Olympia hearing focused on rental housing amendments; community divided


At Tuesday's Olympia City Council meeting, 29 community members expressed various views on rental protections and relocation assistance. Some called the proposed amendments "thinly veiled rent control," others believed it would help reduce homelessness and provide people with more stable housing.

The proposed regulations would be in addition to the rental registry legislation passed on November 14, 2023 (see related story). 

Christa Lenssen, the city's senior Housing Program specialist, outlined the draft amendments to Olympia's rental housing code, including relocation assistance and additional renter protections.

Some proposed amendments include:

  • A proposal requires landlords to provide relocation assistance to low-income tenants displaced when a property is condemned, demolished, or needs substantial rehabilitation.
  • Relocation assistance would be provided to tenants below 50% of the area median income level who are displaced when a property is demolished, substantially rehabilitated, or the use of changes. If passed, moving costs would be shared 50/50 between the city and the landlord.
  • Another proposal would require landlords to offer relocation assistance to tenants when they increase the rent by more than 5%. The amount of relocation assistance would be two times the monthly rent if the rent increases over 5% but less than 10%; and three times the monthly rent if the increase is 10% or more. If the tenant does not move out before the rent increase takes effect, the tenant would be required to repay that relocation assistance and pay the new rental amount.
  • The proposed code language defines and limits the types of fees that can be charged by a landlord. Permissible fees would include a late fee capped at $10 per month. It also allows for an application or a screening fee.
  • The proposed policy allows tenants to install their air conditioning units.
  • The proposed code language also includes an ability for tenants to break their lease without penalty after they receive the rent increase notice of over 5%.
  • There was also a proposal to exempt property owners from the rental registry, licensing, and inspection requirements for renting to immediate family members.

Councilmember Dani Madrone, who chairs the Land Use and Environment Committee that brought rental housing policies before the city council, acknowledged that the issue of rising housing costs has left the situation as "currently untenable." While noting that the proposals before the council may not work for all, she expressed that they were open to hearing alternative solutions from community members.

Tenant pre-screening not proposed

None of the proposed amendments covered prohibitions against pre-screening prospective tenants, such as those adopted by other cities in this region.

"Tenant Screening often includes criminal history, credit history, eviction history, income-to-rent ratios and requirements to provide a social security number," according to Lenssen. "Many of the sample policies from other jurisdictions do not completely prohibit a landlord from screening an applicant's criminal credit or eviction histories, but rather they provide guidance as to what kinds of information may be included for consideration and that screening."

Exemption for rental to immediate family members

Staff proposed an exemption from the rental registry licensing and inspection requirements for property owners who rent to their immediate family members. "These property owners could fill out [a form] to request this exemption and agree to register the unit if they ever decide to rent to someone outside of their family," according to Lenssen. "The affidavit also indicates that the property owner could lose the exemption if the city receives a complaint that the building conditions are uninhabitable or that there are violations of the city's rental housing code," she added. 

Jeff Sowers believed the proposed rental protections and relocation assistance would provide people with stable housing and reduce homelessness.
Jeff Sowers believed the proposed rental protections and relocation assistance would provide people with stable housing and reduce homelessness.

"Reasonable policies"

Jeff Sowers, a teacher at East Grays Harbor High School, mentioned the stress local youth face due to the difficult housing situation in Olympia and surrounding areas. He cited Thurston County Regional Planning Council data in two years from 2021-23, showing rent increased by over 37%, more than three times the inflation rate, and has continued to increase. "A big part of what created this terrible situation is high rental demand, as people migrate into our area from Seattle and elsewhere, and landlords taking advantage of the housing shortage in making unjustifiable and unfair increases in rent."

"These are reasonable policies," Sowers commented. "They are going to help stabilize the renting market, provide people with more stable housing, reduce homelessness."

Talauna Reed, a former chair of the Thurston County Affordable Housing Advisory Board, emphasized the need for tenant protections to address the statewide housing crisis and homelessness.

Talauna Reed emphasizes the need for tenant protections to address the housing crisis and homelessness.
Talauna Reed emphasizes the need for tenant protections to address the housing crisis and homelessness.

Currently working at the Tenants Union of Washington State, Reeds claimed she has data to show that more than 40,000 students in the state are currently homeless, which she said she believes is due to unchecked rent prices and a lack of regulatory protections for tenants.

