The long-haul fight to protect Seattle’s renters

Alyssa Garcia and Rita Kutsin, Economic Justice Project Law Clerks

At a time when the terms “affordability,” “gentrification,” and “housing crisis” have become commonplace language for Seattle residents, the urgency to fix our broken rental inspection program could not be more timely. Seattle city leaders are carefully balancing the impacts of rapid economic and population growth spurred by newer, wealthier residents moving into the city, while maintaining the rich diversity and livability for longtime residents. Columbia Legal Services (CLS) has been instrumental in ensuring that the voices of marginalized communities are centered in this conversation.

In July, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed needed updates to the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) which significantly strengthen health and safety protections for Seattle renters. The program requires landlords and property owners to register their rental units with the city to be subject to inspections on health and safety conditions. We were given the opportunity to advocate alongside Washington Community Action Network (Washington CAN!) and the Tenants Union in support of these critical improvements, which were co-sponsored by Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson. By presenting testimony at both the committee and full council hearings, we carried the baton through the most recent lap of an over twenty-year effort to protect tenants through a solid registration and inspection program.

The new ordinance increases the required number of units that must be inspected, shortens the amount of notice landlords are given before inspections to deter landlords from repairing only the units that will be inspected, and requires notice to be given to tenants when the inspection is completed. In our testimony before the Council (pictured right), we emphasized that, given the increasing economic disparities in Seattle, this is not merely a housing issue - it is an equity issue that impacts our most marginalized communities. The new changes are the culmination of a long and arduous fight to protect tenants from sub-standard housing.

CLS has fought for years to help create RRIO – from the early leadership of Merf Ehman, followed by Eileen Schock, to the current strategic advocacy by Yurij Rudensky. Before 1987, the City of Seattle enforced its safety codes through a complaint-based system, which unfairly placed the burden of ensuring safe housing on tenants. This system reinforced the disparate impact on marginalized individuals who often inhabited properties with the most serious health and safety violations and usually withheld complaints due to fear of retribution from landlords, possible language barriers, or a lack of information about their rights.

Early efforts by the City of Seattle to create a proactive inspection program were curtailed when the Washington Supreme Court determined that the City did not have the authority to obtain court warrants for inspection of rental units after landlords denied entry to inspectors. This ruling resulted in the discontinuation of inspections and a reversion to the complaint system. A settlement between the City of Seattle and landlords prohibited the city from creating a new inspection program until 2006.

After a favorable Supreme Court Rule in Pasco v. Shaw, housing advocates, including CLS and the Tenants Union, began pushing the Seattle City Council to create a rental inspection program to ensure safe and habitable living conditions for Seattle tenants. The City Council formed a stakeholders group comprised of tenants' representatives including CLS, landlords, the Low-Income Housing Association, and others, to create a proactive inspection system.  The initial RRIO that came from this long and contentious process was a vast improvement from the previous complaint system; however, the program required significant changes to adequately protect the safety and rights of tenants.

Fast forward to today, this new RRIO improves upon many of the issues with the past program and is an important win that centers the needs of the most marginalized as renters continue to be displaced, exploited, and neglected in light of the Seattle growing pains. The next hurdle will be continuing to educate landlords and tenants about the new changes and ensuring adequate funding to enforce the program in upcoming budget decisions. The long, grueling journey of RRIO reminds us that social change often occurs slowly and incrementally, but centering the needs of our must vulnerable populations and achieving an equitable society is always worth the fight.