Speaking of geniuses (the Stranger held its annual Genius Awards on Saturday night)—the smart organizers at Capitol Hill Housing held a renters’ summit this weekend.

CHH has been on a tear lately—transforming its role as an affordable housing provider into a city planning laboratory for broader policies that overlap with affordable housing to foster a more user-friendly, equitable, and green city.

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A very long time ago, when I was the news editor at the Stranger, I briefly got the paper to add a “Political Genius” category to the yearly celebration of Seattle’s roster of innovative brains; our news team bestowed the award on green activist Cary Moon for pushing the radical idea of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a pedestrian friendly waterfront boulevard instead of either a rebuild or a tunnel highway. Moon’s idea had carried the day at the ballot box, but was sadly shelved for the tunnel a few years later. You shoulda listened, Seattle!

Man, this year’s political genius would certainly be CHH.

Capitol Hill Housing’s default city planning agency, which dubs itself the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, is pushing the envelope on a series of policy fronts, from arts to parking, that has city hall duly on notice—or taking action. The Capitol Hill Arts District (check), the Pike/Pine street closure (still up for discussion), a shared parking zone (council’s all in), affordable housing transit passes (council’s all in), and the renters’ summit are all on the CHH list of policy and organizing initiatives.

This Saturday’s renters summit kicked off CHH’s organizing drive to activate renters (who make up 80 percent of Capitol Hill and more than half of the city at large.) As Puget Sound Regional Council planner Sara Maxana, one of the featured speakers on Saturday at the Miller Community Center, told the tables of renters crowded into the room: Pending policy discussions that are key to renters, like allowing the city to upzone to build more multi-family housing in town, will, as usual, be dominated by one group, homeowners (who are often reluctant to approve upzones, by the way), unless renters can show up in force at public meetings as well.

Wait? A shout out for upzones? But isn’t that, like, the Amazon agenda? As I said: CHH is pushing the envelope.

It was, in fact, the featured speakers at CHH’s Saturday event—Transportation Choices Coalition not the the Tenants' Union, Urbanist council member Rob Johnson not populist Lisa Herbold— that made it clear how transformative the group aims to be.

Rather than hosting a renters summit with the usual suspects on the bill—by which I mean standard populists with sound bites about evil developers and landlords—CHH brought in transit activists, Yes in My Backyard leaders (Maxana, who owns a home in Ballard and supports density), and populists too (Kshama Sawant was on the bill)—to create an Us movement rather than an Us vs Them movement.

(I exaggerate a little: The very organizing principle at the heart of bringing renters together and asking, as they did, everyone to sign cards volunteering to be cell leaders at their apartment buildings, certainly encourages agitation as a strategy. But, the macro policy goals at hand, like supporting upzones, represent a progressive outlook rather than a reactionary one. They aim to help shape the future rather than stop it.)

Perhaps, the defining moment of the day happened during the Q&A between the audience and the table of elected officials when someone directed a question at state house speaker Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford). The renter wanted to know why Chopp, a big supporter of affordable housing, didn’t support the city’s push in Olympia earlier this year for a preservation tax break for landlords; the proposal would have given landlords a tax break for keeping 25 percent of their housing affordable.

Chopp said he didn’t want to give a public benefit to a private entity. He got a smattering of applause. The people at my table were scratching their heads—isn’t that how tax breaks work, though?

State senator Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Capitol Hill), a co-sponsor of the legislation (which passed the state senate, but was stopped in the house by Chopp), told the crowd he disagreed with the house speaker. “If we can incentive landlords to hold on to affordable property, we should,” Pedersen said to broad applause.

Stunning. Chopp fits the bill of left wing populist and Pedersen of establishment attorney. But here, at a bona fide rabble rousing renters’ summit, Pedersen was the one getting the cheers.

Give credit to CHH for raising the bar of this progressive conversation to one that caters to nuance rather than old-fashioned sound bites. With Mayor Ed Murray himself on stage hyping the pending upzones as a key component of housing affordability after brokering a long overdue common interest compromise deal between affordable housing advocates and developers, the conversation around affordable housing is now one that’s intertwined with a pro-density POV.

The day’s agenda also came with another new element in the affordable housing conversation: A pro-transit POV. Also on CHH’s bill on Saturday, Transportation Choices Coalition executive director Shefali  "Free Parking isn't a God Given Right" Ranganathan. She told the crowd that "The public right of way is not yours to freely store your private personal vehicle." And transit nerd, city council member Rob Johnson (Ranganathan’s predecessor at TCC) was on the day’s bill too. He advocated for free transit for everyone under 18. Johnson's also  fighting for another CHH agenda item in the upcoming city council budget talks, by the way—a parking benefits district to make public right of way more than just garage space. This is one CHH idea that the city doesn't support.)

CHH’s updated renters’ agenda certainly includes space for traditional populist To-Do lists. Council member Sawant was also part of the program. She called for caps on landlord move-in fees and for using real estate transaction fees to help offset costs to help build affordable housing.

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In CHH’s new vision, both Sawant’s on-point populist approach and Johnson’s urbanist advocacy seamlessly overlap.

My tweets from the event, including a fact check on old-school lefty, former populist Seattle City Council member Nick Licata (who was also on the diverse agenda), are here.

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