Seattle’s rent control drama never stops. In response to last week's feisty committee meeting where lefty council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant introduced a contested resolution calling on the state legislature to overturn Washington's decades old ban on rent regulations, city council president Tim Burgess introduced (and passed) his own resolution in full council today. Burgess's version, which he says doesn’t endorse any specific rent regulation policy, passed full council version 8-1. (Temporary council member John Okamoto was the sole dissenter.)
“It became clear to me the council needed a fresh start,” Burgess told the council chambers. “As council president I drafted a resolution that better captures the intent of city council to get local control for local solutions.” (Sawant and Licata’s resolution met heavy resistance—it barely stumbled to full council with a 3–3 split vote—due to its inherent endorsement of rent control.)
The new resolution is the same as the Sawant/Licata version with some noticeable differences. The main change is that the resolution lacks an explicit call for traditional rent control—Licata and Sawant’s version featured traditional rent control language like “Seattle could similarly benefit from a rent stabilization ordinance”—and focuses strictly on giving Seattle autonomy over its regulation of rents in order to protect tenants from "dramatic" rent hikes, language that the rest of the council felt they could get behind.
Here’s Burgess’s exact wording: “The City Council supports efforts by the State Legislature to allow local governments to propose ordinances that significantly increase the supply of rent-restricted units and that protect tenants from sudden and dramatic rent increases, without causing a negative impact on the quality or quantity of housing supply, by modifying or repealing [the state ban].” (It goes on to request that the City Office of Intergovernmental Relations incorporate the resolution into their 2016 legislative agenda.)
Sawant, who has championed rent control as her signature re-election campaign issue, naturally framed Burgess’s resolution as the “big developer representative” (and the council) caving to local pressure for rent control. (It is unclear how Burgess is a big developer representative, by the way; he voted for a blanket linkage fee on developers earlier this year.) “I will welcome this as a huge victory for our movement, for our grassroots movement for housing justice,” she said while Burgess glared. She proceeded to list off the numerous rent control-related events she has organized over the past several months. “Really, the real initiator of this has been our movement.”
Sawant made sure to note that last Thursday council members had “vehemently” opposed her resolution. “Oddly, it [Burgess’s resolution] is basically the same as our resolution. [But] I frankly don’t care whose name shows up on the resolution,” she added. (Before the final vote, Burgess reiterated that his resolution “does not take a position on rent control.”)
Burgess told PubliCola after the vote that his move wasn’t in response to Sawant’s pressure, but that it was strictly an alternative to Sawant and Licata’s “rhetoric and sloganeering” peppered resolution, which points to rent control ordinances in San Francisco and New York City as successful models.
“Sawant’s resolution was filled with all sorts of ideological rhetoric and claims that we couldn’t verify,” he said. “Sawant was very clear and sharp in her comments [in the committee meeting] that it [her resolution] did advocate for Seattle to impose a scheme of rent control. That was a core problem coming out of that committee meeting.”
“This is a much more pragmatic approach … it is asking the legislature to engage with us,” Burgess went on to say. “It’s just better.”
Back in June, Burgess told PubliCola that he favored increasing the number of “rent restricted units” in Seattle through the multifamily tax exemption or publicly funded affordable housing, though he didn’t mention reforming the state ban specifically.
Burgess added that while he believes traditional rent control is a “failed public policy,” he thinks prohibiting landlords whose properties have code violations from raising rents on tenants is a “very reasonable modification of the state statute.” (Long-time Licata aide and District 1 candidate Lisa Herbold said the same thing last week).
During the full council meeting Licata called on the council to "work together" in moving the conversation to the state legislature.
In a statement released today, Jon Grant, Former Tenants Union Director, and de-facto Sawant slate candidate challenging Burgess for the at-large Position Eight city council seat, called the new resolution "election year pandering," and slammed the removal of language originally featured in Licata and Sawant's resolution that had put the displacement of people of color in the context of rising rents. "Most disturbing is the decision to strip out critical anti-discrimination and fair housing language that gave the resolution any real meaning," Grant writes. "Mr. Burgess stripped out all references and recitals regarding fair housing which is a slap to the face of people of color targeted by discrimination and skyrocketing rents."
Grant said all of the original language—which presumably includes the direct nods to rent stabilization—should be reinstated.