Seattle City Council considers call to end state ban on rent control

Screen-Shot-2015-09-08-at-4.49.49-PMFrom “Top four facts about this affordability crisis” in the mayor’s HALA action plan (PDF)

Though a rent control element was left out of the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda committee’s recommendations, Council members Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata are pushing to keep the push for limits on rent increases alive. Thursday, a resolution calling for “state legislators to change the Washington State law restricting local governments from instituting rent control or regulating rents” will be introduced at City Hall:

Council’s Housing Affordability, Human Services and Economic Resiliency Committee will consider a resolution on state prohibition of rent control tomorrow, which is co-sponsored by Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Nick Licata. The resolution urges state legislators to change the Washington State law restricting local governments from instituting rent control or regulating rents.  If the state ban were lifted, Seattle would have the option to pursue rent regulation legislation locally. Current state law does not allow cities to limit rent increases. Seattle has seen rent increases of up to 145% during 2015. 

Councilmembers Sawant and Licata support having rent control as an option as part of a bold and comprehensive set of solutions to preserve affordable housing in Seattle.

Members of the public are encouraged to share their perspective during the public comment period at this Thursday’s 9:30 a.m. meeting. This will be Council’s first discussion on the resolution.  Councilmembers Licata and Sawant debated the concept earlier this year at Town Hall Seattle in front of hundreds of spectators. 

The committee is expected to vote on the proposal at the following meeting on Thursday, September 24 at 9:30 a.m.  The resolution will then be considered at Full Council.

Were it not for the state limits on rent control, the City Council would “design and enact ordinances or other provisions which regulate the amount of rent appropriate to the City of Seattle,” the proposed resolution reads.

The full resolution is below.

Washington’s ban on rent control dates to 1980. Back in the 1930s, New York a store clerk 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. The statute prohibits cities and counties from establishing any limits on rent hikes, moving the rent control fight to Olympia.

A rent control proposal was narrowly left out of the HALA recommendations. According to Jon Grant, committee member and at-large City Council candidate, a majority of the 21-member committee did support adding a call for rent control, but there weren’t enough votes for an official recommendation. The report notes that opponents argued it would “only divert attention from other more feasible strategies that can achieve more affordable housing.”

The first legislation based on the HALA recommendations including linkage fees and “mandatory inclusionary housing” has begun moving forward with the Council. The mayor is also pushing forward legislation to expand the Multifamily Tax Exemption program in Seattle.

When 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, public frustration over rising rents and the momentum from passing Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law make a push for rent control in Seattle a reality.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, who represents Capitol Hill and 43rd Legislative District and was on the HALA steering committee, said he supports lifting the ban and was part of a coalition pushing for rent control legislation in the 1970s but does not believe an effort would survive the legislature. Sawant has said it is a lack of political will that is keeping rent control off the agenda

In July, Town Hall was filled for a debate over rent control pitting Sawant and Licata vs. state Rep. Matthew Manweller and Smart Growth Seattle director Rodger Valdez.

Sawant has posted a call for support of the resolution. “Passing the Rent Control Resolution would make it official policy that the City of Seattle wants Washington State to lift its undemocratic ban on rent control,” she writes. “It would be an important victory helping us to build our city’s affordable housing movement.” Meanwhile, her office has also posted a “Rent Control – Frequently Asked Questions” page.

“By rent control, we mean linking rent increases to inflation. Under a citywide rent control policy, rent would still go up,” the FAQ reads. “Landlords would still be able to make profits and finance operations and maintenance. But the sudden and massive rent hikes of 15%, 50%, 100%, and higher – and the economic evictions that come with them – would be prohibited.”

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14 thoughts on “Seattle City Council considers call to end state ban on rent control

  1. One step closer to becoming San Francisco.

    Does anyone think new housing will be more affordable by not allowing newer units and restricting the profit to be made from renting existing ones?

    • Why not have it on the table? Affordable housing is a hot issue, and we should consider all the options. The council might find, as you suggest, that rent control is not viable, and put it aside. But it should be open for discussion.

      • Terrible ideas that have never succeeded anywhere in the US should not be on the table. Especially when they aren’t even legal to begin with.

        And your comment also assumes the city council has absolutely any competence to discern a good idea from a bad one. That is generous.

      • So the state legislature knows what’s better for Seattle than the council does? Rent control has had successes, it’s not something to write off a priori.

      • I agree it’s patronizing that the state doesn’t allow the city to do stuff by itself – but rent control on it’s merits fails to perform the good proponents want it to do.

        We know that for sure.

  2. Smoke and mirrors. Look this way and that all to avoid the real city problems we have. Affordable housing is and will continue to be laughable as eddy and the council continue their game of sim city.

  3. About ten years ago landlords were giving away months of rent not one but two or more and other incentives just to get someone to move into their apartment. The reason was landlords were competing with each other for any available person to pay rent. Since then Developers have been restricted to building short buildings 4-6 stories so for every 100 people moving to Seattle 25 units are built. If you want to lower the rents in Seattle build tall buildings with people size apartments. Not too many people need micro of macro housing. There is a view up there and it is the only way to lower the rents.

    The only thing of value the preservationist are preserving is skyrocketing housing costs as people compete for the only available space there is where they work.

  4. I have noticed more for rent signs on Cap Hill than I can recall in some time. Perhaps the market is softening. In any event, I trust the market that creates more housing far more than I do the city council. Will they guarantee minimum investment returns to owners during the inevitable downturn in the future? Of course not.

  5. In 2014, Seattle experienced growth of 35,937 new residents according to the US Census, yet there were only 8,311 new housing units built. Many of the newcomers moved to Seattle for high paying jobs, meaning that they had the money to drive up rents and force out existing renters.

    Sawant repeatedly ignores these facts (and basic common sense) and claims that insufficient supply is not the cause of rent spikes but rather “the relative balance of political and organizational power between tenants and the real estate lobby.” Landlords aren’t able to price gouge because of demand, but rather simply because they are evil and greedy. She’s not a leader, she’s a demagogue.

    She doesn’t seem to be interested in finding actual solutions to our housing crisis. She’d rather promote demonstrably failed policies in a transparent attempt to appeal to low information voters.

    • I agree with you completely about Sawant.

      Regarding your stats, wouldn’t many of the new residents (which presumably is a net increase) be moving into older units? In other words, there wouldn’t have to be a 1:1 match of newcomers to new units in order to keep up with demand.