Tacoma voters may no longer be asked to choose between two competing renters’ rights measures on this fall’s ballot after a Pierce County judge ruled against the city of Tacoma on Wednesday.
The legal fight followed the Tacoma City Council’s decision to place its own set of landlord-tenant regulations on the November ballot alongside a more expansive citizen-led initiative. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ashcraft found that the city’s proposal was “not a true alternative” for voters.
Earlier this year, renter advocates with the group Tacoma for All gathered more than 7,000 signatures to place a sweeping package of tenant protections before city voters this November. The package includes requirements for six months’ notice of rent hikes, relocation assistance after certain rent increases, a $10-per-month cap on late fees and limits on evictions during the school year and winter months.
The proposal gained traction as Tacoma renters struggled with rising costs. Tacoma rents increased 21% between 2016 and 2019, while renter incomes climbed just 12%, according to a 2021 city report.
In July, the Tacoma City Council sent the Tacoma for All measure to the ballot. But a majority of council members, including Mayor Victoria Woodards, also approved and adopted their own set of reforms and sent them to the ballot as an alternative.
The City Council ordinance requires four months’ notice of rent increases, limits late fees up to $75 based on the rent and tightens some rules around tenant screening and income requirements.
Because the council adopted the ordinance in addition to sending it to the ballot as an alternative measure, those new rules are already in place and will remain in effect even if voters approve the Tacoma for All initiative. Any portions of the city rules that conflict with that measure would be repealed, a city spokesperson said.
Before Wednesday’s ruling, the ballot was expected to ask voters whether either measure should be enacted and which one. If the Tacoma for All proposal, also called Measure 1, won, it would take effect along with the city’s ordinance. If the city’s Measure 2 won, the ordinance would have been repealed and then re-enacted. That means that in either case, the city’s rules would stay on the books.
In early August, Tacoma for All and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367 (UFCW 367) sued Tacoma and Pierce County, attempting to stop the city’s alternative from appearing on the ballot.
The judge found that the city has the authority to put an alternative measure before voters, but “neither the ballot title nor explanatory statements clearly explain that Measure 2 already is law and will remain law regardless of the vote.”
“This is really a false choice as it implies that, at most, one proposed measure will be approved,” Ashcraft wrote in his decision.
The city’s proposal is “not a true alternative,” he wrote.
If the council had not adopted its proposal before placing it on the ballot, the city would have complied with state law, Ashcraft wrote. But the city’s process “resulted in a false choice” and “ran afoul of the State Constitution.”
Tacoma for All supporters celebrated the ruling Wednesday. “This is a massive victory for grassroots democracy in Tacoma, and a victory for everyone fighting for stronger tenant protections,” campaign manager Ty Moore said in a statement.
“The landlord lobby has failed in their attempt to work through [the] City Council to stop us,” Moore said.
City or county officials could still attempt to appeal the decision. They said Wednesday they were still considering options.
In a statement, Tacoma City Attorney Bill Fosbre noted that the judge “validated the Tacoma City Council’s authority under the City Charter to place an alternative on the ballot to a citizen initiative petition.”
“Nevertheless, the court found a problem in the council’s adoption of the ordinance prior to placing it on the ballot for voter … approval (which would prevent the council from changing it for two years without another vote). We are disappointed in this portion of the court’s decision and we are in the process of determining our next steps,” the statement said.
Asked about whether there is time for an appeal before final language is due for the November ballot, the Pierce County Auditor’s Office declined to comment.