Community member Cynthia narrated her experience as a renter in Olympia. She has lived in the same apartment since 2016 and experienced rent increases of at least 10% each year, bringing her total rent increase to nearly 70%. She also raised issues with new fees being charged by landlords, like parking spaces.

Izzy, a registered nurse, urged the city council to recognize housing as a key social determinant of health and pass tenant protections to help avoid potential evictions, homelessness, and worsening health outcomes.

Izzy noted a direct link between housing instability and health issues in her patients seeking medical care. She explained that patients are increasingly presenting with chronic conditions or other ailments stemming from or exacerbated by their unstable housing situations and the stress of high rental costs.

Speaking as a landlord and resident of Olympia, Joan urged the city council to include all stakeholders in discussions and consider small landlords who provide affordable housing.

Ozzie Bustamante spoke at the city council meeting about her experience working in housing at The Evergreen State College. She explained that many students are seeking emergency housing and living in their cars due to a lack of affordable options.

Bustamante urged the city council to recognize the housing crisis facing students and low-income residents needing more affordable rental opportunities. As a college employee, she noted difficulty finding housing they could afford in Olympia despite making a mid-range salary.

Former Olympia Mayor Bob Jacobs described the relocation assistance proposal as "thinly veiled rent control."
Former Olympia Mayor Bob Jacobs described the relocation assistance proposal as "thinly veiled rent control."

"Thinly veiled rent control"

Bob Jacobs opposed the relocation assistance proposal, calling it "thinly veiled rent control."

"The required relocation assistance for rent increases over 5% annually is so onerous as to essentially eliminate such rent increases. A poison pill that effectively turns the language into rent control," the former Olympia mayor said. He argued that such a provision was illegal under state law.

Jacobs, a former mayor of Olympia, said housing availability issues should be addressed through community-wide funding rather than burdening individual landlords. He urged the city council to reject the relocation assistance proposal or put it to the voters, as they did with the Home Fund, and let the people decide and provide the funding.

State Rep. Andrew Barkis encourages Olympia to form a housing task force to tackle rental assistance and tenant protection policies.
State Rep. Andrew Barkis encourages Olympia to form a housing task force to tackle rental assistance and tenant protection policies.

Washington State Rep. Andrew Barkis was opposed to the proposed ordinance. He argued that the city should work with all stakeholders, including tenant advocacy groups, to find collaborative solutions. He encouraged the city to form a housing task force at the state level to tackle rental assistance and tenant protection.

Whitney Bowerman expressed concern that new regulations made it more difficult for small landlords to operate. "Small landlords are an important part of Olympia's housing palette. They offer lower eviction rates and lower rents, and they screen people. I am deeply concerned that the regulation being passed by the city and the state is making it more difficult for small landlords to operate, and they are beginning to leave the market."

Bowerman noted unintended consequences from past tenant protection policies. She urged the city to slow down the process and bring all stakeholders to the table, including landlords, to develop comprehensive solutions to the housing crisis rather than reactive regulations that could increase housing prices.

Rob Rothwell said that in the last four years, they have lost more than 300 rental homes in Olympia as owners are selling their properties because of increased regulations.

Judy Bardin criticized the proposed rental regulations. She noted there had already been significant changes to rental policies in recent years, including the rental registry with housing inspection in 2023. "Landlords are trying to wrap their heads around these new requirements, and now the city is proposing even more onerous regulations."

Bardin urged the city council to exempt small landlords from these regulations, saying small operators like herself are not causing the issues of excessive rent increases.

She suggested that the city scrutinize the data they would be collecting from the upcoming rental registry program to identify major contributors to excessive rent increases and potentially direct policy solutions specifically to those groups.

No action was taken on the proposed amendments. The city council plans to deliberate further on them at its meeting on April 9. 


13 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JulesJames

    "How do we attract more owner-operated landlords to Olympia?" should be the question on the table. Owner-operated rentals tend to be 15% less expensive than fee-managed rentals. Owner-operated rentals tend to be provide a more diverse product with less reliance on computerized background checks and far less-frequent existing-tenant rent increases. And owner-operated rentals keep the "profit" within the community rather than shipping it off to some Wall Street REIT. How to we grow more owner-operated rentals? Treat landlords like competent well-meaning businesspersons. Olympia City Council has a long roll-back of foolish-to-vindictive regulation ahead.

