Can we please all start calling BS on the ridiculous lie behind the term "Tenant Protections"? Every time a landlord-tenant law is addressed by a Seattle politician or in the media, it is described as a tenant protection. I know some people are just mindlessly repeating this term, but others are deliberately using manipulative language, and we need to stop allowing it.
The implication of calling something a tenant protection is that it is good for tenants. This is how politicians trick the public into believing they're really looking out for renters who need their help. Even a cursory evaluation of these so called tenant protections exposes this term as false.
Here are a couple exchanges you could expect a renter to have with the city council about these "protections".
Renter: Hey Seattle city council, I'm having a hard time finding a new place to rent. There seems to be huge competition for everything in my price range. Can you help?
City Council: Yes! We already have some great protections to help you! And we're working on a new one that would ban the use of credit checks in rental applications!
Renter: Ok. But my credit is fine. I'm pretty responsible with money. Won't that just make it harder for me to distinguish myself from other applicants with worse credit?
City Council: Well, to protect you, dear renter, we've also banned criminal background checks!
Renter: Umm, same problem. I don't have a criminal record. If anything, that also makes it harder for me to distinguish myself to a landlord. Plus, I think I'd rather live somewhere knowing that at least people with repeated and / or violent criminal histories are screened out from renting next door to me and my family.
City Council: You're going to love this protection! Our First in Time rules make it so landlords have to publish their application criteria and take the first applicant that meets them.
Renter: Huh. So instead of being the best applicant, I have to be the fastest? I don't work in front of a computer to spot new listings when they pop up, and I can't just drop what I'm doing to run off and apply. How does this protect me, exactly?
City Council: Well, it makes sure there's no discrimination.
Renter: Wait, you don't think it's going to be rich white people that are able to get there first?
City Council: Shhh...
Renter: Well, I could at least negotiate on the screening criteria with the landlord, right? Like I could offer to let them hold a bigger security deposit if I don't quite meet their income requirements?
City Council: No. You're protected against flexible screening criteria. We've also specifically limited deposit amounts, as another protection for you!
Renter: Is there a definition of "protection" that I'm not familiar with?
Renter: Hey Seattle city council, I've hit a rough patch with my finances and I'm afraid I won't be able to cover rent this month. Can you help me out?
City Council: Yes! We've protected you from being evicted in winter!
Renter: I see. I'm not sure I can get caught up by Spring. What happens then?
City Council: Good question! When you get evicted in Spring, you get a lawyer paid for by tax payers!
Renter: Will the lawyer erase my debt? Or make sure I can at least stay in my place?
City Council: You'll still owe all the money you owe, including any applicable late fees you've accumulated, and most likely court fees too. Our "research" shows that renters in Seattle facing eviction reduced their odds of having to move out from 85.6% to 76.4% when they had a lawyer.
Renter: I don't love those odds, or that I'll be racking up debt. Wait, I'm only short a few hundred dollars. Could you just lend me the money to cover it this month rather than paying for a lawyer later? That would prevent late fees, court fees, and any real chance at all of eviction, right?
City Council: Lend you money?! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!
Renter: It sure seems like these "protections" really dance around the issue. What's the matter with just helping me out when I need it. Would it be so bad to just help me pay my landlord what I owe them?
City Council: YOU'RE PART OF THE POWERFUL, GREEDY, CORPORATE LANDLORD LOBBY!!!
Renter: Wow. Chill. I'm kinda shocked anyone still rents out places at all with that kind of attitude coming from you, especially the mom and pop landlords. Do you think maybe all these "protections" could be part of the reason it's hard to find a place to rent?
City Council: There's no evidence to suggest that our actions have consequences.
Renter: But you're looking into it, right? You've done your homework and made sure all these protections aren't shrinking the housing options that renters like me can choose from, right?
City Council: (crickets: chirp, chirp)
Clearly it's more than just a little misleading to use the term "tenant protection" and imply that these laws are all upside for renters. At best they choose winners and losers among tenants, rather than helping them collectively. At worst, they rob tenants of what they really need most, an adequate supply of good housing options. And really, they're even more insidious than that because they trick tenants into thinking they're getting what they need. That's a way of manipulating renters to make sure they continue to just take what the city council gives them, rather than asking for what would really help. If 2 years ago we asked 1,000 renters what kind of help they might need as renters, would any of them have prioritized "I need to be able to move in a roommate against my landlords wishes" as their answer? Would they have even come up with "I need a ban on credit checks" at all?
The more correct and neutral term for this kind of legislation is "Landlord-Tenant Laws". Any time you hear a politician or see a publication use the false description "tenant protection", please join me in calling BS on their manipulative choice of language. Insist they change their words to Landlord-Tenant Laws instead, and insist they own up to the actual impacts the laws will have on tenants. Speak up in tweets, online comments, or in person. To let the manipulative language go unchallenged is to be complicit in letting our city council swindle renters out of what they actually deserve, a rental market with an abundance of good housing options.