When City Council member Kshama Sawant started calling for rent control during her first campaign for public office in 2012, the idea was largely met with a “here we go again” attitude. Three years later, Sawant is harnessing public frustration over rising rents and the momentum from her role in passing Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law to make a push for rent control in Seattle a reality.
For years, many in Seattle have dismissed the issue (including House Speaker Frank Chopp), calling it a pointless political debate while a statewide ban enjoys widespread support in the state legislature. Today, the chances that Olympia warms to rent control still seems slim at best and mostly preempts any discussion about whether it could pass in Seattle.
But the former economics professor is making rent control a top issue in her bid to be the first representative of the Capitol Hill-centered Council District 3.
To further elaborate her thoughts and strategy on rent control — and give voice to the citizenry, Sawant is holding an affordable housing town hall Thursday night at City Hall. Council member Nick Licata, who is departing from the council this year, will be joining Sawant to lead the discussion.
During her campaign against then-council member Richard Conlin, Sawant sent CHS a series of emails that detailed her position on rent control. Her responses offer a good primer of her thoughts on the issue heading into Thursday’s forum and this summer’s campaign season.
San Francisco’s skyrocketing cost of living is often cited as the prime example of the disaster rent control would wreak on Seattle. When asked about it in 2013, Sawant called San Francisco’s law a “veritable lifeline” for tenants who would otherwise be 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.
So what exactly would a Sawant rent control program look like?
In a rent control program, the percent increase in rent would be determined by economic analysis that would include variables such as cost of living, mortgage expenses, prevailing interest rates, borrowing costs, and maintenance costs. Because of this model, rent control would still enable unit owners to keep pace with inflation and maintain housing. What it would prevent is the astronomical rate of returns to big real estate companies (something that small owners rarely receive anyway).
Many of Sawant’s fellow economists think rent control is a bad idea. Not surprising, Sawant doesn’t think too highly of those colleagues.
Unfortunately, economics as a discipline tends to provide academic cover for policies that mainly benefit corporations and the wealthy and hurt the majority of working people. For example, many economists are critical of even the existence of a minimum wage. Most oppose public health care systems, in spite of enormous historical evidence that single-payer healthcare is more cost effective and creates decisively better outcomes. As unbelievable as it may sound, several also oppose restrictions against child labor.
Meanwhile, both Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council are pursuing separate policies to bolster affordability in the city.
After compiling a list of recommendations from local experts, Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livibility Advisory Committee is currently drafting a plan to expand affordable housing options for the city’s middle income earners. The plan, due out next month, is also supposed to include policies to create or preserve 50,000 new housing units in the city over the next decade, 20,000 of which would be income restricted.
Last year, the City Council started drawing up plans for a construction linkage fee program to further fund the city’s affordable housing programs. Under the initial proposal, developers in certain areas could either pay a per-square-foot fee or dedicate at least 3% to 5% of the units in their project to those making below 80% of the area mean income.
Even as 600 or more new apartment units are predicted to be ready this year around Capitol Hill, the best news analysts can muster on the affordability front is that recent surges appear to be slowing. One recent study found that that average one-bedroom rents on Capitol Hill and the Central District were currently around $1,425 to $1,533. In a sample of recent Capitol Hill listings, the median monthly lease for a one-bedroom apartment was nearly $1,700. Studios weighed in just above $1,200 a month. Meanwhile, more than 70% of ads were for studios or one bedroom units.
Affordable Housing Town Hall
Thursday, April 23rd — 6 PM
City Council Chambers — 600 4th Ave, Floor 2