After crisis at the Tiki, Tacoma could see vast new protections for renters

Tacoma could see sweeping new protections for renters, including money to help low-income folks who must move because of a substantial remodel or change of use of their homes.

City staff last week outlined for a City Council committee some of the beefed-up protections for tenants that the council eventually might approve, after more discussion and a presentation to the full council.

Those protections include:

Making permanent a 90-day notice requirement when a tenant is forced to vacate because of a substantial rehabilitation or change of use. The council passed the requirement on an interim basis this spring.

Adding a 60-day notice to vacate in other circumstances, including for rent increases of more than 10 percent.

Adding source of income as a protected class, so that landlords no longer can turn away people with Section 8 vouchers or other housing subsidies because of the source of the rent money.

Adding a requirement for landlords to distribute a summary of rights to tenants.

Adding a prohibition that states landlords can't retaliate against tenants who exercise their legal rights by evicting them or taking other retaliatory action.

Adding a requirement that landlords must notify tenants of any local code enforcement actions at a property within the last 12 months.

Adding the option of installment payments for security deposits and last month's rent, which landlords often require upfront.

Offering $2,000 in relocation assistance to eligible low-income renters being displaced because of construction, demolition, substantial rehabilitation or change of use. This would be for renters whose annual income is 50 percent of Tacoma's area median income (roughly $52,000 in the city). This sum would be split between the landlord and the city.

Additionally, the city plans to study notices to vacate to determine whether implementing a just cause eviction ordinance is warranted in Tacoma.

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City staff members said Seattle is the only city in Washington with a just cause eviction ordinance, which applies to month-by-month renters and those with verbal rental agreements.

To end a lease, a Seattle landlord or property manager must state one of 18 approved reasons listed in the ordinance. Most of those reasons do not require the owner to pay any type of relocation assistance.

"I do think there is concern with landlords here about requiring them to have a specific enumerated reason to evict tenants in the community," deputy city attorney Debra Casparian told the committee. "Seattle’s rental community is different than here in Tacoma, so I think there is concern among landlords that that isn’t workable for them and isn’t needed here."

Right now, in most cases, no cause is needed to evict a renter in Tacoma, although housing authorities that act as landlords use just cause when evicting tenants. Making it unlawful for landlords to retaliate against tenants would be a helpful protection, said ChiQuata Elder, the city's landlord-tenant/crime free housing coordinator.

"We see this a lot when it comes to repairs," Elder said. "As soon as they call code enforcement the landlord takes adverse action such as evicting them. ... Seattle has that provision, so we want to add that, because we do see a lot of landlords hiding behind no cause notice for retaliation."

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Several people who spoke at the meeting called for the City Council to approve a just cause eviction ordinance, and some cautioned against it.

Landlords, property managers and representatives from tenants' rights groups, rental housing associations and public housing authorities packed the last meeting of the Community Vitality and Safety Committee. Among those attending were members of the Tiki Tenants Organizing Committee, a housing justice activists group.

In April, residents of the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma learned they had a few weeks to vacate their homes after the complex was sold to a developer. The episode pushed the issue of tenants rights and housing affordability in Tacoma to the forefront of local politics.

The City Council was lauded for acting quickly to pass a 90-day notice requirement for renters evicted because of a substantial rehabilitation or change of use, but renters who showed up to the committee meeting said people still need help.

"I make $770 a month, under $10,000 a year, so when I have to move, even 90 days is pushing it for someone who only makes as much money as I do," said Donna Seay, who said she suffers from a rare blood clot disorder and is disabled. She moved into the Tiki Apartments because it was what she could afford and she was able to secure a first-floor apartment.

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Joseph Atkinson told the committee he and his wife found themselves on the receiving end of a 20-day notice to vacate last month after the fourplex they've lived in for 38 years was sold to a property management company. Since then, he's been able to get more time, but not much, and he said their options for where to go next are bleak.

Atkinson, 82, said he's called or visited more than 60 apartments looking for a new home he and his wife can afford on a fixed income. They have no family in the area to fall back on, he said.

"Of these, 90 percent have told me there are no vacancies," he said. "The other 10 percent were either low income, which they said I did not qualify for, or they offered me a place that was 90 to 100 percent higher cost than at my present location, and 50 percent less square footage.

"This is not just a Tiki Apartments problem, this is a problem for all taxpayers of this great city."

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud