Tacoma renters’ rights just got stronger

Matt Yablon, former resident of the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma, had to vacate his home last April when it was purchased by the Seattle-based CWD Investments LLC.
Matt Yablon, former resident of the Tiki Apartments in Tacoma, had to vacate his home last April when it was purchased by the Seattle-based CWD Investments LLC. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Tacoma renters with low to moderate incomes are finding themselves increasingly at the mercy of landlords willing to take advantage of our region’s competitive housing market. It’s why a new city ordinance tops our list of things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

On Tuesday the Tacoma City Council passed the Rental Housing Code. The measure ensures Tacoma tenants will no longer be victims to landlords looking to turn a quick profit; it also ensures that what happened to the residents of the Tiki Apartments last spring won’t happen again.

For those who missed the Tiki saga, here’s a recap: A Seattle company called CWD Investments LLC purchased the aging South Highland Avenue building and gave half of the residents just 25 days to vacate. The other half were given a few more weeks.

It was a disgraceful move considering most of the Tiki residents in the 58 unit complex were seniors or disabled. Still, the short notice issued by the new landlords was not illegal. State law only requires 20-days’ notice when terminating a tenancy.

But thanks to Tacoma’s new city ordinance, landlords are now obligated to inform tenants of their rights before they sign a lease; they must also give 60 days’ notice before terminating tenancy, and in certain cases involving major renovations or demolitions, landlords will be required to give 120 days notice and pay for tenant relocation assistance.

The code goes into effect Feb. 1, 2019, and provides specific guidance to landlords who operate businesses in Tacoma. The change in city rules wouldn’t have happened without the help of former Tiki residents.

Donna Seay was among the displaced at the Tiki Apartments. She remembers coming home and finding the eviction notice taped to her door. “I panicked,” she said, but her panic quickly morphed into action.

Tiki residents realized their collective voice was loud enough to get heard. As Seay says, “We talked to anyone who would listen.”

Molly Nichols was one of the group’s early supporters and became the group’s official spokesperson. She was part of the group who helped the tenants petition the city for emergency protections which led to the City Council brokering a deal with developers in May. Instead of 25 days, the Tiki residents were given two extra months to vacate. The City Council also provided $10,000 toward case-management services for the Tiki tenants.

The former Tiki residents eventually found housing and yet they continued to meet weekly and attend City Council meetings. They changed their name from the Tiki Tenant Organizing Committee to the Tacoma Tenant Organizing Committee. As Seay says, “It stopped being about us and started being about other tenants who could find themselves in a bad situation.”

Seay says she and her fellow advocates were brought to tears on Tuesday at the passage of the new ordinance, but says, “This is just the beginning of our story.”

One member of the organizing committee could be heard saying, “It feels good to win for a change.”

The groups’ selfless effort did not go unnoticed. Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards publicly thanked the group for standing up for all Tacoma tenants.

Woodards later told the TNT that the Tiki Apartment evictions last spring weren’t an anomaly, but a flashpoint for what was happening all over Pierce County and all over the state.

And the mayor is right.

The cost of rental housing keeps going up; Section 8 housing options are becoming increasingly scarce, and gentrification is pricing long-time residents out of their own neighborhoods. Tenants are being evicted without cause and given as little as 20 days to find another place to live.

Mayor Woodards admits the new city ordinance isn’t perfect, but calls it a step in the right direction. She has high hopes for the Tacoma Tenants Organizing Committee who plan to go down to Olympia early next year and petition lawmakers for statewide tenant reform.

“They’ll get it done,” says the mayor, and we’re inclined to agree.