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Seattle initiative would make rent more transparent

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I-127 would require landlords to give a breakdown of where the money goes

Three buildings with fire escapes, one tan, one brick, and one green, right up against one another Rennett Stowe/Flickr

An initiative gathering signatures in Seattle could help renters understand what they pay for every month—and help the city look at the big picture with housing costs.

Initiative 127, which was approved to start collecting signatures on Friday, would require landlords to provide a cost breakdown along with rent, including mortgage, insurance, property taxes, fees, and maintenance. The documentation would have to be provided with every new rental agreement or rent increase.

Devin Silvernail, who filed the initiative, is also executive director of organizing nonprofit Be:Seattle, which runs Tenant Rights Bootcamps to help arm Seattle renters with knowledge.

“We’ve had almost universally positive responses,” Silvernail tells us. “We’ve had renters give good feedback obviously, but we’ve also had home owners, small-scale landlords, and people who work in property management tell us that they think this is a useful and easy-to-implement idea. That’s really encouraging this early on.”

If the law passes, landlords would have 120 days to provide the information to existing renters. If any of those renters want to make sure the breakdown is accurate, they can request proof, and the landlord would have 90 days to provide it.

The city would open an online portal for voluntary reporting of rent increases, and after five years, the information would be included in each rental registration or renewal with the city.

Every month a landlord doesn’t comply would incur a $100 per month penalty. Owner-occupied single-family units, mother-in-law or cottage units, multifamily buildings with less than three units, and subsidized properties would be exempt.

While the text of the initiative specifically points out rising rent in Seattle, Silvernail says curbing housing costs isn’t the point.

“We don’t think this will deter landlords from implementing rent increases, and really that’s not the point of the initiative,” he explains. “We know that many renters just want to understand the price-setting and rent increase process, and how they factor into it. It really boils down to them just wanting to see what they’re paying for.”

Rent transparency, Silvernail says, could help build positive landlord-tenant relationships.

Still, some landlords are bound to view this as cumbersome at best. “We hear you,” says Silvernail. This is why the initiative includes the information in what landlords already give tenants, “like leases and increase notices—both of which protect landlords and their tenants.”

“If they aren’t calculating cost vs. benefit to set prices already, there might be some work up front,” he acknowledges, noting that the initiative allows three months before tenants get the information. “But once that process is started, they’ll have a system in place they’ll seldom have to update.”

No other tenant advocacy groups are on board yet, although Silvernail says they’re in talks with some organizations. “For the time being this is as grassroots as it gets: neighbors volunteering their time to go out and gather signatures.”

The initiative has until September 13 to collect more than 20,638 signatures. If the signatures are collected, the measure will go to the City Council for a vote—and possibly to the ballot.

Update, April 3: In a statement, the Rental Housing Association of Washington (RHA), which advocates for area landlords, said that the initiative “piles on to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy Seattle has pursued against small landlords, and would further reduce Seattle’s affordable housing stock as small landlords choose to sell to owner-occupants or developers building new, luxury housing.”

The statement continued, “How is it useful for a renter to know that a landlord, while generating revenue, was building a cash reserve to fund a roof replacement or similar capital expense? What next, a breakdown of all expenses that go into producing a bottle of shampoo, a box of cereal, or a cup of coffee?”

In a Twitter post, RHA called the initiative “dumb” and “illegal.”