Move-in fee legislation passes with exceptions for small landlords

The Seattle City Council last week unanimously passed an ordinance restricting move-in fees for renters and establishing privileges for renters to pay those fees over time.

Under the law, landlords may only charge move-in fees that include first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit that is no more than one month’s rent. The entirety of those fees must also be split up into a payment plan over a period of no more than six months upon a tenant’s request.

The legislation, introduced by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, passed following an amendment by Councilmember Rob Johnson that created an exception to the financial portions of the law for landlords who would live at the same address as their tenants.

Sawant said she believed the financial portions of her law should apply equally to all landlords. She conceded that she would understand if live-in landlords needed a concessions under another “first come, first served” ordinance passed in August to accommodate their personal safety, but called the purely financial amendment a “loophole” that benefitted an “ultra-conservative” rental lobby -- a statement that elicited shouts from a group of self-identified small landlords attending the meeting.

Sean Martin of the Rental Housing Association, the nonprofit group for landlords to which Sawant referred, called the unamended legislation unfair.

“This legislation compares Wal-Mart and neighborhood corner stores and says these operating models are the same,” he said.

More than a dozen self-identified small landlords testified against the unamended legislation in public comment.

“The restraints that are placed upon senior citizens … are just horrendous,” said Joann Segal, a live-in landlord in West Seattle. “For me to accept the first person who comes to my door is not reasonable. I’ve always qualified people so that we would both be comfortable, living in my situation.”

Ed Towe, the co-owner of five rental properties in the city with his wife, was one of several who said the unamended law would encourage landlords to divest from Seattle.

“This is our retirement plan you are dealing with today,” Towe said. “We have not raised our rents more than 10 percent ever. We refund full deposits. These are our houses and our homes. … If you pass this legislation, we are going to find a way to take our money out of the city. The costs of those houses are going to go up.”

Several commenters spoke in support of the ordinance, including landlords.

“I have no problem letting my tenants pay their move-in fees over six months,” Susan Health said. “If I can do it, my lousy little three rooms, then [other landlords] can do it as well. They should be ashamed of themselves for putting property before people.”

Many tenants who spoke on behalf of the law came from local labor unions.

“I recently moved back to Seattle and was asked to pay three months of rent upon moving in, which was $5,000,” said Alex Bacon, a unionized Seattle Central employee. “That $5,000 is more than what I make in two months and is totally unaffordable.”

University of Washington student academic employee and UAW 4121 member Vance Larsen said that restrictions on move-in fees would ensure that university enrollment in Seattle wouldn’t be limited to the most financially well-off students.

The new law will take effect in January.