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SEATTLE-A locally-based association of apartment owners plan to fight a proposal by City Councilwoman Judy Nicastro that would make it easier to punish landlords who raise rents, send eviction notices or otherwise threaten renters who complain about apartment conditions.

The proposal, introduced at a City Council meeting earlier this week, is an amendment to the city’s Housing and Building Maintenance Code designed to protect renters from owner retaliation. Representatives of the Apartment Association of Seattle and King County say the proposal would make it more difficult for owners to evict bad tenants by getting the city involved in eviction cases already being litigated, and would have serious repercussions on silent-partner real estate investors.

Chris Benis, immediate past president of AASKC and a real estate attorney who is acting as council for the association, says the proposed ordinance would open the door for tenants to file frivolous claims with the city. But what concerns him even more is that it would lessen the burden of proof required in criminal proceedings. “Under the proposal, you could be a one-tenth silent partner in an apartment building and if a law was violated, you could be charged criminally for the violation and the fact that you didn’t know it was committed or had no intent to commit it wouldn’t be a defense,” notes Benis. “I think it would chill people’s willingness to invest in real estate in the city of Seattle.”

Under Nicastro’s proposal, the burden of proof for some owner offenses would be lowered from the criminal standard to the civil standard. Owners could be punished under the civil standard if they evict tenants, increase rent, reduce services, or “otherwise impose, threaten, or attempt any punitive measure” against tenants who complain to the city about their building’s condition or owner’s conduct.

The proposal would also add a new section to city law to punish owners who prohibit tenants from distributing leaflets or organize events to discuss the condition of their building. Owners found in violation of the rules would be subject to civil penalties of $100 to $300 for each violation per day.

Benis acknowledges that Seattle’s ultra-hot housing market tips the scales in favor of owners and says that he has offered alternatives on the issue, such as suggesting that the city at least focus on big cases such as problems that are building wide, rather than opening the flood gates for every individual complaint.

So far, though, says Benis, his suggestions have received no response. The proposal, which Nicastro says is still in its working stages, will be put before a public hearing in January.

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