“We don’t need trickle-down economics… We need affordable housing.”
“Rent control does nothing to create new housing. We need solutions now … There are people homeless and sleeping in their car tonight.”
Forgoing Seattle’s usual non-confrontational forum-style political events, Monday evening’s debate on rent control was a heated affair. Around 1,000 people tried to pack into a balmy Town Hall at 8th an Seneca to hear City Council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata argue the merits of rent control with Republican Rep. Matthew Manweller and Smart Growth Seattle director Rodger Valdez. There was a large crowd outside unable to enter the at-capacity venue.
The event ostensibly centered around four questions posted to the debaters but was mostly a relentless back-and-forth on rent control more broadly.
1. What has caused housing-affordability crisis in Seattle?
2. What have been the affects of rent control where it has been adopted?
3. Without rent control can the market make housing affordable?
4. What will be impact of rent control on Seattle?
The answers were broad and there was, of course, no clear winner other than the idea that rent control — in some form or fashion — remains a popular ideal for Seattle residents struggling with affordability.
But it’s not the answer to lower rents, the anti side argued Monday night. “Rent control does nothing to create new housing,” Valdez said, a common refrain from the opposition. “We need solutions now … There are people homeless and sleeping in their car tonight.”
Sawant argued several times that the more development = lower rents argument was a pipe dream that the city couldn’t wait around for. “We don’t need trickle-down economics … We need affordable housing,” she said.
At times, both sides cited the same studies, same researchers, and even the same data points to drive home their points. Participants also made frequent use of rhetorical questions and cyclical arguments. The anti-rent control side often pointed out ways rent control had failed in other cities while the pro-side argued loopholes in those laws were largely to blame for their shortcomings.
As with any good debate, there were some entertaining jabs. Sawant once brushed aside her opponent’s arguments as “Chicken Little stories” and implied that Manweller was in office because of developers intent on keeping the statewide rent control ban. When he was booed for saying rent control would hurt children, Manweller turned to the crowd and said “Listen, you might learn something.”
20 things CHS heard
- The room was packed with Sawant supporters, but Manweller and Valdez received surprisingly enthusiastic applause at the beginning of the evening.
- Later, Manweller garnered some of the biggest jeers when he repeatedly said that there was greater scientific consensus on the harms of rent control than the harms of climate change.
- “We have a situation that by any rational measure would described as a failure to perform,” Licata said in his opening statement, adding that nearly half of the city’s renters pay at least a third of their income on rent.
- Valdez quickly got the pro-Sawant crowd riled up by sarcastically quoting Karl Marx.
- Sawant: “Skyrocketing rents are not an act of God, they are an act of price gouging.”
- Valdez ciriticized Sawant for attempting to pass “fist shaking resolutions” instead of working with developers on common ground: using the city’s bonding capacity to fund new housing construction. While Sawant supports that policy, she said it needs to be paired with a robust rent control law.
- “Seattle is one of the most regulated housing environments in the world,” Manweller said, claiming the city’s elected officials were to blame for the housing crisis.
- In a dig at Manweller’s hometown, Sawant said places like Ellensberg that aren’t thriving might not need rent control, but Seattle does. Manweller countered by saying the city recently built thousands of new units of housing for Central Washington University students. “Now we don’t have a housing crisis,” he said.
- The city’s multifamily tax exemption program, which gives tax exemptions to developers who build affordable units, was brought up several times. Valdez said the city should expand the program, while Licata argued it didn’t go far enough because the units only stay affordable for 12 years and it continues to put the burden on taxpayers.
- Valdez: If we had a shortage of bread, we would bake more bread. We wouldn’t put a price control on the limited amount of bread we had.
- The HALA committee did not endorse exploring rent control, which Sawant said was not surprising because developers and renter groups have completely opposing views.
- Licata said “economic evictions” were the result of an “unfettered market that feeds speculative development.”
- Manweller: “Time after time rent control drops the housing stock and jacks up the prices.”
- Valdez: “(Rent control) is not going to make things any better except for people who own single family homes.”
- On San Francisco’s rent control program, Sawant said it was working well until loopholes in the system began to erode it. For instance, allowing rent controls to be lifted in a unit after a tenant dies.
- Valdez: “Stop trying to vilify people that are trying to do a good thing which is build more housing for this city.”
- Rejecting the argument that rent control would stymie development, Sawant said growth was based on the state of the local and national economy.
- Manweller said rent control programs often lead to a black market, whereby renters bribe landlords to get into rent controlled units. In turn, Manweller said rent control ends up forcing out poor people and minorities.
- The opposition noted several times that in places like New York City, rent control apartments became dilapidated because landlords couldn’t generate enough revenue for up-keep. Sawant retorted that Seattle already has dilapidated apartments and slumlords with no rent control.
- Manweller: “We need poor people, we need rich people, we need people in the middle.”
Beyond rent control, issues like bringing back microhousing received some discussion. Valdez, who said he lived in a microhousing unit, criticized the city for scrapping it as a market-based solution to affordable housing. Sawant said microhousing was not a viable solution to keeping families in the city.
Moderator Peter Steinbrueck brought plenty of aw-shucks levity, struggling with the order of speakers and misplacing his notes more than once. The former City Council member did implement a rule that any time audience members interrupted a speaker, that speaker would get additional time — a ruling that served the opposition well.
By luck or by design, Sawant was given the final word of the night, which she used to deliver one of the sharpest blows of the evening. She criticized a West Seattle developer, which backs Smart Growth Seattle, for suing the city in order to get out of paying low-income residents relocation assistance as the company prepares to demolish the building.
Fortunately, debate primarily focused on issue of rent control and not the political hurdles it faces, which are substantial. The Legislature banned any form of rent control in 1980. Passing rent control in Seattle would first require lifting the state ban in Olympia, where there’s little detectable momentum to do so. Meanwhile, Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee rejected a recommendation for rent control.
A resolution that state’s the City Council’s support for lifting the rent control ban is currently in committee.
Monday’s debate was recorded by the Seattle Channel. We’ll post the video when it’s available.
UPDATE: Here is one recording from Talking Stick TV.