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20 things CHS heard during Monday’s *hot and heated* Seattle rent control smackdown

“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

  1. The room was packed with Sawant supporters, but Manweller and Valdez received surprisingly enthusiastic applause at the beginning of the evening.
  2. 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.
  3. “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.
  4. Valdez quickly got the pro-Sawant crowd riled up by sarcastically quoting Karl Marx.
  5. Sawant: “Skyrocketing rents are not an act of God, they are an act of price gouging.”
  6. 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.
  7. “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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. The HALA committee did not endorse exploring rent control, which Sawant said was not surprising because developers and renter groups have completely opposing views.
  12. Licata said “economic evictions” were the result of an “unfettered market that feeds speculative development.”
  13. Manweller: “Time after time rent control drops the housing stock and jacks up the prices.”
  14. Valdez: “(Rent control) is not going to make things any better except for people who own single family homes.”
  15. 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.
  16. Valdez: “Stop trying to vilify people that are trying to do a good thing which is build more housing for this city.”
  17. Rejecting the argument that rent control would stymie development, Sawant said growth was based on the state of the local and national economy.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.

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41 thoughts on “20 things CHS heard during Monday’s *hot and heated* Seattle rent control smackdown

  1. Everyone will stop screaming about rent control when the economy tanks again. And if Amazon ever hits the skids and 10 or 20,000 people leave town Kshama will be wailing about something else.

    • I agree! On top of it rent control can’t happen under current state law! Listen Seattle…we are not that special…we also have to follow the rules.

      • Gay marriage and legal pot couldn’t happen under state law until just a short time ago.

        We can change laws, you know.

      • I think you are severely over-estimating the support statewide for that idea. Nobody in the rest of the state will care.

      • They don’t have to. the same thing was said about Gay marriage, in fact all the E Wa reps boycotted the entire concept and sponsored attempts at amending the state constitution.

      • Ok. Very true. Convince the people that represent Chehalis, Little rock, Olympia, Aberdeen, Forks, Gold Bar, etc….that rent control is a good idea that we can pull off but has absolutely failed everywhere else. You realize the size of the agency that would be needed to regulate a statewide rent co trol program…if that’s how the law is indeed written. Or do we have zones? Or do we let individual municipalities decide. Maybe collective farms? They worked out great. Maybe I could find a good book on Amazon that clearly lists other poor ideas that have been tried by others and failed.

      • What are you even talking about?

        Again, the Rent Control/Rent Rent Stabilization proposals are for Seattle only. Nobody else has to do a god damned thing. Seattle merely wants the right to do it.

        So. All this “buh… buh… but it’s illegal! You’ll have to get everybody else in the state to….” Is a complete nonsense talking point.

        Here’s anther example of asking the State for exceptions for Seattle – the $15 minimum wage increase.

        That wage increase was by all regards “illegal.”Pot was illegal. Gay Marriage was illegal. And you know what – they are legal now. Despite MASSIVE resistance from every small town and mouth breathing goober east of the cascades. these were the biggest cultural lightening rods of the last 50 years. And guess what?

        They are legal now.

      • Rent Control is not permitted under State Law. Any attempt to make it legal for Seattle will likely take the form of a STATEWIDE initiative or bill in the legislature proposing to remove the prohibition statewide. It’s not going to be a statewide initiative asking “Can Seattle do rent control?” or a bill in the legislature asking “can Seattle be allowed to have rent control?”. It’ll be an attempt to make it a local option statewide. And there will be no support statewide for that, even if (like at this time) it’s only a proposal in Seattle.

  2. “2. 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.” – – I’m pretty sure that Valdez was actually the one who made this comparison.

  3. “There are people homeless and sleeping in their car tonight.”

    Oh. For. Fuck. Sake.

    Yes. There are people sleeping cars because they can’t afford rents… as a function of the god damned market!

    That happens in everyplace that adopts the very “The mighty market-is-Supreme-Milton-Friedman” bullshit Valez wants with or without rent controls.

    Hey Roger,
    Please show us this free-market paradise where there are no homeless people. Other than the gated communities of billionaires.

