before deciding a pay structure. For the time being, the city will be able to absorb the costs using the general fund, according to city staff at the Feb. 11 Committee of the Whole meeting.
The first year, the city will conduct public outreach, except for hiring of a housing outreach ombudsman to let tenants and landlords know their responsibilities and rights. The second year, code enforcement staff will be added and the program will be administered.
The first year of the program is estimated to cost $345,000, but staff said sales tax has been running high enough that they can temporarily absorb it.
In a 2018 fiscal analysis, the city estimated 100 percent business license and registration compliance would have resulted in a revenue of $739, 846 from the program.
The original initiative was broad and wouldn’t effectively target the substandard housing in the city, William Shadbolt with Rental Housing Association said. Shadbolt is president of the board of directors for the association, and a landlord in Renton.
Shadbolt said since the state recognizes that having real estate is unique from a traditional business, it raised a legal question for the city’s previous ordinance. The association believed it might actually be an unlawful tax on landlords. Both Shadbolt and city staff said there was communication between city attorney and outside legal council for the association before the ordinance was changed.
“We think that the way we were doing it was likely legal,” Renton city attorney Shane Maloney said at the committee meeting Feb. 11. “We’re taking the safe route.”
The inspection process will look similar to Tacoma’s: Landlords will be required to complete a certification of inspection on a tenants request based off failing to fulfill an obligation under Revised Code of Washington or the Landlord-Tenant Act. An inspection is also required if the city discovers or is aware of a violation, or a previous order to amend a violation of Renton Municipal Code has been issued.
The city still has the right to inspect with any licensed housing inspector. A landlord cannot be their own inspector.
It took longer than he hoped it would, but Shadbolt thinks the final version of the ordinance is great. The association worked closely with the city as they’ve built up this initiative the last couple years.
“There’s a really good balance between protecting the rights of tenants without burdening the landlords,” Shadbolt said of the revised ordinance.
The creation of a city ombudsman will help both tenants and landlords, Shadbolt said, because it will act as a neutral third-party to explain the rights or requirements on both sides.
Renton will likely create a pay structure for landlords down the line after the costs have been estimated. As long as there is a direct relationship with the program’s financial burden and the amount charged to landlords, the Rental Housing Association will agree with it, Shadbolt said.
Before passing the ordinance for first reading Feb. 11, council president Don Persson asked that city staff bring council a spending plan for them to review before the program continues and is approved at second and final reading.
The ordinance is scheduled for second and final reading at the next city council meeting, where council will approve the revised ordinance and city officials will begin the first year of public outreach to landlords and tenants.