    Wednesday, March 20 Report this

  • AugieH

    "These are reasonable policies," Sowers commented. "They are going to help stabilize the renting market, provide people with more stable housing, reduce homelessness."

    Sowers is an example of an activist who would defecate on his own doorstep to further his anti-landlord agenda. If Olympia micromanages landlords enough, they, especially the mom-and-pop ones, will simply sell their rentals as not worth the effort to manage. They will sell either to buyers who want to live in the former rental or to a national property management company that will icrease rents to recoup its investment. Either way, the pool of affordable rental housing is reduced and the former landlords laugh all the way to the bank.

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • jimlazar

    These regulations will push individual landlords out of the business, turning more rental management over to professionals. They charge 10% of the rent to the building owners. That will drive up rents. Plus the professional managers are often not as accommodating as individual rental owners.

    I sold my rentals several years ago because the hassle of being a landlord overwhelmed the economic benefit of being a rental owner. It's easier to invest my retirement funds into mutual funds, which generate a similar return on investment without any of the hassle.

    Soon Olympia will have fewer rentals, higher rents, and less accommodating rental managers as a result of this approach. It will backfire on the tenants, who will pay more and have a less cordial relationship with their landlords.

    It should be limited to apartments, nearly all of which are corporate-owned and professionally managed. Leave the small individual landlords with only light regulation.

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • DHanig

    My wife and I rent out a single family home in Olympia for 20% below the market rate. (We have limited rent increases as we want to retain a stable long-term tenant.). While I understand the pressure on elected officials to do something to make housing more affordable, I am concerned that the intensifying regulatory environment will lead many small landlords - such as ourselves - to exit the market. As single family rentals are converted to owner occupied homes, the housing stock will shrink and the remaining rental market will be increasingly controlled by corporations. (Unlike small landlords, corporations have the bandwidth and infrastructure to manage a complex array of regulations.). One way to avoid some of these problems would be to exempt small landlords by limiting the new regulations to entities that own more than 5 units. The city could monitor the impact of the new regulations without risking the negative impacts described above.

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • Yeti1981

    All one has to do is look to all the other jurisdictions where rent control has ultimately failed and forced more housing shortages. What's that saying about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time?

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • KellyOReilly

    As a renter within the City of Olympia, I hope the City Council does NOT pass the proposed amendments because they will drive more landlords out of business and result in much higher rents for us all. My partner and I love living in Olympia and we don't want to be forced to move away to a less desirable area due to the foolish policies that our City Council has proposed. As others have commented, the City Council should work WITH landlords rather than poison the playing field with such onerous policies. Rent control in any form does not work for renters or landlords. I've seen rent-controlled properties in Los Angeles and they were shabby and run down due lack of maintenance.

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • BobJacobs

    The proposed rent control provisions are not targeted to people in need. All renters benefit. Isn't this like giving Food Stamps to everybody, not just poor people.

    Can't the city find a better way? Like we did with the Home Fund -- target the assistance to those most in need, fund it via a city-wide tax, and let the public decide by putting it on the ballot.

    Bob Jacobs

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • SarahC

    These small landlords can cry all they want about how unfair it is, but they are a huge part of the problem. They know how much the larger rental companies are getting and price their rentals accordingly. They think nothing of raising your rent an unreasonable amount. They give you a rent increase notice and if you can't afford it you have 30 days to get out. They don't care if people have nowhere else to go. I don't know many people who can get together the money to pay first last and security deposit in that short amount of time.

    If they want to charge what the larger companies charge, they should follow the same rules.

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • JnNwmn

    The words that have been lost in this debate are "affordable housing". Private builders will not build affordable housing unless directed to do it. The city is not pushing their own lobbyists to tell the state legislature to pass legislation for more affordable housing laws. The city is not requiring affordable housing in the Olympia except token amounts. The people effected most by increasing rents are low-income individuals and families. These people need affordable housing. Not Tax Exempt Market Rate properties that are filling downtown Olympia. Why are people not protesting the MFTE, the Multi Family Tax Exemptions? Oh wait, there are people that have done this but have been ignored. Rezoning the city will not lower rents. Oh wait again, the people pointing that out have been ignored as well. The only way there will be affordable housing is to tell the City Councils that is what the people need.

