Letters: Housing policy creates desperation

In the year that has passed since I first wrote on this topic for the Seattle Times, it has become clear that “renter protection” policies in Seattle are taking their toll on – ironically – renters in Seattle. Housing costs have risen all around the country, that’s nothing unique to us here in the Emerald City, but equally important is the lack of housing choices to begin with.

On April 20, an organization called ARCH (A Regional Coalition for Housing) sent a letter to its member cities located throughout King County’s Eastside encouraging them to adopt similar policies in the name of preserving affordable housing. Sadly, they are blind to the fact that what we have is not a policy problem, it’s a supply and demand problem. This is another attempt at blanket policy stemming from issues with apartment housing that will cause a ripple effect with single-family housing, ultimately backfiring with even further supply loss. Solutions need to be more targeted toward those in need.

The Seattle Housing Authority co-sponsored a “landlord symposium” event on April 28, during which one of their staffers, when asked about the availability of larger (3+ bedroom) rental homes, told me “There is a high demand for 3+ bedrooms. It has been challenging to find homes for our larger families.”

But it’s not just Section 8 voucher holders having a hard time finding a rental to suit their households’ needs. The reality is that well-heeled renters are snapping up homes far below their financial means simply because they cannot find anything else. The loss of housing supply is most pointed in Seattle, but the effects span across the region in all situations and price points. One of our firm’s leasing agents, Marianna R., reported the following to me in late April: “A lot of people are looking for homes in Queen Anne due to their (current landlord) selling and there is not much out there. Everyone is desperate and want to know the best way to secure a home. The people I talked to are basically on Zillow 24/7. They feel hopeless and disappointed to find out they are not the first one. It breaks my heart to deliver the bad news.”

It’s one thing to hear about this anecdotally from a leasing agent, but it’s another to speak with someone directly who is affected by Seattle’s legal policies in relation to their rental home search. Scott Hunter has been leasing a home through our firm since 2016. He has a special needs teenage son whose condition has developed to the point where Hunter needed to find a one-story house for his family; his son is getting too heavy to carry up and down the stairs. Recounting his experience, Hunter told our office “The main problem with Seattle rentals, as you likely know, is the First-In-Time rule, which is asinine to me.” Fortunately, we were able to help secure a one-story home for Hunter’s family in nearby Lake Forest Park. Mr. Hunter experienced first-hand the inadequacies that I have long held over Seattle rental housing policy. With First-In-Time in particular, it rewards people with free time to constantly surf rental listings, or have easy access to a vehicle, or both. Leaving those with other demanding work or other commitments behind in the pecking order, not to mention those whose housing choices are inherently limited by challenges such as restricted mobility. Just another in a very long list of unintended consequences. In other words, policies are hurting those that they would supposedly aim to assist.

And of course, when options are minimal within the city limits, people will start to look elsewhere. We have seen significant regional impact. According to the NWMLS, the cost to lease a single-family home in the South King / Pierce County market increased by a whopping 23.53% on a per-square-foot basis in 2021, compared to 2020. To be clear these are rates for new leases, these are not rent increases for existing tenancies. Areas traditionally regarded as more affordable are becoming increasingly more and more expensive as the search for housing extends beyond the most populous city in the Pacific Northwest.

If supporters of Seattle City Council’s restrictive housing policy won’t take it from me, perhaps they’ll be willing to listen to fellow renters who are struggling to find a place to live. The number of single-family rental houses lost in Seattle over the past year (May 2021 to April 2022) is staggering (2,538 that we know of, almost exactly the number that I predicted last year). Bodies such as ARCH, the Kenmore City Council, and others will face similar consequences for their constituents by passing misguided, counterproductive blanket housing policy.

Cory Brewer is the vice president of residential operations at Windermere Property Management / Lori Gill & Associates. He is also a member of the board of directors at the Rental Housing Association of Washington.