Capitol Hill’s calls for a Seattle Renters’ Commission will soon be answered creating what is likely the first such official body in the nation.
CHS has learned legislation to create a 15-member commission to represent tenants rights and weigh in on issues of development and affordability could be introduced as early as Monday.
“The goal is to attract folks across the whole spectrum,” the Capitol Hill Community Council’s Zachary DeWolf said. “Families, seniors, geographic diversity, vouchers, newer units, older units. Everyone.”
The offices of Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, Mike O’Brien, and Lisa Herbold have been working to finalize the proposal that comes as Seattle residents continue to face one of the most expensive rental markets… in the world.
The idea of a renters’ commission in Seattle first took shape when DeWolf presented on the idea at a Capitol Hill Housing community forum last spring. It took more shape at the EcoDistrict’s Renter Summit in September 2016, when Nick Licata, who previously had been a longtime Capitol Hill renter, walked the group through the nuts and bolts of making connections within City Hall.
In November 2016, Capitol Hill Housing’s Joe Sisolak and the Community Council’s DeWolf made the case in the Seattle Times in an essay calling for the create of a Seattle renters’ commission:
The commission would represent the voices of renters who don’t have the schedules, baby sitters or salaries to show up to middle-of-the-day meetings and comment periods. It would ensure that the representation of renter voices isn’t dependent on who is currently on City Council. And it would help ensure that renters’ rights, like recently expanded protections that ban discrimination in rental housing based on a prospective renter’s source of income or place of employment are enforced and revised, as needed. It could even be responsible for fostering civic engagement of renters by registering them to vote, for example.
The commission has become a popular governing tool for Mayor Ed Murray. Earlier this month, Murray put out the first calls for members to join his new Community Involvement Commission formed to encourage more diverse feedback on city initiatives. Commissioner requirements for that task force boil down to “three to six” hours per month meeting to help “advise and guide our City departments to assess, improve, and develop authentic and thorough outreach and engagement to all residents,”
Xochitl Maykovich with the Washington Community Action Network said the organization has provided some input in drafting the renters’ commission legislation.
She said the legislation aims to include renters of color, low income, and the LGBTQ community, among others who feel the brunt of the housing crisis on the commission.
“The priority is to have the voices of people from oppressed communities on this commission,” Maykovich said.
Jessa Lewis, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, agreed that representation from marginalized communities and those at risk of displacement is needed the most.
“These groups have traditionally lacked access to decision makers and resources due to lack of time and resources compared to developers, landlord, and those least impacted by the rising rents in our city,” Lewis told CHS.
Lewis herself has experienced a “no-fault eviction” and even had to live in her car with her daughter at one point.
“The vision of empowering renters with the tools to advocate for themselves is what brought me to the Tenants Union and is also why the Tenants Union is taking such interest in the creation of this commission. It must not be a rubber stamp to approve a pro-developer agenda for the city,” Lewis told CHS.
Maykovich said Washington CAN!, an organization working for racial, social, gender, and economic justice, also believes it’s important to continue include representatives of organizations who work on renting and housing issues because having the support of an organization can be helpful when the commission needs to put pressure on the city council or mayor to take action.
However, she does think the legislation to create a renters’ commission is a step in the right direction and a positive sign from elected officials.
“I think that the fact that the City Council is drafting this legislation and they are taking seriously the need to have voices from oppressed communities on the commission is a sign that they want to continue working to solve the housing crisis,” Maykovich said.
Lewis said the Tenants Union hopes that the new commission will be able to provide more evidence to elected officials of the housing crisis so that more work will be done to prevent displacement and homelessness.
“Ideally the commission can identify gaps in HALA (the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) and expand the accessibility so that regular members of the community can participate in a process that can be insular and jargon-heavy,” Lewis said.