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City of Seattle officials are dismantling property rights of landlords

Seattle city officials have passed a bill that forces landlords to keep bad tenants over the winter months, causing major problems for housing in the city.
Ari Hoffman Seattle, WA

Ari Hoffman is an Op-ed contributor to the Post Millennial and the host of the Canary in a Coal Mine Podcast. He has been featured on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper, Fox and Friends, The Dr. Drew Show and The Glen Beck Program.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed the “Winter Evictions Ban”, legislation that prevents property owners from evicting tenants during the winter in Seattle. The sponsor of the bill, Council Member Kshama Sawant, cites the large percentage of evicted tenants who end up homeless, and the grave danger to their health from being exposed to the elements during winter.

The bill is the first of its kind in the United States, for good reason: It will create less housing options in Seattle while driving up the cost of housing.

Ironically, one of the biggest causes of Sawant’s eviction grievances is Seattle’s Public Housing, the Seattle Housing Authority, which has been written up for evicting tenants over small amounts of owed rent.

The average property owner will now have to assume that a tenant will not pay rent for three months. As such, small landlords will increase the price of units to compensate. Seattle already limits the maximum security deposit to one month’s rent less any nonrefundable fees charged. Additionally, the use of criminal history in tenant screening is prohibited and housing providers must screen applicants in the order the housing provider receives the completed applications, and offer tenancy to the first applicant that provides a completed application and qualifies under the housing provider’s screening criteria. Housing providers will now have to assume the “worst case scenario” about every applicant and adjust pricing accordingly. What is the incentive for anyone to pay their rent during the winter months with this legislation in place? A person can qualify for a unit in October, move into the unit in November, not pay rent through March and then vanish after having wrecked the unit and the expense will fall on the property’s owner. This legislation sends a message to property owners loud and clear, you only get the protection of the law three-quarters of the year.

The average property owner will now have to assume that a tenant will not pay rent for three months. As such, small landlords will increase the price of units to compensate. Seattle already limits the maximum security deposit to one month’s rent, less any nonrefundable fees charged. Additionally, the use of criminal history in tenant screening is prohibited and housing providers must screen applicants in the order the housing provider receives the completed applications, and offer tenancy to the first applicant that provides a completed application and qualifies under the housing provider’s screening criteria. Housing providers will now have to assume the “worst case scenario” about every applicant and adjust pricing accordingly. As a property manager I can tell you that there is no incentive for anyone to pay their rent during the winter months with this legislation in place. A person can qualify for a unit in October, move into the unit in November, not pay rent through March and then vanish after having wrecked the unit and the expense will fall on the property’s owner. This legislation sends a message to property owners loud and clear, you only get the protection of the law three-quarters of the year.

The average small property owner wants to keep a good tenant and help tenants stay, otherwise they have an empty unit not earning revenue. They often take a good tenant at a lower rate. They work with struggling tenants to keep them because it is more expensive to evict a tenant than find a way to help them through a short rough financial patch. When faced with increasing costly and onerous regulations, property owners will find work arounds and raise their qualification requirements leading to more people without access to housing.

According to the city, over 20,000 of the city’s 32,000 registered rental properties are single-unit properties (out of 367,800 housing units altogether in the city, of which about 53 percent are rented out), many of which are owned by a small landlord. Many property owners count on rental income to pay mortgages, utilities, education and other bills so now the onus of this legislation falls on them. This will hit smaller property owners harder than it will larger property ownership companies that can spread out the loss over more units. Many retirees have spent a lifetime investing in every dime into a few properties and count on the revenue for their day to day expenses.

In Seattle, there are already housing vouchers and rental assistance solutions that could have been augmented to address the eviction concern. Instead, an amendment was added to the final bill to create a new mitigation fund to provide rent assistance to property owners during the months that the eviction ban is in place. While a property owner is going through government channels, waiting on a theoretical new fund, their unpaid expenses continue to accumulate. Now you have a landlord and a tenant in dire financial straits.

Developers will question building units in Seattle when faced with the possibility that tenants will abuse the legislation and cause developers to lose money on projects. Instead they will invest in neighboring cities that do not have this legislation and have less onerous building regulations. This removes the incentive to create more units and as a result of less inventory, costs on available units will rise. Small landlords are already selling their units because of the onerous and costly landlord/tenant regulations. Due to the high cost of home ownership in Seattle, duplex units are bought as single family homes because they cannot be made profitable as rentals and in doing so decrease the amount of available rentals.

Solutions to evictions could have included tax deductions for average property owners to offset low income tenants. Easier access and more funding for vouchers and diversion funds, aka housing assistance for tenants could be provided. The Home Base program at United Way is an excellent example of emergency funding for tenants. This is similar to how the SNAP program and area food banks help subsidize groceries, rather than requiring stores to provide free food. Tax deductions and raising height restrictions for developers who build low income housing as part of a development could have increased the supply of units thereby reducing the cost of units.

The sponsor of the legislation, Council Member Sawant, is a Marxist.

According to Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto: “The communist theory can be summed up in the single phrase: abolition of private property.”

This legislation is an early step in that process. Sawant was joined in her support of this legislation, and opposition of amendments, by new Council Member Tammy Morales. Morales, who claimed not to be a member of the Democratic Socialists of America(DSA) and pulled out of events with Sawant last minute to get through the primaries, changed her tune heading into the general election and proudly proclaimed she was a member of DSA. She was also endorsed by Sawant’s radical extremist group the Socialist Alternative and supported by Bernie Sanders.

Morales lives in a 4,750 Sqft, six-bedroom, $2.1 million house that she bought for $1.8 million after the “McMansion” had been developed by bulldozing a $500,000 home. The house has a “Mother In Law” apartment with separate entrance–perfect for a rental.

From the listing: “This immaculate 6+bd, 4.5ba craftsman w/ separate MIL apt is a rarity.” Interestingly, the apartment is not registered as an approved rental unit, so it is either not being rented or being rented illegally. Ironically, Morales recently did an interview with The Stranger where one of the lines in the article was: “It seems like every other house in Columbia City gets replaced by ugly glassy mansions.” Morales continued “…allowing backyard cottages and the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability plan as possible solutions to reducing displacement.”

So why does she not practice what she preaches? The apartment could help alleviate housing constraints in a manner she advocates for, in her own neighborhood, which has very few rentals. Yet, it appears she chooses not to rent out her spare apartment.

Seattle officials including the Mayor have called the legislation an “…unworkable starting point.”  And yet Morales and Sawant along with the rest of the council pushed it through, knowing the negative effects it would have on property owners and the people the council is claiming to want to help. If this was truly designed to help the over 11,000 unsheltered individuals and family members on the streets of Seattle, it would address the opioid crisis which according to Seattle officials in a lawsuit against Perdue Pharma account for “…80% of the unsheltered.”

Instead, this is just another step towards the abolition of property rights in Seattle.

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