Rent control mania hit city hall again this morning when the city council’s committee on housing affordability, human services, and economic resiliency debated and eventually voted on a heavily hyped resolution—sponsored by lefty council members socialist Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata—that asks the state legislature to lift the 1981 statewide ban on rent control. The council split three-to-three, and so the resolution will go before full council on October 5 without an official committee recommendation.
Council member Mike O’Brien tagged onto the Sawant and Licata lefty team, voting in favor of the resolution, while outgoing council members Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen (accompanied by committee chair, temporary and appointed council member John Okamoto) voted no.
The thirty minute public comment period was jam packed primarily with pro-rent control speakers, in addition to a smattering of anti-rent control landlords and representatives from the Rental Housing Association who were fiercely booed and told to “sit down” by audience members in favor of the resolution.
The pro-rent control speakers included former Tenants Union director and candidate for the Position Eight at-large city council seat Jon Grant, several Socialist Alternative members (Sawant's political organization), executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) Sharon Lee, as well as numerous low-income tenants who spoke about drastic rent hikes. Noticeably lacking from the pro-rent control contingent were the local social justice organizations who endorsed the HALA “grand bargain”, save for Solid Ground (Patricia Habete, a Solid Ground tenant counselor, testified in favor of the resolution). LIHI's Lee did not sign the recent pro-HALA letter , though LIHI's volunteer programs coordinator, Mercedes Elizalde, has been a vocal supporter of the "grand bargain."
“There are two reasons why the council should support this resolution," Lee said. "The first is local control. The other point is social and racial justice. Over half of the renters of color are cost burdened [meaning they put more than 30 percent of their income towards rent], which means that they are at risk of having to leave Seattle. You can make a difference by asking that we can have rent regulation and local control.”
“Rents are going sky high. People of moderate incomes, including senior citizens like myself on set incomes are being pushed out, being evicted even. People from Amazon, Microsoft are moving into those apartments. Something has to be done,” said Jacqueline Silver, a West Seattle renter.
Playing his usual role of opposing Seattle's lefty super majority, developer lobbyist Roger Valdez argued that the council should be focusing on solutions that already have broad support, such as using the city’s bonding capacity on city owned land to build affordable housing. “Rent control will not help it [lack of supply]. Even if you could enact it, you ought to be putting energy into things like building on city owned land which council member Sawant supports. So do we [developers]. So does Sharon Lee from LIHI. Let's work on that. That's something we can actually do,” he said.
Once the committee meeting got underway, Licata (one of the resolution sponsors), tried to garner support by arguing that the resolution isn’t a strict endorsement of rent control. “We are not giving a stamp of approval to say, go forward with rent control … What the council is being asked is can we have a reasonable discussion about using this tool when we know that we can't use it,” he said, adding that the resolution aims to address price gouging in the rental market and tenant displacement, not the ability for landlords to make a profit.
“Voting against this denies us the ability to have that discussion,” he added. (Long-time Licata aide and district one city council candidate Lisa Herbold has tried to make this point as well, telling PubliCola this past week that she’s “upset” that the debate is being strictly framed on rent control as it’s traditionally known, adding that there is “agreement that [traditional] rent control doesn’t work”. She also issued a similar statement this morning regarding the upcoming resolution vote)
Sawant, for whom rent control is her signature campaign issue, launched into an extensive lecture that mixed both local control and 'let's have an open discussion on possible rent regulation' arguments with an all-out defense of rent control for landlords who enact substantial rent hikes. She leaned on a power point featuring stats on the city's cost burdened renters, "myths" surrounding rent control, and arguments on how supply-side housing economics won't stop price gouging that displace low-income tenants and people of color. She said that the HALA recommendations committee don’t “come anywhere close to solving the housing crisis.”
She said the HALA committee’s goal of providing 20,000 affordable units won’t meet the actual demand for affordable housing, when factoring in cost burdened households. (She also said that the HALA recommendations include pre-existing affordable housing stock into that 20,000 unit mark, and that the actual amount of new housing created by HALA is considerably less.)
"What council member Licata and I are imagining, contrary to what the Rental Housing Association will tell you, is not freezing rents at a certain level, but allowing them to increase but in such a way that they are linked to inflation," said Sawant.
Things got pretty testy between Sawant and her opposition on the committee, mainly Rasmussen and Okamoto. At one point during Sawant’s spiel Okamoto told her to make it quick, to which she responded “you were also the one who decided not to schedule this discussion for six weeks after council member Licata and I introduced it.”
Rasmussen called the resolution a “distraction” from the recommendations that came out of mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee (HALA), pointing towards the seemingly impossible task of reforming the rent control ban in the legislature and condemning the resolution as flawed due to its inherent endorsement of rent control, a policy he says is still debatable. “Licata had me at one point to support the resolution," he said, "but when I hear council member Sawant speak, she is arguing for rent control and saying that this resolution is a good expression of the support for rent control." (The resolution features segments that call the state ban a “impediment to fair housing in the city of Seattle” and language like "Seattle could similarly benefit from a rent stabilization ordinance or other provisions that regulate rent.”)
“I wanted to assure you all that if you don't think rent control has merit and you just want to do HALA recommendations, that is your choice. Passing this resolution does not in anyway restrict your ability to simply advocate for the HALA recs,” Sawant responded, saying that the HALA recommendations and possible future rent regulations are not “mutually exclusive.”
Rasmussen wasn’t swayed. “You may want to come back with more language that may be more supportable,” he said, “but you don't have it here.”
Before the vote Licata asked Okamoto what he thought on the matter. Okamoto tried to wiggle out of it, saying that he didn’t have the expertise, before Sawant interjected, noting his anti-rent control Seattle Times op-ed. “Obviously you do have an opinion,” she said.
Amidst cackles from Sawant’s supporters in the audience, Okamoto told the council members to “focus on the issues and not on each other,” before recycling the line that rent control is a “false hope.”
Given the imminent split-vote, Licata first asked council members who weren't convinced to abstain, to which Rasmussen replied "I didn't take this job to duck votes." O’Brien then asked to push the resolution’s vote to October 5th instead of September 28th (the week after next) to work on the language with skeptical council members (though it seems like Republicans in the state senate would be a better target, given that they're the ones whose skepticism is the most relevant.)