Olympia modifies, extends rental housing regulations

City council works toward amending relocation assistance and tenant protections


In a unanimous vote, the Olympia City Council approved a first reading that would lead to additional rental housing policies with some tweaks on key elements.

The additional elements would include relocation assistance thresholds, lease-breaking timelines, family definition for rental registry exemption, licensing and inspection requirements - to strengthen tenant rights and assistance programs.

After two hours of deliberation on the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Dani Madrone, who also chairs the Land Use and Environment Committee that brought the rental housing policies before the city council, made a motion to amend OMC 5.82 related to relocation assistance and additional renter protections. She provided a lengthy summary of the motion before voting.

The regulations don't become final until after the council votes again at a second reading, potentially as soon as April 16. 

At press time, no one at the city was available to confirm the likely effective date of the new regulations. We will update this story.

Some of the key points she highlighted included amendments:

  • Requiring landlords to provide tenants with a letter from the city outlining their rights and whom to contact if those rights are violated.
  • Modifying the definition of “family” to include aunt, uncle, and family by adoption.
  • Increasing the timeline for breaking a lease upon a 5% or more rent increase from 20 to 30 days.
  • Directing staff to explore a potential pilot project to exempt “lease-to-own” arrangements from the new policies.
  • Adjusting the threshold for economic displacement relocation assistance to trigger at 7% over 12 months. In such cases, landlords would be obligated to provide a payment equal to 2.5 months of rent.

Madrone pointed out a potential flaw in the currently proposed policies. She noted that even with the current 5% rent increase threshold triggering relocation assistance, there was nothing in the policies to prevent landlords from implementing successive smaller rent increases over a short period of time, such as a 5% increase followed by a 4.9% increase a few months later, to effectively raise rents more than the threshold without triggering the assistance.

She also mentioned discussions around simplifying the policy by eliminating the separate 10% threshold.

Olympia’s Housing Program senior specialist, Christa Lenssen, presented the proposed ordinance to the city council. She outlined the factors that led to the new regulations’ development, including challenges local renters face in maintaining stable housing.

Lenssen noted that Olympia has a majority of renters, with 53% of city residents renting their homes. Of that, 54% of these renters are considered housing cost-burdened, spending over a third of their income on housing costs.

In comparison, only 20% of Olympia homeowners face this cost burden for their housing. The data presented showed renters experiencing a disproportionate strain on their budgets to keep a roof over their heads.

Citing the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Lenssen said the Thurston County renter would need to work 77 hours per week at the current minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom home at fair market rents.

Lenssen presented a chart from the Washington State Department of Commerce that illustrated the link between rising rents and homelessness. She said that homelessness also tended to rise when rental prices increased in an area.

Lenssen also referenced data from other studies and surveys. A 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that a $100 increase in rent correlated to a 9% rise in the estimated homelessness rate.

In addition, Thurston County Public Health and Social Services surveyed in August 2023 as federal COVID rent assistance was ending. The results showed that over half, at 51%, of Thurston County renters who previously received this aid were now behind on rent payments and had no funds to help cover the costs.

Lenssen reviewed public and stakeholder input gathered over three years on rental housing issues in the community. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews gathered feedback from over 500 community members on their experiences with housing challenges. She said the common concerns raised included rising costs straining tenants, unsafe or unstable housing conditions, and the need for policies to prevent displacement and homelessness.

Lenssen added that tenants and advocates expressed two key issues – a need for relocation assistance for tenants forced to move and preventing additional fees that inflated housing costs, such as charges for installing air conditioning before heat waves or mandatory garbage services.

Responding to crisis

In defending the proposed policies related to tenant protections, Madrone said it had been a priority of the city council to provide housing stability to renters, who she said were facing economic displacement, unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and unfair practices. “We are responding to that crisis… they need stability and protection.”

Madrone acknowledged that the city’s work on tenant protection impacts the landlords and the rental housing business model but added that their goal of addressing tenant challenges remains the central focus.

Madrone noted that city staff have been responsive to concerns regarding implementing rental housing policies, as evidenced by the adaptive management of the new rental registry program. She promised landlords and tenants that going forward, the city will continue to be responsive to feedback and refine both policies and how they are implemented.

