As rental tenants face challenges in Renton some call for protections

The Renton City Council moved to study tenant data in the city to examine the extent of the problems

Recently, the Renton City Council moved to have city staff conduct a study of rental tenant data in the community to see if the city needs to implement rental protections recommended by tenant advocates and the Regional Coalition For Housing alike.

During the Feb. 27 Renton City Council meeting, Tram Tran-Larson, who works for the Housing Justice Project that provides attorneys for low-income tenants facing eviction in King County, testified to the council in support of tenant protection laws that she claimed would create more uniformity among cities in the county — many of which have already adopted renter protections, and would ultimately benefit both tenants and landlords.

Tran-Larson said Renton makes up 4.7% of the total population of King County, while the unincorporated areas around Renton make up more than double at 10.8%, yet their number of evictiona are nearly the same. She said this means that renters inside the city limits of Renton are nearly twice as likely to be evicted.

Tran-Larson suggested that this difference is due to the regulatory environment for tenants in Renton, as she cited that unincorporated King County saw a “significant decrease” in eviction filings from 2021 to 2022, a year after they passed their tenant protections in the county.

Furthermore, she argued that the increasingly expensive cost of rent and housing is exacerbating the homelessness crisis in the region, citing that for every $100 increase in rent, there is a nearly 9% increase in homelessness. Tran-Larson said that 48% of Renton’s renters report being “cost burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing alone.

“Renter protections are homelessness prevention,” Tran-Larson told the city council. “Encampments are the outcome of a city that fails to protect its tenants.”

Devin Glaser, an attorney who practices landlord-tenant law in Renton and King County, said that rent increases top the list of challenges faced by tenants in Renton. Glaser said the entire region is facing a housing shortage, creating upward pressure on rents and is being exacerbated by new high-earners moving here for jobs and displacing previous tenants.

According to Glaser, state law currently allows for a rent increase of any amount as long as tenants receive with two months’ notice.

“We’ve seen increases doubling rents or raising rents by $1,000.00 a month,” said Glaser. “And two months’ notice is insufficient to find new, affordable housing for most people.”

Glaser said other cities in the region have passed new legislation requiring longer notice periods before rent increases, for example, Seattle requires six months’ notice for any rent increase at all; Auburn requires four months for increases higher than 5%, and unincorporated King County requires four months for increases over 3%.

“Ironically, this means that someone could have very different protections than their neighbor living across the street depending on which city they live in and whether or not it has officially been incorporated as a city or is unincorporated county land,” he said to the Renton Reporter.

Glaser said Renton has not passed any local tenant protections so the only protections for Renton residents are the ones passed by the state. And while cities are preempted from regulating rent increases due to current state laws, they can pass other protections, such as increasing notice periods, limiting late fees, banning notice delivery fees, or putting caps on move-in costs.

Glaser said rental tenants are usually put in an unfair power dynamic — with most tenants in a “take it or leave it” situation with their landlord, as he says even if there were enough affordable, available units, the cost of moving is a few thousand dollars so when landlords assess unfair fees or institute unreasonable policies, tenants are not in a good position to bargain.

“I’ve seen some really unreasonable terms included in leases or added with 30 days notice that are obscene and shock the conscience, but it’s not like the tenants can respond to a rule change by moving down the block,” Glaser said. “I’ve seen landlords charge tenants fees to ‘re-apply’ for the units they are already in, fees for delivering basic communications to tenants, and huge monthly charges to tenants whose leases become month-to-month, which happens automatically for any tenant who doesn’t sign a new lease at the end of the initial term.”

During the Feb. 27 Renton City Council meeting, Councilmember Carmen Rivera motioned to “refer to the administration to study, by way of a gap analysis,” if Renton needs to adopt rental protection, some of which have been recommended to the community by the Regional Coalition For Housing. The motion was seconded by Councilmember Ed Prince where the council voted four in favor and three opposed.

Prince expressed that he felt it would be helpful to receive Renton-specific data on rental tenants in Renton.

Councilmember James Alberson, Jr., voted in opposition to the motion, stating concerns that the task may take too much of city staff time, as they already have been assigned other projects, and that the state legislature is currently considering rental protection laws that may supersede whatever policies the city council may attempt to implement.

Glaser noted that the state Legislature is currently considering a statewide cap on rent increases with HB 1389, which would be aimed at preventing rent gouging by limiting rent increases to 3-7 percent annually

“My concern would be for staff putting too much time prematurely into researching this only to have something passed by the state that overrides anything that we would put into place,” Alberson Jr. said.

Councilmembers Kim-Khánh Ván and Ruth Pérez echoed Alberson Jr.’s concern for overworking staff on this particular issue. They were among the three that opposed this motion.

Rivera responded to Alberson Jr.’s concern, expressing that the council cannot be sure that the legislature will pass such protections and that even if passed, the policies may have gaps that impact Renton residents.