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Rent stabilization stalls in WA Senate, complicating its path forward

A crowd of people, some wearing red and holding signs in support of rent caps, are seen on the capitol steps in Olympia
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Supporters of rent stabilization legislation in Olympia rallied on the capitol steps Jan. 30, 2024, to pressure Washington lawmakers to keep moving forward with proposals that would cap annual rent increases by landlords.

A high-profile policy on rent stabilization faces a difficult road ahead in the Washington Legislature.

Lawmakers introduced two identical proposals this year, one in the House and one in the Senate. The legislation, which sparked intense debate, would limit how much landlords can raise tenants' rent each year. Some cities across the country have similar policies, and Oregon and California were the first in the U.S. to enact statewide laws.

But a dramatic twist in the Washington state Senate this week made the policy’s future uncertain this legislative session.

It appeared last week that the bill, Senate Bill 5961, had passed out of committee on a voice vote. But, days later, just before a key cutoff deadline, Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver) announced in a statement that she wouldn't support the bill. That left it without enough votes to pass, effectively killing the Senate's version of the legislation.

In the statement, Cleveland cast doubt on whether the policy would be effective and suggested holding off until Oregon's policy, which went into effect in 2019, plays out a bit more.

"Doesn’t it make sense to watch and learn from what’s happening in Oregon and Portland so we can make sure a similar policy here at home does not trigger unintended consequences?" Cleveland's statement said.

Senate Housing Committee Chair Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) says she had hoped changes to the Senate bill – including raising the rent increase cap from 5% to 15% a year and adding an expiration date for the policy – would address enough of critics' concerns to keep the bill moving.

"We had heard, you know, that there could be some who were thinking about signing on because the bill had changed," Kuderer said. "But apparently it didn't change enough to change enough minds."

Advocates expressed disappointment Thursday, but vowed to keep pushing the issue. There's still potential for a similar version of the bill that's moving in the House.

“One vote isn’t going to stop us," executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance Rachael Myers said in a statement. "This is as much of a racial justice issue as it is a housing stability and anti-homelessness issue and we are determined to keep fighting.”

Democrat leaders say the proposal is still a priority, but the Senate bill's demise certainly ramps up the pressure. House lawmakers have to decide how much time to put toward the bill during the remaining weeks in this year's short session and gauge whether it's possible for the bill to gain enough traction in the Senate – because it will ultimately need Senate approval to become law.

"There's not much of a point in passing bills that we don't have any hope for over there, so I think what we want to do is assess whether or not there's hope," said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma).

House lawmakers have to hit some key deadlines for their version of the bill in the next couple of weeks.

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.