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When one person’s home is another person’s investment property

Renters’ Forum

Imagine getting a notice to vacate your home — in a short 20 days. You must pack up, look for new lodgings whose rent you can manage. Then meet the financial demands of a new landlord if you do find a place: first and last month’s rent; security deposit, possibly other fees. And if you can’t find a new place, move in with a relative or friend. Or join the ranks of the homeless.

Such short-notice evictions were the experience of many people who spoke at a recent forum on “renter protections and the future of renting in Olympia.” The forum was organized by members of the City’s Land Use and Environment committee to discuss the crisis faced by renters in Olympia as landlords raise rents while employers pay the same wages year after year.

About 100 people were in attendance at Washington Middle School, half tenants and half landlords with a few Council members and individuals from Washington Community Action Network (WACAN).

Xochitl Maykovich of WACAN opened the forum with a plea for greater protections for renters from short-term evictions. In addition, she said, renters need protection from rapidly rising rents. The majority of households in Olympia are renters, and of those, half pay more than 50% of their income in rent. At the same time, there are fewer listings for rental units.

WACAN previously supported renters when they asked Olympia City Council members last November to address affordability by adopting an ordinance that would allow move-in fees to be paid in installments. Similar ordinances are in effect in other Washington cities. The Council has not yet determined what it will do in response to this request.

Landlords at the forum, for their part, described the lengths they go to to seek out and maintain good tenants — and avoid evictions that can involve long processes or turn into extended vacancies.

As for rising rents, one explanation was that at times they were forced to increase rents or consider selling their properties. They named taxes and fees, regulatory requirements to upgrade, and market dynamics as among the things driving them to increase rents.

Both tenants and landlords agreed that the city needs more rental units available at affordable rates. One suggestion was that new homes and duplexes could help mitigate rent levels. In discussing where such units could come from, landlords pointed to accessory dwelling units (ADUs) but said building them is not attractive because city fees range from $30-$40,000 for these units while less could be charged for rent because of their small size. The county’s Section 8 housing voucher program has not succeeded in changing the picture for low-income individuals or families.

In the end, landlords acknowledged that a shortage of rental housing creates an incentive to charge rents that match the market. Even with the addition of several new apartment buildings in downtown Olympia, however, rents have gone up and formerly affordable apartments have been renovated for higher rents. Erin Fenner of WACAN suggested that, in light of this, what’s needed is public funding for new rental infrastructure. And soon.

Reporting for this article was provided by Baxter Lee, who covered the event.

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