In search of better data, Seattle plans to require landlords to report rents

Seattle landlords may soon be required to report how much rent they charge — an effort to give city officials better data about the local housing market that drew opposition from some property owners.

The Seattle City Council narrowly approved a bill Tuesday to require landlords to twice a year report the rent and other fees they charge for each rental, plus other details such as square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and whether the house or apartment is occupied.

The bill now goes to the mayor for his signature.

Under the proposal, sponsored by Councilmember Alex Pedersen, landlords would report the data to a research university yet to be selected by the city. They would not report the names of their tenants. 

The requirement would take effect after the city contracted with a university to analyze the information. Data collection is not likely to start until next year, and the bill would sunset by the end of 2025.

Today, rental data comes from a patchwork of mostly private sources.

Companies such as Apartment List and CoStar track the costs of new leases, which are typically higher than what tenants pay when they stay in one rental for a while. The census collects some information, but release of that data lags.

The Washington Center for Real Estate Research surveys rents in Washington counties but does not collect detailed information specifically about Seattle. A private company, Dupre + Scott, collected rent information from local landlords for years but closed in 2017

Council members offered various reasons for wanting the data, from guarding against displacement of low-income tenants to making the case for more affordable housing.

Pedersen hinted at using the information to curb new development.

The city lacks information about “nonsubsidized housing that happens to have below-market rents or more affordable rents,” Pedersen said during a recent committee meeting.

“We don’t know exactly where that housing is and we need to know that as we make decisions such as updating our Comprehensive Plan,” he said, referring to the city’s 20-year planning document that influences where the city allows denser housing and other growth.

Councilmember Tammy Morales said the data would help the city track how rents are climbing. 

That would “allow us to get a better sense of really how massive the need is for more homes that are more affordable,” she said earlier this month.

An amendment sponsored by Morales and passed by the council said the information landlords submit to the university “should be made available to the public.”

Testifying before the council, landlords said the bill would require them to reveal confidential business information and could contribute to property owners deciding to sell their rentals.

“We are providing a dwindling number of Seattle’s affordable missing middle rental housing options, yet Council continues to exclude us,” Ballard landlord Angie Gerrald said.

Daniel Bannon, an organizer at the Rental Housing Association of Washington, said the requirement is an “unnecessary burden” and the group is “concerned the data will be used to push an anti-density agenda.”

But tenant advocates say the information is straightforward.

Devin Glaser, an attorney at the Tenant Law Center, said he frequently hears from tenants who can’t afford rent increases and face losing their homes. Glaser called the proposal a “very commonsense” step and said opponents were crying “crocodile tears.” 

“They can afford to give you some data,” Glaser said.

It’s not yet clear which university the city will select or how much that may cost.

The council passed the bill 5-4. Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Dan Strauss, Sara Nelson and Debora Juarez voted no. Juarez and Mosqueda cited the unclear cost of the proposal, among other concerns.

The need for better rental data is a persistent problem.

“This is across cities throughout the country. No one really has this data unless they do one-off surveys,” said James Young, director of the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington. 

But Young questioned whether the proposal would yield accurate data. In order to ensure the information landlords report is accurate, researchers would need to be able to audit the information. In a mandatory program, Young argues that could involve university researchers in the city’s enforcement process.

“Is the university going to turn in people they know are landlords who don’t report? I can’t see the university doing that,” Young said. 

Still, he said, “Everybody needs more data. There’s no doubt.”

Exact costs for the program are not yet clear.

Several city departments that could be involved in the new effort said enforcing the rule would require additional staff.

The cost for a university to set up and administer the program “will be somewhat comparable” to the city’s existing rental registration program, which cost about $5 million, wrote the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, Office of Housing and Office of Planning and Community Development. Contracting with a group that already surveys rents could reduce that cost, the departments wrote.

Pedersen said he expects the program would cost less if the city uses a competitive bidding process.

Once the new rule is in place, failure to provide the information could result in fines of $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for additional violations within three years.

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