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Spokane City Council passes new renter protections, increases enforcement

Nick Bramhall via flickr

The Spokane City Council has passed two new codes aimed at protecting renters from unsafe housing.

The first new law, which was approved unanimously, would fund more code enforcement officers, a rental registry and require landlords to have a business license.

Spokane City Councilmember Betsy Wilkerson said it will address decades of lax enforcement on older rental properties.

“The basis for me is dedicated resources for code enforcement,” she said. “It’s a sad statement for us, as the city, that we have not been enforcing the laws on our books. There was not the resources to do that, we are trying to get the dedicated funding to up our game to make the units that are out there more safe, and habitable, for the people who live in Spokane.”

The second new law that was passed, with five our of seven council members voting for it, created a private right of action for tenants when their landlords violate their rights. It protects tenants from retaliation, and requires landlords to tell them about mold, or previous meth use in their unit.

The city council heard from dozens of landlords and tenants on the proposals. Several tenants shared stories of living in unsafe conditions, such as inadequate heat or air conditioning during extremely hot, or cold temperatures. One tenant, Michelle Pappas, shared a story of overcoming homelessness, only to end up living in apartment with serious mold damage. She said it impacted the health of her partner and her son.

“I know today there is someone living in that unit that has a small child, that is being exposed to the same things that we were exposed to for two years," she said. "I also know that by sharing my story, I have found that my story is not at all unique. That it is consistent, that it happens to far too many of our community members."

Landlords said they feared the new regulations would make operating in Spokane unaffordable and would lead to higher rents. Others, such as Tom Hormel, president of the Spokane Association of Realtors, said it would damage the region’s ability to construct new rental housing.

“If you cared about the cost of housing you’d do all you could to minimize your impact on the creation of new housing,” he said. “That is not done by passing new regulations that will cause builders and developers to pass us over on their way to North Idaho.”

Spokane City Council Breean Breggs argued proposals the city council passed last year, including an affordable housing fund and allowing density throughout the city, could address those concerns.

Spokane’s mayor opposed the second ordinance, along with the two conservative council members. In a press release Monday night, she said more regulations and costs for landlords will likely end up hurting tenants.

She said the city council, which made some changes hours before they voted, should have delayed the vote.

“Housing stability is a complicated challenge that deserves the time needed to work through important details without the pressure of a deadline,” she said. “This issue has been met with a lot of passion since it was introduced right before the holidays. Deferring action on the ordinance unfortunately wasn’t enough as Council made changes to the ordinance right up until acting on it."

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.