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'The Math Doesn't Work' : Spokane Tenants Fear Displacement As Rents Spike

Rebecca White/SPR

Since Dolores DeSantis and her husband were moved to the Spokane area by the Air Force a year ago, they’ve tried to buy a house. They were outbid every time.

After a notice from her landlord last week, many rentals feel out of reach as well.

Her rent is going up by 37%.

“I felt like the stressful move here, the whole year of stress, it finally settled, and I was now at the point where I could breathe, but now we’re in the same spot. And it’s really overwhelming,” DeSantis said.

She lives in a duplex in a 55-plus community and she and her neighbor Patty Bullick are worried about their rent. Bullick and her husband are also facing a 37% increase.

“Here’s the problem, we were spending 50% of our Social Security on rent before it went up. Now, it’s going to be 75% of our income on rent. We’re having to get into our retirement savings, which we weren’t going to do,” she said.

According to data from Apartment, which tracks rent across the U.S., average rent in Spokane Valley is 41.6% higher in July of this year than it was the same time last year. That’s one of the highest increases of the cities it tracks. The city of Spokane wasn’t far behind with a 29.3% increase compared to July of last year.

Jeannie Austin, a Cheney School District employee, said her rent increase was so high she can no longer afford to live on her own.

“So, my rent’s going up 47%," she said. "My raise at the school district was 2.5%. The math doesn’t work.”

Austin said she’s stayed employed throughout the pandemic, and paid her rent on time. She said she is now looking for jobs in western Washington and is planning to move in with her sister.

“Food’s going up, gas is going up. In the wintertime the price of electricity is going to go up," she said. "It’s not just the rent itself. Having the rent on top of everything else, I just don’t see how people are going to be able to manage,” she said.

Her complex is owned by real-estate developer Lanzce Douglass. His family owns large scale developments throughout the region. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Terri Anderson, the executive director of the Spokane branch of the Tenant’s Union, said she’s heard hundreds of similar stories since the moratorium on evictions and rent increases expired.

“If you haven’t received an early resolution and are at risk of being evicted, you will be getting a rent increase notice. Those are the two things happening to tenants right now,” she said.

Anderson said, in addition to raising the rent, many tenants are receiving notices of new, or much higher, fees that drastically increase what they spend on housing.

“It’s really hard for tenants to maneuver through these notices that look like rent increases, feel like rent increases, but are being described as a fee,” she said.

Anderson said now that a state law has gone into effect banning no cause evictions, tenants might want to consider organizing, and petitioning their landlords together for a smaller increase. She said in the past, she did not encourage tenants to speak up, because their landlord could legally push them out of their housing.

She said she’s also advocating local leaders to consider passing an ordinance that would require landlords to pay relocation fees if they raise rent so high a tenant can no longer afford to live there.

Spokane County’s rent increases are driven by a few factors, said James Young, the director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington.

“This is what generally happens – if house prices increase then within six to 12 months, sometimes 18 months, you start to see rent increases, but instead of getting the rent increases like you would get gradually over time because of the moratorium, rents are increasing all at once, right now,” he said.

According to the Spokane Association of Realtors’ monthly report, the median home price was up 31% this July, to $395,000 compared to $301,000 in July 2020.

Young said another factor is supply and demand. Spokane’s vacancy rate for apartments is 0.5% and the city is behind on new housing construction.

Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said she’s afraid requiring landlords to cover moving expenses could exacerbate the issue.

“I don’t see that as a solution honestly," she said. "You’re creating this further divide between tenants and landlords,” she said. “If there’s federal money available (American Rescue Plan funds), that’s what we should use. If there’s state money available, that’s what we should use.”

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the city could run afoul of a 40-year old state law that forbids local governments from regulating rent – if they try to require landlords to pay relocation money.

Brett Waller, the policy director for the Multi-family Housing Association, argued against government intervention – saying landlords are responding to the increasing inflation, worker shortages and fallout from the moratorium on rent increases and evictions.

“When you implement a policy like rent control, or you create regulations that penalize property owners for the rent that they charge and having to recover those rental costs, you simply create a disincentive for them to continue to operate that property as a rental property, or invest in the Spokane market and build more housing,” he said.

He argued that if the state legislature wants to address the housing crisis, it should consider adopting a law similar to Oregon’s, which effectively banned single-family-only zoning and allows developers to build more dense housing, like duplexes, in more places.

Washington state Sen. Patty Kuderer said state legislators may consider both rent stabilization and less restrictive zoning next legislative session.

Kuderer is the chair of the Senate Housing and Local Government Committee, and said there have been several ideas proposed to address the state’s housing crisis.

She said she is working on setting up a meeting with legislators from Oregon to discuss changes to statewide zoning. She said she’s also working on a statewide rental registry, which she said could give the legislature the tools and data it needs to craft better housing policies.

She said, lastly, the legislature could consider a temporary form of rent stabilization.

Kuderer said the vice chair of her committee, Senator Mona Das, has introduced a bill that would put limited caps on rent increases. It would temporarily tie rent increases to the consumer price index – which is a tool used to measure inflation.

She said she’s also heard arguments from landlords that new tenant protections would drive them out of the market.

“That’s the same argument we heard when we first changed the Landlord Residential Tenant Act, when we went from three days to 14 days to give an eviction notice and we allowed the judge to use discretion on whether or not fees should be awarded,” she said. “We heard that people were going to exit the rental market. That has not been the case. I hear a lot about the mom and pops that are under a lot of strain. It’s not that I don’t feel that’s true. I think that they’re being used as a proxy for larger property managers to increase the rent when they don’t actually need to.”

She’s hoping the rental index and other tools her committee is considering could improve the housing situation long term. She said, in the short term, tenants and cities may need to rely on the rental assistance and other emergency tenant measures the legislature approved last session, or are from the American Rescue Plan. 

Spokane Valley duplex renters Patty Bullick and Dolores DeSantis said they’re trying to plan their next steps.

DeSantis says her husband is a year away from retirement, and she hopes he’ll find a civilian job that will cover the rapidly increasing cost of living.

She said she’s avoided working in the past because of health issues. She has Rheumatoid Arthritis, and struggles with pain, but said they may need two incomes to afford to stay in Spokane.

Bullick and her husband own property where a house is being built for them, but haven’t been able to move in due to construction delays caused by the pandemic. The soonest their home could be ready is December, and they’ll likely need to dip into their retirement savings to make it until then.

She said what she has done in the meantime, is contact every elected official she can think of in hopes that someone will intervene.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.
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