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.