Rents in Capitol Hill are among the highest in the Seattle, and they don’t appear to be falling anytime soon. The average rent for a Capitol Hill/Eastlake apartment in September was $1,278, according to analysis from local real estate experts Dupre+Scott. Of course that number includes “efficiency” units and gets significantly higher as you add bedrooms and a private bathroom.
The trend has pushed affordability to the forefront in this year’s local election. City council candidate Kshama Sawant has made rent control one of the cornerstones of her campaign.
“Market rate housing is becoming increasingly expensive, in keeping with a minority of higher-salary people moving into the city,” she wrote in an email to CHS. “Low-income and middle-income people are being forced to move out into the farther reaches of the city or outside city limits, and have to commute long distances for their city jobs.”
But is rent control in Seattle possible? Sawant says a mass push at the city level could spark a debate in the state legislature to repeal the statewide ban. Others aren’t as sure.
Proponents of rent control argue it grants more stability for working-class individuals and families, allowing them to keep roots in a neighborhood without getting priced out. This in turn adds increasing value to the neighborhood as residents become more invested in their community.
Opponents of rent control, including these economists, argue that artificially depressing rents stymies new housing development, creates animosity between renters and landlords, and benefits a small number of renters lucky enough to land rent controlled apartments.
Tracing the history of rent control, both nationally and in Washington state is a strange saga. Back in 1930s New York there was a store clerk who was fined by the state for selling milk below the state-set minimum price. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1933 the court found no reason to strike down the power of states to set reasonable retail price limits. That has since been interpreted to give states and cities the constitutional grounding to enact retail price controls, like those on rents.
In 1980, a Seattle group called Renters and Owners Organized for Fairness (ROOF) filed a rent control initiative with the city. It would have set up a rent control board and tied rent increases to the Consumer Price Index. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful. The following year, the Washington state legislature banned rent control, although much of the fight came over moorage fees for houseboats.
The statute prohibits and cities and counties from establishing any limits on rent hikes, moving the rent control fight to Olympia.
San Francisco’s rent control policy is among the most well known in the country. It sets limits on the maximum percentage a landlord can increase rent by tying increases to the CPI. A rent control board confirms the percentages and hears disputes between landlords and renters. The San Francisco model has allowed some longtime neighborhood dwellers to stay put. It’s also prevented others from moving into the most desirable, housing scarce neighborhoods and contributed to skyrocketing rents in apartments that are not controlled.
While Sawant has praised the San Francisco model, in an email to CHS she argued it didn’t go far enough because it only applies to certain buildings.
“Contrary to the popular myth, rent control in San Francisco is a veritable lifeline for tenants who would otherwise be completely priced out of the city. The problem is that it is not broadly applied, and therefore many tenants aren’t able to obtain rent controlled units. While the way rent control was implemented in San Francisco has not eliminated high rents there, it has still played a major role in keeping rents lower than they would otherwise be. The example of Boston illustrates this all too well. When its rent control laws were eliminated in 1997, apartment rates nearly doubled within the months that followed.”
It’s not very often that you look to Los Angeles for examples of urban planning but Sawant may want to look farther south than the Bay Area. LA has had rent control in place for decades — you can see a schedule of the annual allowable increases under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance here:
The chances that the Washington state legislature warms to rent control is slim at best and mostly preempts any discussion about whether it could pass the council. It can be difficult to imagine many elected officials sticking their neck out on an issue when there’s no immediate possibility of having to make a decision on it.
Sawant is the only candidate in the election that strongly supports rent control and advocates for it. And, though she’s also an economics instructor, there doesn’t appear to be much if any support for rent control among the current class of elected officials around the city and state.
Council member Richard Conlin, Sawant’s opponent, is far more skeptical about the possibility and effectiveness of enacting rent control than his challenger. During last week’s debate at Seattle Central Community College, he called Sawant’s fight for rent control a “cruel illusion.” However, he didn’t dismiss it outright, opting to point out the procedural hurdles to enacting rent control.
“We don’t have the authority to do anything like that,” he said. “I’d like to see it happen, it can’t happen in the city.”
The mayoral candidates aren’t keen on the idea of rent control either. Incumbent mayor Mike McGinn and challenger Ed Murray have more or less brushed aside the idea of pushing for the issue. McGinn has touted his work to bring affordable housing projects online during his tenure, while Murray talks up increasing affordable housing incentives and has hinted at affordable housing “requirements” on developers.
On Monday McGinn took to Seattle’s sub-Reddit for an AMA session when he was asked about his views on rent control.
“I am skeptical of rent control because of the experience of other cities,” he wrote. “I am looking at what we can do to change our rules to require greater advance notice of rent increases, and increased relocation expenses.”
The city may not be able to keep your rent from rising even higher — but at least you’ll have fair warning.