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Washington lawmakers propose tying rent increases to inflation

An apartment complex in Kendall Yards in Spokane. Over the last year few years many tenants have struggled to find, or keep their housing as rent has increased.
Rebecca White
Spokane Public Radio
An apartment complex in Kendall Yards in Spokane. Over the last year few years many tenants have struggled to find, or keep their housing as rent has increased.

Two Washington lawmakers have proposed bills that would tie rent increases to inflation.

The legislators say skyrocketing rents and large increases in homelessness over the last several years have shown state intervention is needed.

If western Washington Representatives Nicole Macri and Alex Ramel’s bills become law, landlords could raise rents no more than roughly a 3-percent annually. Macri said excessive, and sometimes predatory, rent increases have created a displacement crisis.

“In the last year I've talked to constituents in Eastern Washington, up and down the I-5 corridor, Puget Sound, about rent increases that are unimaginable to me,” Macri said. “50 percent, 70 percent, 100 percent. We have an obligation as we work on the housing crisis. There are many things that we need to do, but first, and foremost we need to make sure that people today can find some stability.”

According to data from the Washington Center for Real Estate Research, a University of Washington project, rent on average statewide was about $1,516 a month at the start of the pandemic.

At the end of 2022, statewide rent was $1,866, which means on average Washington residents are paying around $350 more a month in rent than they were at the start of the pandemic. Many tenants have reported much higher increases as vacancy rates remained low.

The legislation does include a few exceptions. New construction would be exempt from the cap for 10 years. And the law would apply only to ongoing tenancy. When a renter leaves voluntarily, a landlord would be allowed to raise the rent of the vacated unit to market rate.

Under Ramel’s proposal, landlords could also bank their 3 percent increase for future years if they do not raise the rent. For example, if a landlord decided to forego rent increase for five years, they could in one year raise rent by 15 percent. They could also raise rent higher if they’ve documented improvements to the unit, or can prove some other hardship that would require increased rents.

The bills would also give Washington’s Attorney General enforcement power. Under current law, tenants must take their landlords to court if they believe they did something illegal.

The proposals each have more than 20 sponsors, but will likely face stiff opposition from landlords and other multi-family housing groups. Landlords have long raised concerns that regulating rent could discourage development, or lead to smaller landlords to sell their properties.

The two bills were introduced Tuesday and have not yet been scheduled for hearings.

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.