Sarah Howe knows the clock is ticking.
“I don’t have a place,” Howe said Monday. “There’s no definite answer, and that’s what really bothers me.”
Howe rents a small, bottom-floor unit at the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma. Like other Tiki tenants, she was told in early April by new owners she'd have to leave soon. Thanks to a community outcry, they were granted a temporary reprieve last month when the City Council brokered an agreement with the new owners to extend the deadline until the end of June for them to find a new place to live.
The emergency action — which was packaged with a new, temporary law requiring 90 days-notice to renters facing displacement in similar circumstances — was undertaken with the hope that it would provide people like Howe a chance to relocate smoothly.
It was also billed as a first step, with more to come.
So far, the extension has had mixed results. Some renters at the Tiki Apartments have navigated the rental market and found a place to live.
Others, like Howe, are waiting.
It’s with all of this in mind that the City Council’s Community Vitality and Safety committee is currently weighing the second part of the promise — a host of other potential tenants’ rights protections. Many go well beyond the 90-day notice requirement for tenants forced to move because of substantial renovation or a demolition, like what’s happening at the Tiki Apartments.
Some of the potential protections, according to City Councilman Chris Beale, could be “game changers.”
So what are they likely to be? And how soon might Tacoma renters see them?
City Councilman Ryan Mello said he expects an extensive Tenant Bill of Rights to eventually emerge. While it’s early, Mello said he would expect such a bill of rights to include permanent regulations around eviction notices, increased support for displaced renters and potentially the creation of a relocation fund.
All of it, Mello said, likely would be “dovetailed” into the council’s ongoing work to establish an affordable housing strategic plan.
Last week we got a glimpse of city staff’s early work on the matter. ChiQuata Elder, who coordinates the city’s Landlord-Tenant Program, presented several potential ideas to the Community Vitality and Safety committee.
▪ A longer notice requirement when a landlord wants to terminate tenancy with no cause.
▪ A law allowing tenants to make payments on deposits and move-in cost.
▪ Source of income protection and enforcement, which would prohibit a landlord from rejecting an applicant based on where his or her income comes from, as long as it's a legal source, including Section 8 subsidies.
Beale acknowledged that plenty of work remains but said he was impressed by what staff came back with so quickly.
“I feel really good about it. I think staff did a pretty decent job doing some research on a quick time line,” Beale said. “They really turned and burned.”
Like Mello, Beale said he expects a Tenants Bill of Rights eventually to be before the full council, hopefully before Labor Day. While he was encouraged by staff’s early work, he said there are also stronger protections he wants to consider.
Beale said this includes the establishment of a relocation fund, ban-the-box style rental protections for non-violent felons and guaranteeing tenants’ rights to organize and collectively bargain with management over living conditions and rents.
He also said that better enforcement of the city’s business-licensing requirements, along with potential changes to the fee structure, could be explored as a revenue source dedicated to affordable housing. Beale said that “less than 50-percent of landlords comply with licensing requirements."
“It was on already our radar. We had directed staff to start doing research on what (tenants’ protections) looked like,” Beale said. “(The situation at the Tiki Apartments) motivated Council to say these issues are pressing now.
“With the market the way it is, we can’t wait around to take action.”
Back at the Tiki Apartments, Howe said the outpouring of support she’s received from the community and social-service providers has been a blessing.
Still, not knowing if she'll be able to find affordable housing in an uncertain market is stressful, made more so by the loud work already underway at the Tiki. The noise has affected her, and her cat Miracle, who Howe said was recently prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
Howe is praying for a positive outcome, soon, and trying to keep a good attitude.
“I’m trying to hang in there,” she told me in her typical defiant spirit.
“They’re giving me places to call,” Howe said of the assistance she’s been provided so far. “But they’re all full.”
For Tacoma, Howe’s predicament, and the predicament of others like her, makes clear that a Tenants Bill of Rights can’t arrive soon enough.