My letter to City Council Democrats: “I urge you to vote ‘Yes’ to cap late rent fees at $10/month”

April 5, 2023

Seattle City Councilmembers,

I am writing to urge you to support the legislation from my office to cap late rent fees at $10/month, which will come for a vote in committee this Friday, April 7, without any watering down. My office has comprehensively answered the arguments against this legislation in an FAQ. However, in light of the predictable hit piece recently published by The Seattle Times editorial board, and multiple false claims by landlords, I want to explain why amendments to increase the potential size of late fees are unacceptable.

The editorial board claims that a late fee cap based on a percentage of monthly rent would be “fair to all,” and that a $10/month cap “benefits the wealthier renter… there is no equity in a scenario where a renter of a swanky $3,000 apartment pays the same late fee as someone struggling to pay $900 for a studio apartment.”

This claim is dishonest in more than one way. First, those who possess enough wealth and income to live in “swanky” apartments are not the renters who experience the financial distress that forces a renter to be late in rent payment. Second, if the late fee cap was, for example, 1.5 percent of rent, then that would result in a late fee greater than $10/month unless the rent is less than $667. According to national databases, there are currently no apartments available in Seattle for rents lower than $700, and in fact, only 2 percent of apartments rent for less than $1,000! Fifty five percent of Seattle’s apartments rent at more than $2,000. The vast majority of them are not swanky apartments for wealthy people, but ordinary rental homes whose rents have skyrocketed in the absence of rent control.

The Seattle Times editorial board goes on to claim that a $10/month late fee is “neither an incentive nor penalty” to pay rent on time. There is no data to suggest that late fees encourage on-time payments or that caps on late fees will trigger widespread nonpayment of rent. On the other hand, there is robust data that confirms that renters, even those whose finances were hit hard by the pandemic, overwhelmingly pay rent on time, even given the temporary eviction bans that were put into place by many cities and states.

Landlords claim they need late fees and notice fees to cover their costs. Renters already pay a fee to cover their landlord’s costs every month—that fee is called the “rent.” Landlords recoup their expenses and make profits through the rents their tenants pay.

Landlords have also claimed that they get charged late fees if they miss mortgage payments. According to major lenders, most mortgages have a 15-day grace period for late payment, which proves that landlords charging $250 on the 5th of the month, or $50 per day until late rent is paid (which is common according to hundreds of renters we’ve heard from), are engaging in blatant exploitation to squeeze renters for extra profit.

At the March 22 Economic Development Committee Meeting, a presenter claimed that “As noted in a 2018 study that was done by the University of Washington, 59% of Seattle landlords reported total income of less than $75,000.” The truth is, that 2018 study asked landlords about the average income of their tenants. You have seen this confirmed by an email earlier today from the City Auditor. It is renters who, on average, make less than $75,000 per year.

Lastly, Councilmembers have claimed that young people don’t want to own homes, in order to explain why renters outnumber homeowners. As a nationwide poll revealed, unsurprisingly, a large majority of young people want to own homes but are unable to because of financial obstacles.

I urge you to vote ‘Yes’ on this legislation to cap late rent fees at $10/month, and stand with renters against any amendment to weaken it.


Kshama Sawant

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