    • C’mon. Show me evidence that the homeless have been displaced from their Seattle apartments! Show me the income that they homeless have and what they could afford in rent? Show me evidence that they would rent anything at rents from 10 years ago if given the opportunity? Show me the evidence that they ever rented in Seattle or came here from elsewhere?

      Rent control if worth discussing. But conflating it with the homeless issue is way off point, unless you can demonstrate with evidence the above and more.

      • Dude – that’s what Valdez was claiming. Not me. That was a pull quote.

        Homelessness is a function of greater market forces above beyond merely rents.

        Valdez was trying to link the two and implying that the market could fix this situation.

        And of course it hasn’t anywhere else with much more market friendly politics and it won’t here, either.

      • I’m all for increasing the supply of smaller units and changing zoning to allow for cottages, etc. But. Cheap housing isn’t “illegal.” You can go build a house and give it away for free if you want. But of course no one is going to that. But the government.

        Anyway. Just adding inventory higgildy piggildy isn’t going to lower rents as long as the city is growing like it is.

        You will never get ahead of demand. No builder is going to build one more room than he can sell for maximum profit. Only when they caught with their pants down if there is growth contraction will supply out-pace demand.

        And that’s the problem. The problem is so far relying on the market alone and market incentives hasn’t lowered rents but only increased profits of developers and landlords.

        Regulating rents can work if it’s fair and city wide and without exceptions so there is no artificial scarcity or gaming the system.

        Whether that’s rent controls or stabilization or what ever – we have to do something more than just relying on market forces. Dumb zoning issues or not, it’s the market that got us here.

      • And that’s what you call a straw man fallacy.

        Again. It was Valdez implication that HALA rezoning and market forces that would prevent people from living in their cars.

        Do you now what will end homelessness? Free government housing. That sound ridiculous to us because we’re conditioned by capitalism to reject even the thought. But the mighty market isn’t gong to end or even seriously reduce homelessness. But market pressures sure has hell have INCREASED homelessness.

  4. As always the right answer probably lies in the middle somewhere. As a liberal, I’m worried that we have possibly reached the tipping point as far as being too liberal. And it’s not just rent control. Seattle would be served well with a good dose of moderate politics. And don’t even get me started on the homeless. Seattle has failed us big time on that.

    • I am a liberal that has always voted for the most liberal candidates including Sawant. This election I will do the opposite. I agree that there is about to be a pendulum swing back to the right if the liberals don’t start to govern and make the tough choices necessary to keep this city livable in the face of relentless development.. The homelessness issue in Seattle is fucking crazy. It has nothing to do with high rents. Our homeless population is growing out of control while it drops almost everywhere else. We are importing homelessness because the Seattle liberals are in denial because of their guilt and hiding behind bogus statistics. We need to build housing for the mentally ill and drug addicted AND we need to move them out of the parks and business districts. No other city tolerates groups of junkies living in the parks all summer. We shouldn’t either.

      • Great to see the groundswell of liberals changing their tune. Speak often and loudly on your concerns. Politicians need to hear we have their back if they dial back on the failing approach to many issues and insist on civility, following the rules the rest of us are held to, and be a lot less welcoming.

        Help the mentally ill but remove the welcome mat that is attracting people to Seattle so they can enjoy the lifestyle; dogs, cell phones, panhandling, stolen bikes, crapping in our parks and sleeping on sidewalks and public benches. Enough already!

        Many or most of us, who gladly pay taxes, did not and do not accept paying for this and being labelled or guilted when we protest.

        We are not on the margins and will not be bullied by those who claim self-righteous entitlement for themselves or those they claim to advocate for.

      • I am with you. I have had it with being guilt tripped into tacit support of social justice crusades. Enforce decency and demand results. No more apologizing for earning a decent living.

        People can’t be lifted up by pulling everybody else down.

