Renters: Capitol Hill’s silent majority is organizing

100 “building ambassadors” needed for Capitol Hill renter summit in September

Since renters on Capitol Hill are transient and apathetic to city affairs, their concerns are less worthy of consideration when crafting public policy — or so the theory goes.

The message is one that Capitol Hill EcoDistrict director Joel Sisolak says is internalized by many renters, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of disengagement. A new organizing effort by the neighborhood sustainability organization is trying to change that.

Capitol Hill Renter Initiative seeks to amplify the mostly dormant voices of Capitol Hill renters and insert their priorities into the city’s ongoing housing policy debates. Rather than fight back against some developer-homeowner agenda, Sisolak said the EcoDistrict wants to encourage renter identity as a way into local politics.

“We’re really interested in getting renters into the public process,” Sisolak said. “That includes neighborhood discussions around land use and affordability”

In concrete terms, the EcoDistrict is trying to identify 100 “building ambassadors” to represent their buildings for a Capitol Hill renter summit in September. Sisolak envisions a pipeline of leaders from the renter community that will see themselves as the rightful advocates for a crucial segment of Seattle’s population, even if those advocates eventually plan to leave the neighborhood or buy their own home.

In the meantime, renters already involved with the initiative have started to discuss what role they can have in influencing two proposals to come out of the mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda: A measure to protect renters from discrimination over their source of income and the pay-or-play affordable housing mandate on developers.

On Tuesday, the City Council will hold a hearing on the Mandatory Housing Affordability measure. The ordinance would require all new multifamily and commercial development to contribute to affordable housing, resulting in 6,000 affordable units over 10 years.

Capitol Hill would seem to be fertile ground for building a renter movement. While more than half of Seattle’s property is zoned for single family homes and only 8% of Seattle is zoned for multi-family buildings, renters make up 80% of the population within the EcoDistrict boundaries. “We felt like we really needed to be doing a better job of engaging renters,” Sisolak said.

Renters make up nearly half of Seattle’s population and constitute an even higher percentage on Capitol Hill. Speaking at the annual forum put on by Capitol Hill Housing, the EcoDistrict’s parent organization, City Council member Kshama Sawant lamented that many renters feel disempowered.

“Renting is a conscious choice, it is not a step towards moving,” Sawant said. “Renting should be recognized as an honorable choice.”

The EcoDistrict is not the first to see the potential power in organizing the city’s renters. Founded in 1977, the Tenants Union of Washington State has been active in organizing and supporting tenants, particularly those handling disputes with landlords. By contrast, Sisolak said the renter initiative is not meant to be a place for renters to fight with individual landlords.

Sawant has also been doing her part to organize a renter’s movement, particularly around the issue of rent control — a policy she strongly supports. Earlier this month, the City Council unanimously passed Sawant’s “slumlord” legislation, which prevents landlords from raising rents in poorly maintained buildings. Sawant said she would use the momentum to continue working towards a comprehensive tenant’s bill of rights.

The next monthly meeting of the Capitol Hill Renter Initiative is July 13th, 6-7 PM at 12th Ave Arts. You can read more about the initiative and sign up for the EcoDistrict’s email list here.

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18 thoughts on “Renters: Capitol Hill’s silent majority is organizing

  1. I’m going to assume since I’m not a socialist, that they’re not really that interested in getting me into the public process, even though I rent.

    • Just a few random thoughts:

      It’d be interesting to see a map of apartment buildings and the average rents. I’m not sure it would be useful since the ranges in my 100+ unit building span a $2k range.

      What would happen if a proportional number of happy renters showed up to the renters initiative (ie most renters are silent, but are you looking for just ones that are behind your agenda?)

      I appreciate that the HALA is city-wide and should be about encouraging development across the board. I often feel like Capitol Hill feels it needs to own the initiative but it doesn’t.

      I was just offered my second renewal since moving in and the rent is exactly the same as my original rent (making it flat for 3 years running through 2017). The parking may be going up, but that’s what negotiating is for (or getting some concession from the landlord for making a commitment early). Last year it was getting a few weeks free + continuation of one pet rent and only increased my parking $25 instead of $75.

      I really hope that renters get more involved in neighborhood organizations, especially on the fringes of the single family areas. I’d say that renters get the benefit of mass transit due to density v. SFH. I voluntarily moved from a house (after almost 15 years) to an apartment several years ago. Maybe the tax breaks aren’t there, but having the ability to live in a vibrant (rather than sleepy) neighborhood and having someone to take care of landscaping and maintenance is what I was looking for.

      Life is no longer about what “you’re supposed to aspire to” (rent->ownership) but following your own path. If that path is transitory or if it is longer term those are options, however caring about your community should be encouraged.

