Laurel Demkovich

(Washington State Standard) Odds that Washington will cap rent increases this year fell sharply on Monday as a bill that would limit hikes to 7% a year for many tenants hit a dead end in a state Senate committee.

The proposal’s failure marks a blow for housing advocates, who argued that the policy was one of the most significant steps lawmakers could take in this year’s 60-day legislative session to improve affordability for renters and alleviate homelessness.

But supporters of the legislation face an uphill battle in Olympia. Monday was the second time this year – and the second year in a row – efforts to provide this type of certainty to Washington renters stalled in the Legislature, where Democrats hold majorities in both chambers.

Republicans staunchly oppose the idea of capping rent increases. And Democrats have rifts within their party on the issue, specifically when it comes to how far more moderate members are willing to go setting government guardrails around rent prices.

On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee refused to vote on the legislation to cap rent increases, effectively killing the bill for this year.

Committee Chair June Robinson, D-Everett, told reporters the bill did not have any Republican support and lacked enough Democratic backers to move it forward. She would not comment on any particular sticking points or which lawmakers would not vote for it.

“We fell short in this instance and will continue to work on this issue next year,” Robinson said in a statement.

The Ways and Means Committee has 14 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Bill supporters pointed to known moderate Democratic Sens. Mark Mullet and Kevin Van De Wege as the “no” votes that ended the bill’s prospects.

But when asked during a break if there were more than two Democratic holdouts on the panel, committee member Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, replied, “Yep.”

A previous version of the bill failed to make it out of the Senate Housing Committee in January. It sank then after Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, withheld support, refusing to sign “yes” or “no” on the bill after a committee vote. The latest version passed in the House earlier this month but with four Democrats joining Republicans in voting against it.

The bill has drawn criticism from Republicans and moderate Democrats who say it could have unintended consequences on the housing market, possibly discouraging the construction of needed new housing and squeezing some landlords who are struggling to make ends meet.

“This is bad policy if you want to fix our housing problem,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, told the Standard on Monday.

Mullet, of Issaquah, said a cap on rent increases would only result in less rental housing being built in Washington. To address Washington’s housing shortage, Mullet said the state needs to partner with private companies, which this bill would deter.

“If we pass the rent control bill, we’ll go in the other direction,” he said.

Supporters, however, say the proposal is an essential part of ensuring middle- and low-income renters aren’t driven from their homes by rent spikes.

Along with capping annual rent increases, the bill would restrict fees for late rent payments to 1.5% of a tenant’s total monthly rent and would implement new requirements for when a landlord must notify tenants of rent or fee increases.

Landlords could set rent at whatever level they want when a new tenant takes over a lease.

If a landlord covered by the proposed rules raised rent beyond 7%, a tenant could break their lease at any time. Landlords who violated the caps could end up paying damages to tenants equal to three months of the unlawful rent and fees charged, plus legal costs.

There are exemptions in the bill, including for some buildings owned by nonprofit organizations and situations where an owner is also a resident of a property.

Residential construction that is 10 years old or less was also exempt, a move meant to limit how much the policy would discourage new housing development.

House Democrats who pushed for the proposal said Monday they were “deeply disappointed” that the Senate committee failed to bring the bill up for a vote.

House Housing Committee Chair Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, said he was most frustrated that the Senate did not seem to take the policy seriously. He noted that Ways and Means Committee members only introduced one amendment on the bill.

“If they were serious about looking into what is affecting millions of Washingtonians, they would have done some more work,” Peterson told reporters. “They did not do the work, and it is deeply upsetting.”

When discussing the policy with senators, bill sponsor Emily Alvarado, D-West Seattle, said she only heard generalized criticisms of the policy, not concerns about specific aspects of the bill that could have been changed, like the cap amount or the new construction exemptions.

“We were willing to talk. We were willing to look at things,” Peterson said.

Advocates for the policy are calling on leaders in the Senate to bring the bill to the floor for a vote – circumventing the committee process, where the bill has now died twice.

“If lawmakers fail to act to prevent excessive rent increases, they will have failed to make significant progress toward solving our housing and homelessness crisis,” said Michele Thomas, advocacy and policy director for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Though lawmakers could find creative ways to bring back a dead bill, the decision to not bring the bill up for a committee vote could signal that majority Democrats in the Senate don’t have the votes to pass it. The legislative session is scheduled to end March 7.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, told the Standard he had no plans to bring the bill up for a vote on the floor as of Monday. Billig, who sits on Ways and Means, said he would’ve voted “yes” on the bill in committee but that his support on the Senate floor would’ve been contingent on the legislation being amended, although he didn’t specify what changes he wanted to see.

Alvarado said House Democrats will continue to work on the proposal in the future.

“The momentum is building, and next year, I believe we will pass this bill,” she said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.