Is the “Carl Haglund law” anti-urbanist?
The new Seattle regulation, which forbids landlords from raising rents if their buildings violate city building codes designed to protect life and safety, is named for the notorious Southeast Seattle landlord who bought a Rainier Valley apartment complex and tried to double his new tenants’ rents, despite the fact that the complex was infested with roaches, rats, and mold and had dozens of other housing code violations. Council member Kshama Sawant pushed for the new rules, which tenant advocates argue will provide another layer of protection for tenants who currently lack much recourse when landlords refuse to do repairs or try to force tenants out with unjustified rent increases.
But there’s another perspective on the law, one raised by self-described urbanists and landlords who say the regulations could force them to sell their properties to developers, leaving low-income tenants with fewer places to live in the city. Their argument goes like this: Small landlords who rent out “naturally affordable” housing keep their prices low by deferring maintenance on the small stuff—painting exteriors less frequently, or putting off energy upgrades, for example. If they’re forced to suddenly comply with every bit of minutia in the building code, there’s no way they can afford it—and without hundreds of thousands in reserves, they’ll have to raise their rents to pay for the repairs. Backed into a corner by the city, some will be forced to sell—most likely to developers who will build luxury new housing, displacing the low-income people who were living there.
Charlie Cunniff, a retired city Office of Economic Development staffer and former head of the Seattle Climate Partnership, rents out five units—a duplex and a triplex. He says he keeps the two buildings in good repair, and raises rents a little bit every year to cover basic maintenance and inflation, but wonders, “What will happen if our boiler blows up?”
Or, “Let’s say that you buy a new building and unbeknownst to you, there’s been years and years and years of deferred maintenance. … You’ve already paid $200,000 for the down payment and [taken out] another loan for $800,000 and the previous landlord has deferred the maintenance and you need to fix the windows, the boiler, and all these other things. Where do you get the cash? If the place is moribund and all the windows are broken, that’s one thing. But if it’s just substandard and people are okay with living there…”
Cunniff says he has no problem with the law, although he does think enforcing existing rules, like the rental housing inspection law that passed in 2010, would be more effective than adding new regulations without the funding to enforce them. Developer lobbyist Roger Valdez, in contrast, argues that the new rules will lead to unintended consequences, like the destruction of existing affordable housing.
Valdez, who in addition to his work on behalf of small developers is a professional contrarian, says Sawant and others who support the Haglund law “want to declare a war on landlords, which is sort of like, in a time of food crisis, declaring war on supermarkets. … Make more bread. That’s the solution. Make more housing.”
Former Tenants Union director Jon Grant has an analogy of his own for landlords who say they can’t afford to make unanticipated repairs: They’re “like a small restaurant owner not cooking their chicken all the way through and letting all their customers get sick, and when the health department comes and says, ‘You need to make sure your chicken isn’t hurting people,” the small business owner saying, ‘That’s unreasonable—I’d have to fix my rotisserie, and that’s expensive!’ The cost of doing business is that you make sure you’re maintaining your properties and keeping them safe.”
Valdez counters that the city already has a “sufficient mechanism” for making sure landlords aren’t cutting corners—the Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, which passed in 2010. “In cases where people are deliberately letting buildings run down and intimidating tenants, then hold those people accountable, but we already have the resources to do that,” Valdez says.
But that inspection ordinance didn’t manage to catch Haglund’s dozens of code violations—a sign to tenant advocates like Grant that the city needs to do more to counter bad actors. Valdez and Grant actually agree that rental inspection ordinance lacks funding and teeth, but to Valdez, that’s a reason to focus on improving that program (“If buildings like Carl’s can pass the city inspection, why isn’t the city saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s fix that program”), and to Grant, it’s a sign that the program isn’t doing enough on its own. “He’s trying to say [the rental inspection law is] a reason we don’t need this ordinance, but I would say we need this ordinance and we also need to fix RRIO, because it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do,” Grant says.
Obviously, the council is sympathetic to Grant’s position, voting 8-0 (Bruce Harrell, who abstained on the original rental housing inspection ordinance, was excused) to pass it. Lisa Herbold, a former aide to lefty council stalwart Nick Licata, who retired this year, said Monday that any “reliance on rent increases in order to finance basic life safety repairs is completely unfair.” The Rental Housing Association, the group the Stranger reports has “hinted at a lawsuit” opposing the law, did not return a call for comment.