Yes, the Rent Is Too Damn High. But What's the Solution?

Singling out landlords and developers is a form of economic NIMBYism.

By Josh Feit April 22, 2015

Before you go to Seattle city council members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant's "Rent Is Out of Control!!" town hall at city hall tomorrow at 6pm, be sure you read this month's Seattle Met feature by Matt Halverson, titled, appropriately enough, "The Rent Really Is Too Damn High."

Matt goes through a lot of nerdy policy stuff that Licata is advocating for and/or has passed—rent control, relocation assistance—but lands here, in the philosophical, even existential place that current skyrocketing rents bring on. And from there, maybe even to some clear-eyed radicalism.

From the conclusion:

...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.

If I may—and perhaps getting even more clear eyed—why stop at landlords or developers?

By Born's logic (and it's sound logic), lots of people are benefitting from the taxpayer-funded amenities—restaurateurs, startup companies, future transplants such as Weyerhaeuser and Expedia. The politically easy thing to do is to cast landlords and developers as the bad guys who should pay, while entrepreneurs and new exciting businesses are left out of the solution. Their taxes, just like yours, helped pay for the amenities and property value increases as well, no?

I'm not saying a new restaurant or a new biz in town is a bad guy—or a homeowner who's benefiting from our revived city—but I'm saying, just as liberals and progressives like to talk about raising taxes on the 1 percent, but not the middle class, I wish we could get back to a place where we understand that the only way to make the social contract work for everyone is to involve everyone in the solution. Singling out landlords (or developers) is a tax-everybody-but-me solution that's ultimately going to fail.

Let's stop advocating for easy choices and make some hard ones.


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