    Thursday, March 21 Report this

  • AugieH

    "These small landlords can cry all they want about how unfair it is, but they are a huge part of the problem." - SarahC

    As a mom-and-pop landlord, I'm not crying that it's unfair, just stupid for reasons I submitted in my post above and echoed by others. The pool of affordable rentals will be reduced if the city is determined to micromanage landlords and their rentals. One has to look no further than Seattle to see that effect.

    And Sarah, please don't recklessly include me as part of the problem. In the past 6 years, my wife and I have raised the rent on our one 3-bedroom/2 bath, 1600+ sq foot single family house only $250/month ($1900 to $2150). Over that same period, the property tax has increased by $1200 as well as the cost of lawn care (which I pay for) and insurance. Should I mention the AC we installed at the tenants' request or the wood flooring we put in to replace carpet beginning to wear? I don't even know what the large property management companies charge for rent and I don't care.

    My current tenants are in their fifth year of occupancy. They love us and we love them (because they care for the home as if it was their own and pay the rent on time). At the inevitable point we have to sell the place, I hope they're still tenants and will wish to buy it. But that will remove the place from the affordable rental pool.

    Friday, March 22 Report this

  • MichelleM

    As mentioned by numerous people, these policies will increase rent long term as corporate entities are the issue. I hope you're listening Olympia.

    I rented for some time and corporate owned housing ALWAYS increases rent annually of at least $100 because they know moving is a hassle and I was paying far beyond what new tenants were. I moved into a privately owned home for 4 years without a rent increase and when my landlord sold, he gave me 60 days.

    When private landlords increase rent, it's generally due to increases in property tax, insurance, or a hefty loan needed for major work. The private landlord is making a very small profit that generally goes back into improving and maintaining the home.

    As a homeowner who plans to move into a home with others in a couple years, I plan to rent my 3 bedroom 1 bath home on a quarter acre near a lake for $2300/mo - enough to cover my expenses and a bit extra to make some major improvements like a heat pump, new siding/windows which will also save my tenants money on power costs and keep them comfortable in our increasingly hot summers.

    If an exception isn't made for mom and pop landlords, I'll be taking this affordable home off the market and will naturally sell to whomever offers the most...even if it's a corporate investor. Thus reducing affordable and fair rentals in Olympia and watching more people get squeezed for rent.

    I bought a home to control my housing payments. Owning a home costs a lot in terms of upkeep and I'd like to build generational wealth for my son. Renting my home to cover my costs allows me to do that. But Olympia seems set on maintaining the status quo by penalizing the very people who are actually doing well by renters because corporate housing will simply pass all the costs to renters to ensure they're profitable as opposed to breaking even as most private landlords do.

    I urge an exception for landlords who own under a certain number of units. There also needs to be clear conditions for the minimum acceptable conditions for inspections. If my windows are broken, they need to be replaced. If they're a bit drafty, that should be something noted to improve within x number of months/years as most homeowners with drafty windows note they need to start saving and need time so they live with it. Otherwise, inspections requiring higher standards than most homeowners would live in will also result in sales simply to avoid the hassle.

    Rentals should be maintained to a level that provides safety, reasonable comfort and well-being for tenants without over regulation.

    Friday, March 22 Report this

  • AugieH

    Let us not forget this excellent opinion piece on the subject of rentals published in the past by JOLT.


    Friday, March 22 Report this

  • WhitneyBowerman

    SarahC's comment is incorrect. Small landlords, statistically speaking, offer lower rents, lower eviction rates, resolve issues at lower levels, and are willing to rent to tenants who don't fit into a box. The JOLT slightly misquoted my comment at the hearing, which was that small landlords "screen people in" (not that they "screen people"), vs their corporate counterparts who rent only to tenants who fit into a clean little box.

    Some rent increases do need to occur, in order for even the small landlord to stay afloat - our property taxes, insurance, and maintenance increase every year. When I was a tenant I had no idea just how costly these items were, and I can tell you that my tenants are generally pretty clueless about what these costs look like on my end. It is important to realize that every rent increase is not a matter of the housing provider being greedy. As with anything, costs go up regularly in the housing industry.

    Small landlords also own and operate a large chunk of the single-family and small multi-family housing stock in Olympia. What happens as this stock is sold off, in part to home buyers, as small landlords leave the market? Will more and more tenants be relegated to apartment living, leaving single-family homes as something only available to homeowners and very wealthy tenants? This is another thing for Olympia to really consider.

    Monday, March 25 Report this