Has the Seattle City Council turned against landlords?

sawant clenched fist

Lobbyist Jamie Durkan says Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s militancy has changed city hall’s politics. (flickr.com)

The Rental Housing Association of Washington spent big to lobby the city council, but lost. Will they see the city in court?

Last year, the Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHA) spent the third highest amount of any company lobbying the Seattle City Council: $52,000. Even so, the city council passed three new laws that RHA opposed: a cap on move-in fees; a ban on rent increases at substandard properties; and a “first-in-time” law that aims to eliminate discriminatory practices in rental housing.

Normally lobbyists don’t talk about their successes or their defeats. This year, however, after 30 years as a lobbyist and three years representing RHA, Martin “Jamie” Durkan Jr retired.

Durkan operated as an independent or “contract” lobbyist. Over the years, he has represented many different clients and lobbied local, county and state governments. His newly retired status allows him to speak frankly and he has bad news for his clients and colleagues. “Anybody who spends a dollar lobbying the Seattle City Council is wasting a dollar,” he says. As far as RHA is concerned, Durkan observes, “It was probably the hardest client to represent in Seattle.”

Jessa Lewis, Executive Director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, says, “Over half of Seattle residents are tenants and the city council’s job is to be responsive to the needs of their constituents.”

If, as Durkan argues, the city council has turned against landlords, what will the RHA do in response?

On March 9, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed suit against the city of Seattle over the “first-in-time” law. The Foundation argues that the law is a violation of “state constitutional protections for property rights.”

Will RHA follow with a lawsuit challenging the cap on move-in fees or the ban on rent increases at substandard properties?

Rental Housing Association: 5,000 members and a legal defense fund

RHA was established in 1935 and has over 5,000 members. Half of RHA landlords only own one or two rental units. (Bigger landlords are members of the Washington Multi-Family Association.) According to the RHA website, in 1989, the organization really took off after it brought a lawsuit against Seattle charging landlords mandatory fees for a rental-housing inspection program. In 1996, Seattle settled the case and refunded the fees.

RHA has three arms: A PAC (political-action committee) that endorses and spends money for favored candidates; a legal defense fund that “continues a tradition of initiating, defending, and intervening in litigation;” and a “lobbying effort” that employs lobbyists at city, county and state governments.

In the past, RHA has had some big lobbying successes. In 1980, after Seattle voters rejected a rent-control initiative, RHA went to the state legislature and had rent-control banned statewide.

Durkan says RHA no longer has power in Seattle. “I don’t think a lobbyist can have any impact on the city council,” he says.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold gives a very different account of the effectiveness of RHA’s lobbying. “I met with RHA several times this year — they are a helpful resource in understanding how our proposed policies might impact smaller landlords. Amendments I sponsored to [the first-in-time] and move-in fees bills were informed by my meetings with them.”

Durkan comments, “I like Lisa.” He adds, “Lisa listens but she disagrees.”

Sawant’s “army”

Durkan focuses his discontent on a different councilmember: socialist Kshama Sawant. He attributes the change in the council’s political atmosphere to the power of Sawant and “her army” of supporters.

Durkan says, “It really got to be frustrating.” He adds, The councilmembers “say all the right things in their offices, then they get out of the podium and it all goes south.” Durkan attributes this behavior to the militancy of “Sawant’s army” in the city council’s chambers. He believes Sawant’s supporters express a “mob mentality” with “cat calls and name calling.” In the face of this bellicosity, the councilmembers fold, Durkan claims. “Even some of the most sane and rational councilmembers drift left because they are afraid of Sawant,” says Durkan.

Ted Virdone, a legislative aide to Sawant, disputes this analysis. “Whether Councilmember Sawant has power or no power depends on the movement,” he says. “It’s the movement that Councilmember Sawant speaks for.” He dismisses the idea of a “mob mentality.” He says, “The movement makes well-said, thought-out points. It doesn’t engage in name calling.”

The Tenants’ Union’s Lewis says, “It is important for tenants to be mobilized and supported by organizations like the Tenants’ Union to ensure their voices are represented when big decisions are made.”

Will RHA sue?

If RHA can’t win at city hall, will it turn to the courts? Even Durkan won’t answer questions on the topic. RHA does, however, have a history of pursuing court challenges to laws it disfavors.

Councilmember Sawant told The Stranger that RHA has threatened to sue over the substandard-properties law. And on its blog, the RHA writes, the “first-in-time” law “either doesn’t make sense, is illegal, or is a combination of both.”

Sean Martin, RHA’s External Affairs Director, states that the organization has helped with Pacific Legal’s lawsuit against the “first-in-time” law, but it is not a party to the legal action. “We have collaborated with Pacific Legal, but they are the lead and are handling all aspects of the lawsuit,” states RHA’s Martin.

Will RHA file a lawsuit on the substandard-properties law or the cap on move-in fees? RHA’s Martin replies, “Our Legal Defense Fund Committee is in the process of reviewing the cap on move-in fees legislation, the same as any other legislation which is enacted that we have concerns with, to determine if any legal issues exist. If we elect to file a lawsuit, we will make an announcement at that time.”

If RHA does file lawsuits, they’ll most likely come in the next 60 days.

“I don’t think they are going to have a [city-hall] lobbyist anymore,” says Durkan. “They are going to turn their attention elsewhere.”

Questions, tips, comments: georgehowlandjr@gmail.com

Award winning journalist George Howland Jr has been hired by Seattle Displacement Coalition to write for Outside City Hall about city politics, housing, homelessness and land use. He works under his own editorial direction. The Displacement Coalition plays no role in choosing his specific subjects or editing his copy.

About George Howland Jr

Since 1977, George Howland Jr. has lived in Seattle and written reportage, opinion pieces, memoirs, fiction and book and music reviews. He has worked at Real Change, Seattle Weekly and The Stranger. Email: georgehowlandjr(at)gmail(dot)com
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