This story, like most other stories about the skyrocketing rent in Seattle, was supposed to start with an anecdote. Through the experience of a tenant forced to move out after a new landlord jacked rents by, say, 100 percent, you, the reader, reclining comfortably in your own home, would be reminded just how precarious life can be when you live in a building owned by someone else.
Thanks to an assist from the tenant advocate groups who deal with cases like this every day, I had options for that heartstring-pulling tale of rental woe. First there was the sixtysomething retired woman in Columbia City who, after 20 years in the same apartment, learned this spring that her $600 rent was going to jump to $1,200. There was the UW employee in Ballard who was looking for a new place after a developer bought his building and raised his rent by 150 percent. And then there was the disabled man who had to move out of his place in Eastlake when new owners raised the rent by 70 percent. The last anyone knew, he was living on a boat.
Yet not one of them was ultimately available to speak. Either their schedule was so erratic as to make meeting impossible, they stopped responding to calls, or they never responded to begin with. Which, when you think about it, is perfectly understandable for someone who just lost their home.
Maybe that’s for the best. Because as emotionally gripping as the conflict between renters and landlords can be, those anecdotes obscure the bigger issue. How do you blame a party for acting within the bounds of a system that’s rigged to begin with?
“The high rents and displacement of low- and moderate-price housing in Seattle is the product of too much demand for too little supply. After years of high vacancy rates and low rents…Seattle’s housing market took off five years ago, fueled by the influx of generally younger, wealthier, and smaller households.”
That description of the local rental market, which appeared in a Seattle Times op-ed, is pretty spot on: As of 2014, Seattle was the fastest growing city in the country, after its population ballooned by roughly 32,000 between 2010 and 2014. Another 100,000 people are expected to wash ashore in the next 20 years. And while apartment developers have rushed to build nearly 15,000 new—predominantly high-end—units in the same period, they’ve struggled to keep up. As of March, according to the apartment market research firm Dupre and Scott, King County’s vacancy rate was just 3.2 percent—the lowest in almost 20 years. So it’s no wonder that rents have jumped 8 percent in the last year alone.
Here’s the thing about that Seattle Times op-ed, though: It was published in October 1980, less than two weeks before the city would vote on a plan to institute rent control. Initiative 24, filed by a group calling itself Renters and Owners Organized for Fairness, commanded hundreds of column inches in the local papers, inspired a bitter six-month campaign that raised more than $825,000 ($765,000 of which went to the groups opposing the plan), and lost by a two-to-one margin at the polls.
It didn’t just fail miserably, though. The initiative actually had the unintended consequence of strengthening property rights statewide: The pro-developer (and ironically named) Washington Coalition of Affordable Housing struck back in the following legislative session by drafting a bill that banned rent control outright. It sailed through both the house and senate, and the resulting law has become the basis for the industry’s challenge to any tenant protection the city or state might try to institute.
Take the Department of Planning and Development’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance, or RRIO, which went into effect in fall 2014. Every landlord within the city must register their property and submit to basic safety and maintenance inspections. Earlier that summer professors from the University of Washington and Harvard University wrote DPD, asking that the department also require landlords to include average rents for their units in the registration. In exchange for the data, which they would use to study housing policies nationwide, the professors offered to provide the city with a Seattle-specific report, gratis. “Because it represents a comprehensive survey of all rental property owners in the city,” they wrote, “the RRIO could offer ‘gold-standard’ data about housing affordability, rental dynamics, and policy initiatives.”
The city—which as I write this, is in the midst of finalizing mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the findings of which are due in May—had the opportunity to deploy an unprecedented mechanism for gathering real data on its own rental market. Instead, it declined to tweak the registration requirements. When I asked DPD spokesperson Bryan Stevens why, he explained that the change “was out of scope, would generate stakeholder opposition, would be difficult to implement, and would generate data of questionable quality.” Remember, we’re talking about asking landlords to do some basic math.
It’s the “stakeholder opposition” part that’s most telling; take a guess where it came from. Sean Martin, director of external affairs for the Rental Housing Association of Washington, says gathering those numbers would have been too “cumbersome” for landlords. “This is just another thing for our members to have to track and submit,” he says. “So we just weren’t that interested in going there.”
And why should they be when those in power have neither the imagination nor the will to make them?
While there may not be any conceivable way to stop the rise of rents in a market as out of control as Seattle’s, one city council member is making attempts to soften the effects. Nick Licata, who has fought for low- and moderate-income renters virtually since being elected in 1997 (and who, incidentally, will not seek reelection this fall) proposed an ordinance this spring that would penalize shady landlords.
Since 1990, the city’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance has mandated that building owners who plan to demolish or significantly rehab an existing property pay $3,255 in relocation costs to displaced tenants who make less than 50 percent of the city’s median income. (The city foots half of the bill.) Yet Licata’s office has found—at least anecdotally—that many landlords circumvent the process by raising rents so high that low-income tenants have no choice but to move out. And once they’re gone, then the renovations start. Licata’s ordinance would strengthen TRAO by assessing a $1,000 fine, per day, if a landlord begins rehabbing the building within 90 days of a rent hike. “You want to demolish your building? You own the building, and you have the right to do that,” Licata says. “But there is a cost if you’re forcing people out. And you should pay it.”
Beyond that, though, there’s not much more that can be done. This is, after all, a free market, beholden to nothing more than the impartial forces of supply and demand. It’s enough to make a cynic throw up his hands, bow down, and just submit to our new landlord overlords. After all, as Seattle’s housing crisis of the late ’70s and early ’80s proves, we’ve been in this position before and the city didn’t descend into chaos. So maybe if we just let the market play out, this too shall pass?
Or maybe we’ve been looking at this wrong all along. “The free market, property rights, and a need to create a socially diverse community—I would suggest that all of those are social constructs. They’re really just abstractions. They’re not actually truths in and of themselves.” That’s Dr. Branden Born, an associate professor of urban design and planning at the UW. Put another way, he’s saying that property rights aren’t inalienable—we’ve just come to believe that they are, after decades of living in a society that values capital above all else.
And freed from that thinking, he says, it’s possible to start imagining a scenario in which housing vouchers are available for more than just the poorest of the poor, or in which the owner of an apartment building that sells for tens of millions of dollars has to share a portion of the proceeds with the taxpayers who funded the roads and parks and other amenities that made it so valuable in the first place. Born insists he doesn’t have the answers and then laughs and says that’s the beauty of being an academic. “If you wanted to get to Portland and you got on I-90 going to Spokane and someone said, ‘Hey, you’re on the wrong road,’ they don’t necessarily have to have the answer of what the right road should be. But they’re still giving you valuable information: You’re not getting to where you want to go.”
The question then, Seattle, is this: Where do we want to go?
This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.