The March 5th forum on rental regulation was a spirited evening. Four members of City Council and Olympia’s senior staff people listened to community advice and concerns about rental housing. Two organizations worked to turn out members.
The Washington Community Action Network mobilized low-income and formerly homeless renters, while a landlord association recruited small landlords who own rental houses. Though the two groups don’t intersect in landlord and tenant relations, they share fears and concerns related to uncertainty and instability in our economy.
The power imbalance between renters and landlords was palpable. Before the meeting began landlords found seats at the table and visited with city staff. Renters huddled in the school hallway until the meeting began, then demanded an opportunity to share statements of grievances that they had prepared. Landlords responded in kind with their fears of regulation and increased costs.
The tension in the room underscored the serious challenges we face as a community. Rents are increasing much faster than wages are increasing. Our population has grown more quickly than new housing has been built, leading to competition for available rental units. The hot West Coast real estate market has brought investors from outside of our community bidding up the price and buying houses and apartments.
So where do we start? Here are my takeaways from my listening. I believe we start with rental registration. Today, neither the City or the County knows which houses in Olympia are rentals and which are owner occupied. We need fire-safety inspections on rental housing.
We also need to create a clear and simple path for renters and landlords to address conflicts. Perhaps this is publicizing the work of the Dispute Resolution Center. Maybe it’s a public ombudsperson. People need to know where they can turn when there is conflict and housing is at risk.
Clark Gilman is a long-time resident of the Westside and an Olympia City Councilperson.