Last night, at city hall, council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant attempted to address mounting anxiety about rising rents. The lefty council duo hosted an affordable housing town hall where they called on both the public and other council members to get behind rent control as a viable option for tackling housing costs, despite the decades-old statewide ban on the policy.
“This [skyrocketing rents] is tearing our families apart, it’s destroying our community, and that’s why we’re here today,” said Nick Licata to the standing-room only crowd of 200 people in city hall chambers, who applauded in affirmation, some waving “Paul Allen Wanted” signs.
There’s no question that the Seattle rents and property values are on a beeline upwards. Last September Seattle's median rent increased at the fastest rate of any city in the nation, and over the past twelve months, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Rainier Beach—one of Seattle’s cheapest rental neighborhoods—rose by 8.4 percent.
With some other council members (and some council hopefuls) in the house, Seattle’s oldest and newest low-income champs (Licata was first elected in 1997 and Sawant took office last year) laid out their case for rent control—a mechanism that conservative economists and developers grouse does the exact opposite of its stated goal to lower rents, arguing that rent control constricts housing supply and raises rents for tenants on un-restricted units. These types favor market based solutions. For example, the Coalition for Housing Solutions, a group of developers and business interests, issued a report last week in response to the city's affordability crisis that in part argued affordable housing shortages can be addressed via “market filtering”—a sort of trickle-down rental market theory that says increased high-end property opens up units for people lower down on the ladder.
Despite the longstanding rent control controversy, Sawant and Licata presented a resolution which recognizes housing as a human right, acknowledges damaging effects of displacement on traditionally marginalized demographics, and: says the state ban is stopping Seattle from determining its own future. The duo hopes that public pressure—a “housing justice” movement as Sawant called it akin to last year’s campaign for a $15 minimum wage—will move the rest of the council to endorse the resolution and send a message to Olympia. They frame the ban as both “undemocratic” and “aggressive.”
“They [the legislature] explicitly deny Seattle residents the right to control our own economic environment,” said Licata, who’s actually retiring from the council next year, after a near-20-year stint on the council as a soft-spoken yet effective champion of the poor. “Rents are [already] controlled…but they're controlled by the people who own the rental units. And they charge any price they wish.”
After Licata introduced the resolution, Sawant tried to explain what rent control—or “rent stabilization” as she also referred to it—would look like.
“Rent control, as we define it, would allow for landlords to increase rents in order to keep up with inflation [the consumer price index] and to carry out operation and maintenance,” said Sawant. “But it would prevent the kind of runaway rent increases that we've seen around the city.”
Sawant acknowledged the stigma surrounding rent control, but brushed off criticisms as “scare stories” (rent control dissuades landlords from maintaining properties) that are perpetuated by capital owners who benefit from turbulent real estate markets. “There are poorly maintained units now [without rent control],” she said. “Let's take back the narrative.”
One attendee who spoke during the public comment segment, Andrew McDonald—who lives in Greenwood in a one bedroom apartment and works in the neighborhood as bartender—said he recently received a notice that his rent was going up by almost $500 after the property was sold to an out-of-state investor.
“Mr. Mayor, council members, you need to take action now,” he demanded. “By the way, where is the mayor?” he added to applause. (Mayor Murray is planning to release an affordable housing proposal next month; in standard Murray style, he's brought together traditional adversaries—housing advocates and developers—to reach a compromise deal.)
“This law [the ban], needs to be repealed, because raising someone's rent by 85 percent cannot and should not, be legal,” said Sawant, referring to McDonald’s current situation.
But not everyone in attendance was in line with the cause. Pro-development folks like Roger Valdez, a developer lobbyist with Smart Growth Seattle, thinks Sawant and Licata are selling a false hope to distressed renters.“[Rent control is] kind of the heroin of politics,” Valdez told Publicola this morning. “It feels really good and it's very, very addictive but it has a very, very negative effect.”
“I think she is going to pressure the council into doing something that they probably shouldn't do,” Valdez said.
Whether it’s heroin or smart policy, one candidate for city council was definitely running on it.
“With rents rising the way that they are, we are going to see billions of dollars transferred from [renters] to a handful of property owners,” said Jonathan Grant, former director of the Tenants Union of Washington State and candidate for one of the at-large city council seats. “Rent is about income inequality. And the gains that we made with winning the minimum wage will be lost if those rents—if that income is recouped through rising rents—by property owners.”
While rent control was the cornerstone of the forum and Licata and Sawant’s resolution, other ideas were also in play last night.
"And a leader with bad ideas will win every time over people who have none.”
David Bloom—cofounder of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and one of the people who spoke during the formal presentation—told the audience he supported a linkage fee (the council already unanimously endorsed the idea, which charges developers per square foot and puts the money toward affordable housing). Bloom also suggested the city take stock of current privately owned affordable housing.
Another scheduled speaker, longtime blogger David “Goldy” Goldstein also addressed the crowd. He said using city bonds is a ready-to-go way of financing massive public affordable housing projects. “The city and council have access to hundreds of millions of dollars of bonding capacity that they could tap into to build housing [right] now.” (Valdez and the Downtown Seattle Association agree with the lefties on this point; the DSA suggests a similar strategy in its recent white paper on the issue.)
Sally Bagshaw was the only one other incumbent council member at the event, though she refrained from joining in the conversation, preferring to linger near the walls—even though Licata offered her an open seat near the front row.
Valdez has seized on the reticence of potential council allies—like Bagshaw—against rent control. This morning he told PubliCola that the other council members didn’t have the “courage” and “fortitude” to show up to the forum and challenge Sawant and Licata. “It's an embarrassment for our city, the lack of leadership is embarrassing. And that's why Sawant runs the board. She's the only leader this city has; the only one. And a leader with bad ideas will win every time over people who have none.”
Council members are not the only ones who are staying out of the fray for now. Ryan Bane with CBE Strategic—a consulting firm that represents the developer-friendly Coalition for Housing Solutions—said “I don't think we're be getting involved in this revolution." Bayne said he doesn't want to be framed by Sawant's political rubrik. "We're not going to play at that game.”