Madrone also responded to State Rep. Andrew Barkis, who testified at the public hearing, asking the city council to leave tenant protections to the state legislature.

The representative highlighted his bipartisan work on the Middle Housing Act as an example of the legislature’s ability to create statewide change.

However, Madrone noted that the representative did not provide the full history of middle housing in Washington. She pointed out that Olympia was the first city in the state to eliminate single-family zoning and pass a middle housing ordinance in 2018, which helped set the stage for the legislature to later act statewide with the Middle Housing Act.

She hopes that the city’s actions around tenant protections will help set the stage for more progress by the state legislature.

Individual rights over corporate profits

Councilmember Robert Vanderpool supported modifying rent thresholds, requiring tenant rights memos, and exploring lease-to-own exemptions.

Vanderpool said he supports protecting individuals’ rights. While acknowledging that not all landlords are profit-driven, he believed tenant protections should balance working individuals against unequal economic privilege.

“It is my moral view that I asserted the rights of the individual, not companies, corporations…  That is to say, however, that the local ordinances we passed must consider the rights of the citizen over the rights of capital. These protections are intended to keep folks from falling into homelessness. Moreover, the intent is to evenly balance the working class individual against the uneven surface of economic privilege,” Vanderpool said.

The councilmember said the city council’s intention is not to punish the landlords or put them out of business but instead protect the rights of individuals.

Councilmember Clark Gilman emphasized that Olympia is now a majority renter community. He noted the council’s efforts over the past several years to balance rental housing as an investment and a home. Gilman supported strengthening transparency and fairness in landlord-tenant relationships.

Parshley calculated that if 54% of roughly 29,000 Olympia renters were housing insecure, it equals around 16,000 residents. She saw the issues as intertwined crises accelerating rapidly.

She supported rental protections to ensure economic stability and a thriving workforce.

She proposed exploring cooling assistance programs alongside potential requirements.

Councilmember Jim Cooper suggested that the cooling unit conversation be reframed in environmental control standards. He and the council agreed to annualize the rent increase threshold at 7% over 12 months and require landlords to provide 2.5 months of relocation assistance.    

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not indicate that the vote last night was on the first reading of the proposed changes.       


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

  • BobJacobs

    The underlying problem, locally and nationwide, is a shortage of housing units, which results from the fallout of the "great recession" of 2008 and will continue for probably another 8-10 years.

    The type of measures that the legislature and city council have taken will not fix this problem. Only the private sector can do that. And in fact, these measures will predictably slow the recovery by making housing investments unattractive.

    For instance, the rent control measures reported here will reduce the number of rental units because some small landlords will sell their rental houses. These houses will then become owner-occupied housing, resulting in fewer rental units and therefore more pain for renters.

    Our elected officials focus only on housing costs. Why not focus on income? They could raise the minimum wage and move many renters out of financial trouble. Or they could provide rental assistance to those who need it, like the federal program administered by the Housing Authority. Need-based assistance would be so much more efficient than the across-the-board measures reported here which are subsidizing wealthy renters as well as poor ones.

    It is dispiriting to watch this.

    Bob Jacobs

    Wednesday, April 10 Report this

  • TomInOly

    The Olympia City Council has once again exhibited its bias towards performative politics. The results of their efforts here will result in fewer single family homes available for rent in Olympia and a stagnation in the development of additional housing. Mom and Pop landlords will sell, and many others will simply move their focus outside the City limits. The corporate landlords that remain will need to protect themselves by increasing rents as much as the market will bear. What they’ve done may look good but it will have the opposite effect from the one they desire.

    Wednesday, April 10 Report this

  • tolerd

    So let's try to understand the business model. The industry says they won't be able to invest in building more housing unless they can raise the rent 13% a year ( which is what they've been doing). But then, they say when they build enough housing the rent will go down? Which if you stick with their first point means that at that point they will be going bankrupt. If you just think about this, it makes zero sense. Every builder you talk to says the reason housing is so costly is because it costs a lot to build. Those costs aren't going to come down simply because we've built more houses. Their is simply no logic to their broken business model. They offer no solutions and that is sad.

