Seattle suburbs love Kenmore tenant eye shields as threat of homelessness looms
Homelessness knocked on Corina Pfeil’s door many years ago.
When her landlord raised her rent by $300, Pfeil was unable to pay, or quickly find cheaper housing in Kenmore, where she had lived for three decades.
“I thought I was going to end up in a shelter,” possibly separated from her eldest son, who was 18 and has autism, she recalls.
That didn’t happen, thanks to a last-minute negotiation. But the upsetting incident stuck with Pfeil, who now sits on Kenmore City Council and is pushing to pass a batch of new tenant protections. She still rents, in a sprawling complex tucked behind pine trees.
“We need to be prepared to take a hard look at the inequalities in our community,” she said. “We are a community with haves and have-nots.”
In the city of 24,000, where the number of owner-occupied homes almost 3 to 1 exceeds that of rentals, other issues have sometimes received more attention. Yet pressure is mounting in communities like Kenmore as housing costs soar and COVID-19 protection and assistance programs expire.
Tenant advocates who helped win provisions in Seattle and for unincorporated parts of King County last year are now hoping to make gains in the suburbs. They are in contact with leaders in several cities, including SeaTac, Burien, Kirkland and Bothell. Ownership groups are pushing back.
The debate has already begun in Kenmore, where early deliberations last week lasted more than three hours as representatives of the Stay Housed, Stay Healthy coalition vied with a landlord lobbyist. They discussed restrictions on move-in fees, late fees, rent increases, evictions and background checks.
“Every time we see proposed changes…we’re told it’s going to make a difference,” said lobbyist Jim Henderson of the Rental Housing Association of Washington. But complicated regulations can drive landlords out of the market, worsening the area’s housing shortage, he said.
Wedged between Lake Forest Park and Bothell, Kenmore is best known for its seaplane harbor, waterfront parks and asphalt plant, which hug the north shore of Lake Washington.
The city serves as part of a bedroom community for Seattle and the Eastside, with quiet blocks of homes that can sell for $1 million. But Kenmore also includes mobile home parks and apartment buildings near Highway 522.
“Wink twice and we miss you,” said Lisa Anderson, who called the board meeting remotely last week.
In a way, Anderson is lucky, she said, because her Section 8 bond covers most of her $1,800 monthly rent. Still, she and her husband struggle to pay other bills as both are disabled, and Anderson, 52, struggles to climb the stairs in their apartment as she uses crutches, she said .
Ideally, they would move to a place with no stairs. But they don’t want to leave Kenmore, their longtime home, and they don’t have enough money to pay the first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit.
“Unless you’re related to Bill Gates and can ask Uncle Bill for money, you can’t afford to move,” Anderson said. “That’s why we’re stuck.”
Stuck, this is also what Andres Morfin feels. He worries about moldy walls in his apartment harming his three children, and his monthly rent has doubled over time, he said.
Yet Morfin, 39, who took part in a door-to-door Stay Housed coalition survey, doesn’t want to keep her children away from their friends and relatives in Kenmore, and nearby buildings look just as expensive.
A restaurant cook, he lost his job at the start of the pandemic, which forced him to pay his rent. It wasn’t until a second temp job and rental assistance from King County that he caught up. Now he dreads the next rent hike.
“Owners, they can go as high as they want,” he said.
Expecting landlords to hold rents steady as their operating expenses rise is unrealistic, Henderson countered in an interview. “No one looks down on the county” for property tax increases, he said.
No Kenmore owners made public remarks at the Feb. 14 meeting. But councilman Joe Marshall noted that many have mortgages to pay, warning the city could send rentals “down the tubes” by adding too many costs and restrictions.
“Exploitative tenants exist,” added Marshall, an attorney with experience in the real estate industry.
Council of Kenmore
On February 14, Kenmore council members reviewed the status quo in the city and elsewhere, as well as recommendations from the Stay Housed Coalition. That alone was difficult, as overlapping laws regulate rentals at the local and state levels.
For example: rent hikes were banned in Washington at some point during COVID-19, but that provision expired. The required notice for raises is now 60 days statewide, 120 days in unincorporated King County for raises over 3% and 180 days in Seattle. At Kenmore right now, it’s 90 days for increases above 10%.
The Stay Housed Coalition recommended 180 days for Kenmore, while some council members objected, at least without consideration for “mommy-and-pop owners.” In the end, they voted to pursue 120 days for increases above 3% and 180 days for increases above 10%.
They also decided to explore new caps on late fees and move-in fees, as well as a new registry for landlords,but not an inspection program. They chose not to pursue a ban on rent increases for housing in poor condition and to pursue the study of a rehousing assistance mandate for certain economic evictions..
No law was passed immediately. Instead, the council has indicated which provisions to draft and consider as early as next month. Pfeil supported almost all of the proposals, while some colleagues opposed almost all of the articles.
While board member Debra Srebnik supported some, she wondered if others would make Kenmore more affordable.
“What’s the problem…we’re trying to solve?” Because what I’ve mostly heard from our residents “is that housing is too expensive,” she said.
Even when protections don’t directly address costs, they can prevent homelessness, a Mary’s Place representative told the council.
“Keeping families home avoids trauma” and is more cost effective, said Linda Mitchell of Mary’s Place, who has a shelter in Kenmore.
Median rents in King County cities were 10 to 20 percent higher last month than a year ago, according to Apartment List.
As the conversation about Kenmore evolves, a key choice will be whether or not to include mobile home parks in the new protections, said Stacey Valenzuela, who lives in one of the two near the Sammamish River.
Although many mobile home residents own their structures, they rent out their spaces, and some park owners employ predatory practices, Valenzuela said. Kenmore has more mobile home parks than any other city around (even one located next to City Hall) and many parks are occupied primarily by blue-collar retirees, she added.
Politics in Kenmore, like many suburbs, is changing, Mayor Nigel Herbig said. Dominated a decade ago by the Tories, the council is now leaning left and “trying to punch our weight” with inclusive policies, he said.
That’s partly because local activists made noise, said Nadia Silver, who landed in Kenmore after spending time at a shelter.
Silver helped establish a Little Free Pantry in his neighborhood, in part because the need exists, even in a relatively affluent suburb.
“So many people had to change careers or move in together” after the COVID-19 hit, said Silver, 39.
Pfeil did not mention his own fear of homelessness during last week’s meeting. But she may be the only Kenmore executive to serve while on hire, she said.
“Being a single parent, my budget is tight,” Pfeil said. “It is reality.”