      • It’s interesting to me, nowhere in this long list of reasons for the housing affordability crisis does anyone ever mention anything like “failure on the part of job seekers to train and equip themselves for the reality of today’s job market”. We see yammering all the time about housing that’s unaffordable. Does it ever occur to anyone to acquire the skills to land a job that will pay the bills for this housing? That’s one part of this equation that’s within the ability of many people to control. I never hear anyone talk about doing it. 10 years ago when I was laid off from my job, I tried to take classes at Seattle Central that had DIRECT applicability to the hundreds of local jobs in the wireless industry (remember, we have TMobile and AT&T with huge presences here). 2 out of 3 of the classes I wanted were cancelled due to lack of interest. These were classes that practically guaranteed you finding a job in the wireless industry. Nobody was interested. But so many people with yesterday’s skills want rent control so they can afford to live in Seattle’s most sought-after neighborhood. Cry me a river.

      • And I would add that the problem you cite extends even to college graduates. Too many of them have majored in useless degrees that make them unable to find a good job, so they move back with the parents and work at some minimum wage job totally unrelated to what they were educated in.

      • Most “liberal” cities on the West Coast have the same problems with mentally ill and drug addicted vagrants. When it starts to rain many will head back to LA or SFO.

      • Exactly. SF has it lots worse. If it didn’t start raining here in Oct/Nov, the year-round homeless population here would be lots worse. Yes there is a serious homeless population here, but we’re not unique.

      • Let’s hope so. But they will just be back next summer, bringing along their buddies because they have heard that Seattle is SO friendly to the homeless….it is a reputation we should try to lose.

    • Totally agree. I have started to look at the influx of new people as a potential source of allies in this. There are all sorts of progressive people in other cities in the world who are not so completely and utterly insane about promoting and coddling a small minority of people who hurt the ability of everyone else to use our public spaces by making them unsafe, unclean, and generally unappealing. Maybe the newcomers won’t have this weird, brain-dead, unthinking support for paying for never-ending levies to bring more homeless people here, and maybe they will vote against continuing our failed and failing homeless “solutions.”

    • Well said 3rdeye.
      Rent control does not work. Programs like Capitol Hill Housing do work. The old paradigm of rent control and the terminology should be buried. Why is it still being discussed?
      The link between homelessness and rent control is something I’m not getting. Working poor, sharing apartments and houses to afford rent I understand. Housing tweakers I don’t. You don’t want to live in a building with people smoking crack & shooting heroin. The subsequent behaviors are very different from alcoholics.
      If I were King for a day I would drive a van through Cal Anderson and pick them all up and commit them to treatment. Under the law of them being a danger to themselves & others.

  5. What I’d like to know is why the debate always seems to focus on rent control vs. increased development, as if they’re mutually-exclusive concepts. Having more inventory on the market means that there’s more units available to be rented out at the current market rate! (Which will also be lower because there’s more supply to meet the current demand!)

    I don’t think anyone who’s for rent control also thinks that there shouldn’t be an increase in inventory. I mean, okay, some people do seem to want to punish landlords for daring to actually make enough money on their property for it to be worthwhile, but even for people making Amazon money they’re having trouble finding available units except at top-dollar rents – and in rent control they’d still be paying those top-dollar rents until they move. (Unless people here think that “rent control” means limiting the price per square foot of all units across the board rather than just limiting the rate at which the rent can increase.)

    What we really need to do is remove the various covenants that limit the amount of inventory that can be made. Parking requirements are ridiculous in a city where most people don’t need a car all the time (and can just rent car2go or zipcar as they need it). Height restrictions to protect the OH SO SACRED view of the Space Needle? Density limits? Those are the real things to address.

    Also, we should *embrace* aPodment-type microhousing. For a lot of people, not having to spend 2 hours commuting to their job downtown is MUCH more important than having a huge amount of space to fill with the things they can’t ever use because they’re spending all their time commuting.

    • “Parking requirements are ridiculous in a city where most people don’t need a car all the time (and can just rent car2go or zipcar as they need it).”

      I’ve been against heavy zoning laws and in favor of micro-housing for years, but that’s an excellent point you bring up I haven’t thought of!

      We still have laws on the books that assume we need the same level of parking as we did decades ago before telecommuting, ridesharing, and a variety of other things that reduce the need for parking space have begun to spread.

      We have a far bigger housing crisis than a parking space crisis.