      How about putting invitations to community organizations inside apartment buildings?

      /end random thoughts.

    • rents are set at the level markets can bear. unless property taxes skyrocket pass that level (and i doubt they are), levys are not passed to renters, largely.

    • Most levies are financed, at least in part, by an increase in property taxes. Landlords pass on this increase in cost by raising rents, but of course there are other factors which result in higher rents. So, yes, renters are financially affected when levies are approved.

  2. Property taxes are passed on to renters. Each time a housing levy is passed, renters pay their share of the increased bill so there’s no free lunch. Also, it’s good to note that apartment buildings taxes go towards the housing levy’s and contribute at a much higher level than single family homes do.

    • Also worth mentioning that most businesses have what are called “triple net” or NNN leases for their stores and offices. Under these leases, the store pays the property taxes for the building as part of the lease cost.

      So when you vote for a property tax increase or levy, you’re making it just a little harder for the locally-owned small business to afford to open. Walgreens might not care but that cool flower shop or bakery might.

    • Oh. Come on.

      Property taxes on Capitol Hill have not gone up 43% over the last five years. They haven’t even gone up 5%.

      But rents have gone up 43%. Forty Three Percent. Let that sink in.

      This is profit taking pure and simple.

      It’s being driven by a toxic mix of:
      – population growth in the the Tech Sector
      – constricted geography
      – single family housing zoning
      – investment real estate speculation
      – plus a few large investment banks also going into property management driving to near monopoly.

      Property taxes barely even factor.

  3. The root cause of rent increases isn’t tax levys, it’s supply and demand with no real effort put forth to provide sufficient
    low-income housing.

    • It’s true that demand is the primary driver, but as the famed San Francisco chart shows, supply needs to outstrip demand to a dangerous degree before it has a meaningful impact.

      But the above assertion was that levies have no impact, and they most certainly do, as do any new fees and regulations imposed on rental properties. Even if regulations have no literal dollar value, their perceived cost will be passed on to renters.

      Also, while it’s honorable to focus on low-income housing, it leaves out the lack of housing for middle-income people, i.e. those who make just enough to no longer qualify for low-income housing vouchers and programs. Basically, the middle class is being crushed by policies that completely ignore them, so they slip into low-income categories out of both necessity and/or because shit’s just too expensive.

  4. For a typical apartment rental :

    – Cost of rental (2 bed @ 400k @ 3.75%) = $1800k / month
    – HOA = $400
    – Property Tax = $300

    The cost of the property and interest rate (which is likely to go up shortly) are the biggest costs. Its hard to see why anyone would rent out the above for less than $2500 / month, and that is before you factor in repairs, insurance etc.

  5. those nasty vacation rentals eat up a lot of available long term rentals. in my building, the elektra, whenever a unit comes up for sale it is usually purchased by a company that flips them into vacation rentals/airbnb. sea to sky rentals and seattlesuite businesses both specialize in this and operate a business out of buildings zoned for residential use. very sad.

    • WTF is your condo association doing about it? Every well-run condo should have a cap on max # of units which can be rented out as non- owner occupied. That goes for both regular rentals or vacation rentals. You guys should be making sure your bylaws put an upper bound on that, or the whole bldg. will end up being rentals. And renters rarely take as good a care as an owner-occupant.

      • the majority of the board is vacation rental owners – has been for over a decade. they’ve been raping the building for years and there’s nothing really the rest of us can do. that’s why I’m hoping the city will finally take care of it.

    • Jim, that’s easier said then done. HOA presidents can’t update bylaws willy nilly, these measures often require an all-owner vote and in today’s volatile market, many owners are hesitant to lock themselves into rental caps for fear that they may have to/or want to move and be forced to sell rather than keep their property as a rental and enjoy the appreciation. If a rental cap wasn’t written in the bylaws initially, it may be difficult to change today.

      I’ve tried 3 times in the past 9 years unsuccessfully.

  6. It seems the Council has been pretty responsive to renter needs over the last eighteen months. Witness the rental inspection ordinance, the new requirement that owners of five or more unit buildings notify the city of their intent to sell the building before listing it, and the recent “slumlord” legislation restricting rent increases in buildings with any maintenance shortcomings. I am not so sure renters voices are not being heard at present.

  7. And none of these measures do anything to increase or maintain the supply of affordable housing. in fact, they accomplish the opposite by pressuring owners of affordable older buildings to make expensive changes that do little to increase safety or improve tenant quality of life. Then the levies drive property taxes higher at increasingly unsustainable rates, which only adds to the pressure to raise rents or sell into this asset starved market.