Despite large Democratic majorities in the State House and Senate, on Wednesday lawmakers failed to pass the most landlord-friendly anti-rent-gouging bill imaginable. The day before, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins spiked a bill to force landlords to give tenants at least six months of notice before hiking the rent a certain amount.
Those two bills amounted to the most meaningful pieces of legislation that Dems planned to pass this year to help nearly 40% of the state's residents keep up with rising rents. With both bills now dead, Democrats in Olympia continue their trend of doing jack shit to stop gouging for yet another year.
To be fair, Dems haven't completely abandoned renters. Before a crucial deadline, they did advance a bill that basically makes landlords provide a receipt when they refuse to return your full security deposit, which is astronomically high in the first place because state lawmakers continue to do jack shit to stop rent-gouging, so I guess that is something.
But why? Why did the bills die? Why are lawmakers like this?
Well, there's the reasons they give and the reasons they don't give.
Wahhh Republicans Wahhh
At a press conference on Thursday, Speaker Jinkins said House Republicans threatened to pile on "a lot of amendments" to House Bill 1389, which would cap rent increases at 3% or at the rate of inflation (whichever is higher) up to 7%, if Dems decided to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. The bill contained numerous exemptions for landlords.
Over the phone, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox said he and Jinkins "don't threaten each other," but he confirmed that Republicans didn't like the bill and that they would have launched "a robust" debate but not an "overwhelming" one. That is, they weren't preparing to go nuclear on this.
House Bill 1124, which would have given renters a heads-up on rent hikes over 5%, died because Republicans threatened to add a bunch of amendments to the bill after Dems basically reneged on a (bad) deal and tried to put a clean version of it on the floor, and so Jinkins just killed it before that happened and moved on.
Adding amendments to bills and debating them on the floor slows down the process and runs out the clock, which can endanger the lives of other bills that leadership deems a priority. Because House Democrats continue to impose a filibuster on themselves, ending debate requires a two-thirds vote of the body, which is nearly impossible to obtain, especially when Republicans are united on stuff. Jinkins also said the anti-rent-gouging bill "had the broadest possible topic," which suggests she felt her ability to quickly smack down those amendments would have been limited.
Those are all certainly words that one can say, but, at the end of the day, they amount to this: This year, Jinkins and Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig decided not to prioritize the needs of 40% of the state—the very people who they rely on to keep their majorities. Since Democrats literally control the rules, if they really wanted to, they could have found a way to make time for this legislation this year. (Or last year. Or in 2020. Or any of the years when the Legislature considered lifting the ban on rent control.) Wilcox only predicted a "two-to-four-hour debate" on the bill from his side. "Not impossible to deal with," he said.
For his part, Billig didn't even address the issue of rent stabilization directly. During the press conference, he argued that passing bills to increase housing supply will be "one of the best ways to control the [rent] price and increase access." While studies show that building lots of housing can slow rent increases in nearby neighborhoods a little, realistically it really is only a little (like 1% little), and it doesn't happen quickly. That's cold comfort for renters, who watched prices soar 92% in the last decade.
Sen. Emily Randall stepped in to save his ass a little, arguing that Senate Dems hear about the pain renters face "loud and clear from communities." She added that the caucus "definitely has interest" in doing something to alleviate that pain and said conversations would continue.
So, those are the reasons they give. The reasons they don't give might hit a little closer to home.
The Number of Current and Former Landlords in the Washington State Legislature
A quick glance at financial disclosure forms from every member in the House and Senate reveals that a number of politicians in both chambers have a personal financial interest maintaining the current power dynamic between renters and landlords, which is heavily tilted in favor of the latter.
The following lawmakers earn money from rents or have pledged their undying love to someone who does. I'm including two former landlords in this count, because they brought up their experience during debate on the rent stabilization bill, and it clearly influences their thinking on this issue.
Commercial or residential landlords in the House: 21/98
- Republicans: Reps. Andrew Barkis, Stephanie Barnard, Kelly Chambers, Bruce Chandler, Leonard Christian (former), Chris Corry, Tom Dent, Keith Goehner (former), Spencer Hutchins, Cyndy Jacobsen.
- Democrats: Reps. Steve Bergquist, Frank Chopp, Jake Fey, Mary Fosse, Mia Gregerson, Julia Reed, Cindy Ryu, Larry Springer, Chipalo Street, My-Linh Thai, Amy Walen.
Commercial or residential landlords in the Senate: 6/49
- Republicans: Sens. John Braun, Chris Gildon, Keith Wagoner, Judy Warnick
- Democrats: Sens. Karen Keiser, Mark Mullet
The weird thing about this list: Sure, the Republicans are nightmares on this issue, but most of the landlords on the Democratic side of the aisle champion renter bills. Rep. Chipalo Street co-sponsored the rent stabilization bill, and he makes more money in rents than almost every person on this list. When I texted another co-sponsor, Rep. Julia Reed, just to confirm her status as landlord, she called back to relay her frustration about the bill's death and to say she'd been working with other Reps to try to push leadership to help renters. Rep. Larry Springer, who almost always resists tenant protections, voted for the bill in the Appropriations Committee.
That level of support from landlords on a pro-tenant bill is kinda wild. But that's not the only dynamic at play here.
So Few Renters
Another problem is that practically everyone in the Legislature owns a home. Homeowners enjoy rent control in the form of fixed-rate mortgages. Unlike renters, they build good credit scores and equity with those payments. Unlike renters, they get tax breaks for owning their homes. Rising rents don't personally effect them because it doesn't disturb the water in which they swim every single day.
Check out the numbers:
People who don't own houses in the House: 7/98
- Democrats: Reps. Lauren Davis, Roger Goodman, David Hackney, Darya Farivar, and Sharlett Mena.
- Republicans: Reps. Joel McEntire and Skyler Rude.
People who don't own houses in the Senate: 3/49
- Democrats: T'wina Nobles, Marko Liias, and Bob Hasegawa.
- Republicans: They all own.
Ninety-four percent of the Senate owns a home, as does ninety-three percent of the House. These numbers show that renters are massively underrepresented in the Legislature, and so it only makes sense that when it comes time to cut for floor time, renters stand to lose.
Over the phone, Rep. Alex Ramel, who sponsored the anti-gouging bill, said he was "pretty disappointed" that Dems don't have anything on the "stabilization leg of the stool" for housing policy this year, referring to a three-legged metaphor Democrats used at the beginning of the session to describe their strategy of stabilization, supply, and support (i.e. limit rent-gouging, increase gentle density, and add more money for subsidized housing).
Despite his disappointment, he "absolutely" plans to keep fighting for similar legislation. Rep. Reed said she'd continue her push, too.
In the meantime, structural barriers in the Legislature—namely, all those landlords and Republicans—might mean advocates or the Legislature itself taking a serious look at running a statewide initiative sometime in the near future.