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Renters’ Rights Passed Over in Olympia – So Far

February 16, 2009

Olympia, WA – One consequence of Washington's budget crisis is that some legislation not directly budget-related has been shoved to the sidelines. This year the list includes two bills to improve access to affordable housing. Senate Bill 5922 would protect renters looking for apartments, and SB 5923 would create a new funding source for more-affordable rentals.

Senate Bill 5922 is called the "Fair Tenant Screening Act." When would-be renters pay an application fee for a screening report, they usually do not see what it says. The bill requires that they receive a copy, which they can use for 60 days to look for housing instead of having to pay more fees for a new screening report for each potential rental site.

Jonathan Grant, a housing counselor for the group Solid Ground, says this would solve an all-too-common problem, especially for low-income renters.

"They will apply for housing at one place, pay the $35 or $80 for the screening fee and get denied; go to another place, pay the fee again – and again and again. I had one client who paid more than $500 in application costs and is still currently homeless."

The bill also gives renters the opportunity to correct inaccurate information on screening reports. Grant says enacting this legislation will not cost the state anything. It has not yet had a hearing, however, and he expects credit screening companies to object when it does, because they would make less money on fees.

Another bill, SB 5923, would use the interest that landlords make from their renters' security deposits to help fund a state program for very low-income people and the homeless called "Affordable Housing for All." Lynn Davison, executive director of the housing group Common Ground, says that program has been under-funded for years.

"We're not talking about getting huge amounts of money from individual landlords. It only gets to be a significant amount of money when it's collected from everyone, put in one pot, and then carefully dedicated to be used by those who need it the very most."

Davison says a similar system is already in place in the legal profession, which takes interest made on attorneys' retainers and uses it to fund public defense. She expects some pushback from landlords, for the extra paperwork involved and because they would no longer be keeping the interest money for themselves.

Both bills are awaiting hearing in the Senate Financial Institutions, Housing & Insurance Committee. Most bills must receive a hearing by February 25 or they will be effectively dead for this legislative session.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA