Legislature aims to protect tenants

By Paul Gottlieb

Olympic Peninsula News Group

State lawmakers are considering legislation to slow down rent increases for apartments, single-family homes, and in mobile home communities where hundreds of seniors live on the North Olympic Peninsula.

The bills would add muscle to the Residential Landlord Tenant Act and the Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord Tenant Act.

The new laws would add roadblocks to selling manufactured-mobile home parks, a last bastion of affordable housing for senior citizens, and insulate mobile home community residents from steep rent hikes.

It also would prohibit predatory rent practices in the home rental industry and beef up state laws protecting renters and mobile home park residents by applying the federal Consumer Protection Act to the state laws.

Under House Bill 1389 and Senate Bill 5435, home and mobile home park rental rates could not increase during any 12 month period by an amount greater that the inflation rate or 3 percent, whichever is higher, to a maximum of 7 percent.

Under SB 5198 and HB 1129, mobile home park landlords must provide notice to tenants before listing a park for sale and three years notice when closing or converting it to a different land use to give them a leg up on purchasing it. They can be compensated for relocation costs up to the value of their home.

“Mobile homes are really a major piece of the affordable housing puzzle,” said state Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Townsend, a co-sponsor of HB 1129.

“It’s an odd development, usually, because people do not usually own the land underneath them,” he said.

“A mobile home park owner says they want to build something else on the property and suddenly a homeowner, usually elderly and on a fixed income, finds themselves homeless. There needs to be some sideboards on that process, and that’s what this bill does.”

HB 1129 addresses an issue that has been occurring statewide, notably in Federal Way said Tharinger, who represents Legislative District 24, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

“It’s the whole idea of trying to manage costs for people on fixed incomes, on limited incomes, so they do not become shelterless and do not have a home,” he said.

Under HB 1388,the predatory practices measure, home rental landlords and manufactured-mobile home park owners could not impose excessive rent increases, apply different treatment for monthly vs. longer-term rentals or charge move-in fees and deposits beyond one month’s rent.

Champions of the proposals include former union organizer Chris Walker of Sequim, a Parkwood Manufactured Housing Community resident, and Tereasa Staley of Forks.

Staley, a Rain Forest Mobile Home Park resident, said last week she would testify Friday in favor of SB 5435. She plans to demonstrate in favor of the bill in an organized protest Monday in Olympia as the legislative session enters its fourth week.

Staley is among hundreds of manufactured-mobile home park residents in Clallam and Jefferson counties, mostly people over 60, Walker said, who would be affected by the bills.

They live in more than three dozen manufactured-mobile home communities in Clallam and Jefferson counties, in large part in the Sequim area, where the median age is 54.

Last March, Staley and more than two dozen Rain Forest park residents were notified their monthly rent for the land their homes sit upon will increase by $650 on March 1, tripling from $350 to $1,000, an increase 26 times greater than the maximum $24.50 that would be allowed under SB 5435.

Staley vowed Thursday to not pay the hike. She has discussed joining together with remaining Rain Forest residents, more than a half dozen, she said, to withhold the $650. Staley was ready Thursday to go to court to defend her refusal.

“I’m not paying $1,000,” she said. “A reasonable increase is fine, but 180 percent is crazy.”

Opponents of the legislation include manufactured-mobile home park owners such as Don Tucker, owner of Rain Forest and registered agent of Park Manager LLC, whose address is Juniper Mobile Estates in Sequim, a 62-and-older community.

All but one of Park Manager’s communities had rent increases in 2022 and 2023, he said in an email, declining to name the other parks.

The rent-cap legislation “is just a rent control bill,” Tucker said Thursday in an email.

“The erosion of landlord rights by tenant groups (there’s obviously more tenants [who are] voters than landlords) will only drive investment money to other investment vehicles not under the scrutiny of an abundance of tenants or state government,” Tucker said.

“If that happens, there will be no one to protect the values of the residents’ manufactured homes,” he added.

“Control will essentially be ceded to the government, and parks will be like other public housing projects, ‘progressive, dismal failures,’” Tucker said.

Tucker said during the COVID-pandemic rent moratorium, many tenants chose not to pay rent.

“I still have mortgage and other expenses which continued,” Tucker said.

“Government chose to interfere in our business by prohibiting both evictions and enforcement of landlord-tenant laws during COVID. Now we have a mess to clean up.

“We’ve never had so many costly evictions such a short time frame,” he said.

“I sympathize with the hardships a rent increases causes,” Tucker said. “That’s why we’re working closely with all of our Rain Forest residents.

“The rent increase is therefore a combination of the Park being forced to carry excessive pasts-due balances, requiring higher levels of staffing for routine management, inflation in all aspects of property maintenance and a general increase in the cost of housing overall.” Tucker said.

Tucker said he has no plans to convert Rain Forest to another land use.

“YES, Rain Forest 100 percent will remain a manufactured housing community,” he said in an email.

Walker, an organizer of the Parkwood Neighborhood Alliance, said she recently visited 13 manufactured-mobile home parks in Clallam County, mostly in the Sequim area. She asked residents if rents were going up more now than in the past.

“Clearly, there’s a huge uptick,” she said Thursday, estimating the average age of park residents was 70.

Walker said her rent at Parkwood, a 55-and-older community where there are 210 homes, went up $90 this January, about four times more than pre-pandemic increases.

“There are people who have been living here in Parkwood for 40 years,” she said

Manufactured-mobile home parks are considered the last places to live that are affordable, said Walker, who has organized hotel, casino and airport workers.

“I couldn’t afford to buy a stick-build when I retired, so this is where we had to go,” Walker said.

Julia Cochrane of Port Townsend, a retired paraeducator at Blue Heron Middle School, lives in a house where her landlord has been increasing her rent 20 percent a year.

“He’s making me homeless,” she said.

Looking into moving to a manufactured home as an alternative has become another housing challenge because of high rents.

Cochrane is the founder of the Winter Welcoming Center, a Port Townsend warming shelter.

“Right now, I am at risk of ending up in the Winter Welcoming Center,” she said.

Port Angeles City Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, citing a Journal of Urban Affairs study, said homelessness increases by 32 percent for every $100 rent increase in non-metro areas for those not living in poverty.

Many area rent increases “are far and away above the cost of living increases,” he said.

“What landlords are doing now is double-digit rent increases,” Schromen-Wawrin said. “[The legislation] closes a really important loophole in the law.]

The text of the bills, the bill reports and their status are at leg.wa.gov.