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Seattle: Sawant and Tenant Activists Win Landmark Victory on Move-In Fees

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On December 12, after nearly a half year of struggle by Washington CAN and tenants’ rights advocates, the Seattle City Council passed Kshama Sawant’s landmark move-in fees legislation. Socialist Alternative member Sawant’s remarks to the council prior to the vote follow below.

I am excited to introduce again this ordinance that would limit the exorbitant move-in fees that tenants are expected to pay in this city of skyrocketing rents.

The laws of this state are overwhelmingly stacked against renters, particularly the state ban on rent control.

However, as tenants get more organized locally, we are starting the process of winning individual tenant rights that will add up to a significant Tenants’ Bill of Rights in this city. This council bill limits non-refundable fees to only those explicitly mentioned under state law, limits security deposits and non-refundable fees to no more than one month’s rent (which most landlords do anyway), and, most importantly, allows tenants to pay the security deposit and last month’s rent on a payment plan. That final aspect of the bill will allow many tenants to overcome a substantial hurdle that they face in finding housing.

You’ve heard today, and in previous testimonies, domestic violence survivors telling you about why this will directly be helpful to them, and you’ve heard a lot of testimony from renters, in general. And for those who like decisions to be based on the data, as I do, Washington Community Action Network’s (WACAN) survey of tenants found move-in fees to be the biggest obstacle to finding housing in this city.

Nationwide, per recent studies, over 50% of Americans have said they have less than $1,000 in their checking and saving accounts, so imagine having to come up with $4,000, $5,000, or $6,000 for moving into an apartment.

In reality, while extremely important for tenants, this is extremely mild legislation. Landlords will still get the security deposit and last month’s rent, just a little later than they have in the past. And keep in mind, by state law, they should be putting that in an escrow account, and not touching it until the tenant moves out anyway.

However, while this legislation is entirely reasonable, that has not stopped the lobbyists from the ultra-conservative Washington Multifamily Housing and Rental Housing Association, who have opposed almost every tenant right passed both by the city and by the state, and have put real resources into trying to derail this bill – again, as they have with every other tenants’ right bill at the city and state level.

I know that many of those today have said that they are not corporate property owners, they’re friendly neighborhood landlords – if that is so, then you should be supporting tenants’ rights!

In reality, while representing a tiny minority of our city and society, these landlord organizations have money and power. They contribute the maximum to the election campaigns of many of the City Councilmembers and the Mayor, and they have used that money and power to convince the majority of this Council to send this ordinance back to committee when it came to Full Council a couple months ago.

Councilmembers have promised renters – at that meeting, at that Full Council, when they sent it back to committee – that they would not water it down, and I urge members of the public to hold the Council accountable to that promise.

Councilmembers will have to weigh the interests of tenants whose risk is homelessness in the midst of skyrocketing rents and a homeless epidemic against the interests of some landlords whose risk is their investment at a time when there is no indication that that investment is in any danger. I know which side I am on.

I do want to thank, specifically, those property owners who came today and to other meetings to support the legislation, and have challenged other landlords to do the same. I also want to thank all the tenants that have come to what is now their fifth City Council meeting to testify in favor of this legislation, and to share your important stories.

Your courage is what has made this possible, and what will allow us to push ahead, to pass more tenants’ rights in the future.

I also want to thank the organizations, both activist and labor organizations, that have signed onto a letter to Council asking us to pass this Council bill without watering it down, without exemptions. So thank you to the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Council, WACAN, American Federation of Teachers, Seattle Education Association, SEIU Locals 6, 925, and 1199NW, One America, Washington Federation of State Employees, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Gender Justice League, APALA, Nicklesville, SHARE, PSARA, UAW Local 4121, LGBTQ Allyship, ECS, Transit Riders Union, UFCW, Puget Sound Sage, Fuse, Washington Student Association, Socialist Students, Socialists Alternative, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington, Capitol Hill Community Council, Housing Justice Project, Tenants Union of Washington State, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, Unite Here, and 43rd District Progressives.

Thank you to everyone in the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, who do tremendous hard work, and complicated work, every day to support tenants and property owners, and the City’s Law Department who helped us craft this legislation. And, particularly, thank you to Aly Pennucci in Central Staff who tirelessly worked on this legislation, even during the busy budget season.

But, most importantly, thanks to all the activists in WACAN for making this possible, and specially to Xochitl Maykovich who has been a dedicated activist, putting in efforts over the last few months cannot be overstated.

I urge the Council to support this bill without further amendment.

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