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WA lawmakers weigh proposal to slow rising rental costs amid ongoing housing crisis

A red "FOR RENT" sign is seen in a window
Aaron Sousa

The battle over rising rent is back in Olympia.

People flocked to a House committee hearing Thursday, as Washington lawmakers weighed a bill to limit how much landlords can increase rent prices.

The hearing was at capacity, with staff opening an overflow room after dozens of people showed up to speak on House Bill 2114.

The bill would restrict how much landlords can raise rent in a single year, capping increases at 5% over a 12-month period and limiting late fees to $10, among other things. Under the bill, landlords could raise rent on a unit after tenants move out.

The effort echoes part of the approach taken in other states, like Oregon and California, where rent increases are limited each year to a certain percentage plus inflation.

Throughout the hour and a half of testimony, lawmakers heard from renters, landlords, realtors and property management groups. Some renters who testified fought back tears while sharing stories of being priced out of their homes.

Kerri Burnside, an organizer with the Bellingham Tenants Union, told lawmakers on the Housing Committee how rising rents have impacted her family, including her father.

"As a 73-year-old man, he now lives like a college student, 'cause he's lost everything," Burnside said, emotion taking over her voice as she told lawmakers her brother died by suicide amid housing struggles.

"I wish my story was unique, but for far too many families in Washington, this has become commonplace," Burnside said.

She ended with a plea to lawmakers: "Please end our suffering."

Several so-called "mom and pop" landlords also spoke in favor of the legislation, saying the 5% limit was well within reason for "responsible" rental owners.

"We need rent stabilization today," said Mike Parker, a landlord from Bellingham. "As a landlord I support this bill, because I know that a 5% cap on rent increase is more than fair."

But people representing realtors, property management companies and investors told lawmakers the bill is a bad idea, saying it wouldn't solve the issue of rising rents in the long term, and that it would slow efforts to increase housing supply.

"The more supply we can bring to the market, the more we're going to be able to see a competitive market return and help bring rents to a point where it's reasonable for residents," said Christy Mays, a real estate management professional. "Market forces certainly aren't perfect, but I will say, I think that they bring a lot of value and are better and more competitive in the long run than government limits."

Others said limiting how much landlords can raise rents for their current tenants would make it difficult for property managers to cover maintenance costs or provide housing at all.

"The more you regulate housing providers the harder it's going to be on tenants," said Patricia Hoendermis, from the Yakima Valley Landlords Association.

Not everyone who signed up to speak on the bill was able to Thursday, with Housing Committee Chair Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds) telling the crowd that remained they could submit written comments.

"We will have plenty of conversations around this legislation in the weeks to come," Peterson said.

The committee did not vote on the bill, but an identical bill will be heard in a Senate committee Friday.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.