    Wednesday, April 10 Report this

  • AugieH

    "The councilmember said the city council’s intention is not to punish the landlords or PUT THEM OUT OF BUSINESS [emphasis mine] but instead protect the rights of individuals."

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As the mom and pop landlords divest themselves of their rentals, perhaps to national property management firms which will raise rents to recoup investments, the pool of a relatively affordable rental housing will decrease. The City's progressive rental micromanagers would defecate on their own doorsteps to further their agenda. TomInOly summarized this succinctly.

    Wednesday, April 10 Report this

  • MichelleM

    Well Olympia city council...you've done it. You've ensured more corporate owned rentals, higher rents, and more homelessness. Bravo. You don't care about individual rights. If you did, their would be an exemption for mom and pop landlords. With home insurance and taxes rising, those mom and pop landlords will be forced to sell and put families at the mercy of corporate landlords as taxes and insurance often exceed 5% on an annual basis. I believe the city council has bowed to corporate lobbyists under the cloak of tenant rights to eliminate fair housing prices individual, non-corporate landlords provide. Dani Madrone is leading the end of affordable housing by neglecting the very people who provide it. I'll be selling my home rather than providing a family a nice home under market rates if Olympia and Madrone continues to unfairly target non-corporate landlords. And when homelessness increases we know who carries the blame.

    Thursday, April 11 Report this

  • Claire

    Every one of these commentaries is correct. The Olympia Shitty Council has **** in their bed. Their Socialistic and Uber liberal policies will be the bane and demise of rental properties in Olympia, other than corporate. Truly, the Olympia Shitty Council is full of idiots and assholes. They will rue the day.

    Thursday, April 11 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    Buy bitcoin.

    Thursday, April 11 Report this

  • JnNwmn

    The rental demands by a few select renters and city council act as if rising rental costs are an Olympia problem. Many people are moving to Olympia because rental rates are lower then Tacoma. In Tacoma a 2 bedroom apartment rents for $1700/month. Then people commute towards Seattle or just work at home. As Olympia housing is sold, rents will increase to match the higher Tacoma rates. The so-called Missing Middle action in Olympia that the City Council parrots was sanctioned as illegal by the Washington State Growth Management Board. It is time the Olympia City Council stop carpet bombing property owners with regulations, and do something worthwhile to help low-income people. Push for actions that will facilitate the building of affordable housing by private builders. Provide tax breaks for these units, not expensive Downtown apartment buildings.

    Thursday, April 11 Report this

  • WA_Mojo

    Dani Madrone - a quarter of the way to being a halfwit.

    Thursday, April 11 Report this

  • MartyKenney

    What a cluster@#$%.

    How do we bring down the cost of housing? The building and development department tells me that the only profitable housing that the private sector can build is 4,000 sq.ft developments or large apartment complex. But neither of these are providing affordable housing.

    The system is broken, we need an out-of-the box solution.

    Seems like 10 people on this thread care, how do we come up with lower cost building?

    Maybe its time to relax some code enforcement and/or permitting fees???? how many contractors storm out of the Building and Development center with no answers because the costs to permit are too high and take way too long?

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • OlyKid88

    We desperately need some diversity on the Council. These decisions are negatively impacting our community in so many ways. Our homeless, those that are home burdened and of low income are paying the price of these decisions. Their lives will be worse, not better.

    Our community has become so political that the people we vote to the Olympia City Council and Olympia School District are now activists and not focused on the details that matter for the success of a community over the long term. It is hard to watch.

    There is so little meaningful Council public debate on these issues with long term impacts, the public has no idea how these groups arrived at their decisions. They just seem to agree, and then they move on to the next item. From someone on the outside looking into the process, it seems performative and not driven by results or accountability although those two words get used often.

    "Why do these unintended consequences keep happening? We're following our moral view, lived experiences and our truths based on the ideas, methodologies and facts we've learned." - Graduate of Masters of Public Administration from Evergreen who continue to make up the majority of the Council.

    Made up quote and unfair sarcasm, but based on my lived experience.

    Friday, April 12 Report this