    • Fluffy,
      Point of clarification– I take issue with part of your point “…people making Amazon money having trouble finding available units except at top dollar…” No they’re not. Maybe on *Capitol Hill*, yeah. Everyone’s laboring under the assumption that everyone who wants to has an inalienable right to live on Capitol Hill. That’s bullshit. The sooner we stop trying to accommodate everyone who wants to live in the most expensive real estate in the city, the sooner we start seeing more affordable housing popping up in the plentiful other land available for development. And spare me the “move to Bellevue” bullshit. There are plenty of places that would benefit from incentives to build OFF CH but still easily connected to transit. Obsessing about Capitol Hill comes at the expense of not only other neighborhoods easily developed, but also the people who are already there and would benefit from improvements– both better city infrastructure as well as commercial and social amenities that are now all crammed into Capitol Hill — and getting more expensive all the time. There’s no way areind it- EVERYBODY who wants to live on Capitol Hill can’t. They just can’t. This obsessive self-centered focus on Capitol Hill is both selfish and detrimental to many other perfectly good neighborhoods that would benefit from more development– WITHOUT the tired retort “move to Bellevue, or Kent, or Burien…”.

      • Completely agree. For a long time people could pour coffee during the day and play in a band at night and live on Capitol Hill. Now you can’t… unless you want to have a million roommates or your band is Van Halen. Neighborhoods change constantly. I never understood the idea that someone deserves to live in a particular neighborhood. I can’t afford CH either so I don’t live there. Pretty simple to me. I can’t afford Beverly Hills either.

  6. I’ve been a Seattle city renter since 1999. As a renter I have a fair amount of rights although it’s been made clear several times that the owner has more rights than me, within a established structure. That structure in Seattle is pretty good for both parties. “Rent Control” as a campaign issue is pretty much a load of BS. Still, in my ideal world, burning my capitalist soul, the thing missing is a /reasonable/ limit to the maximum % rent increase per year. Generous to property owners while being something my fellow renters and I can adapt our lives to: Max 50% increase per year for occupied units?; 50% per month increase with 3 months notice/ Up to 25% with 2 months notice/ Allowances for unit improvements

    • Such a great point — there is so much more the city could do to protect renters that are more effective than rent control. I rent, and am relatively well paid and well educated, but am at the breaking point in Capitol Hill too. My landlord is nickle and dimeing me, raising the rent while maintenance gets worse. Trying to add new fees all the time. Lengthen the advance notice for rent increases (minimum 90 days, supply is tight if you have to move), require itemization of utilities (increasingly it’s common to add “utilities” fees as stealth rent increases), require landlords to post rent increases on current tenants in a public place (just like employers have to do when hiring H-1B visa workers), add penalties if landlords don’t maintain a property or make repairs (just like tenants face penalties if they’re late on rent). We need to level the playing field. Rent control won’t do that. Kshama should focus on practical renter protections that matter for real renters.

  7. “10.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.”

    DPD and the preservationists have been allowed to ruin this city through insistence on low-rise and preservation. We need housing not short waste of space sky-high rents. The only thing that will bring the rents down is high-rise buildings.

    For the last 20 years we have been building short building where tall building should have been and that is what makes the rents go up. Short buildings = high rents! The high cost of housing was created by these restrictions of the DPD and their preservationist puppet masters.

    I would much rather see the people that were forced to leave this city than the ugly short too expensive waste of space building the DPD has given us. Bring the people back!

    And that doesn’t mean micro housing. Build people size housing, WTF is wrong with you people. People shouldn’t have to live like that. There is a great view up there and room enough in Seattle for the all the people not just the rich ones if you get rid of those ridiculous height restrictions.

  8. you can do rent control — then the renters will have cheap rent — but those who are looking to rent, will pay outrageous prices for the units NOT under rent control (the only ones available)

    if all units are rent controlled, they will be filled and new people will have no options at all at any price

    this would be a massive failure

    best idea: let the poor people move to detroit — detroit will always have cheap rent – the auto mfg industry is not coming back to detroit

  9. Roger Valdez is a developer shill. In no way is he representative of anyone but people directly profiting from building unlimited growth. I am tired of running across his bullshit being accepted as fact, when it is nothing but agenda-driven politics.