There were 60+ recommendations included in the Mayor Ed Murray-commissioned affordable housing study released last week, but rent control wasn’t one of them.
It was mentioned in a little noticed section in the back of the report, where the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee said its members couldn’t agree on the issue:
“The HALA could not reach consensus on the issue, even despite proposed amendments and changes.”
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.”
“It was on the table from the start,” HALA co-chair Faith Li Pettis told CHS. “The HALA could not reach consensus on the issue, even despite proposed amendments and changes.”
While the committee’s deliberations on rent control were conducted in secret, the public will get an opportunity to witness some of that debate during a Monday night event at First Hill’s Town Hall.
Arguing in favor of rent control will be City Council member and District 3 candidate Kshama Sawant and her Council colleague Nick Licata. Opposing rent control will be Republican state Rep. Matthew Manweller of Ellensberg and Smart Growth Seattle director Rodger Valdez. Former City Council member Peter Steinbrueck will moderate.
Seattle Channel will be live streaming the event here.
Proponents of rent control typically argue that by linking allowable rent increases to something like the Consumer Price Index, working-class families have more stability thereby allowing them to keep roots in a neighborhood without getting priced out. This in turn adds increasing value to the neighborhood as residents become more invested in their community.
Opponents of rent control, including most economists, argue that artificially depressing rents stymies new housing development, creates animosity between renters and landlords, and may benefit a small number of renters lucky enough to land rent controlled apartment.
If you’ve been following the rent control debate in Seattle, you probably know such policies are currently prohibited in Washington. Overturning the ban will be the first and probably tallest hurdle to passing a rent control ordinance in Seattle.
That will almost certainly require convincing House Speaker Frank Chopp that a bill to repeal the ban is not DOA in the Legislature — which he believes it is. Chopp, who represents Capitol Hill’s 43rd Legislative District and was on the HALA steering committee, actually supports lifting the ban and was part of a coalition pushing for rent control legislation in the 1970s.
Sawant says it is a lack of political will that’s keeping rent control off the agenda. Fellow Socialist Alternative member Jess Spear vowed to get it on the agenda if voters replaced Chopp with her in last year’s election (they didn’t).
While there’s different ways to slice the data, rents are undeniably on the rise in Seattle. Average rents rose 8.3% last year, according to data from Dupre+Scott Apartment Advisors. Analyst Mike Scott says that spike can largely be accounted for by the opening of new units with better amenities. But even when new units are taken out of the equation, average rents still rose 7.5% over the past year.
On Capitol Hill, the situation is even more dramatic. Average rents went up 12% from 2013-2014 and have climbed 38% since 1998, according to a recent report from KUOW. This May utilizing a much smaller set of data, CHS reported that the median one-bedroom ad listing in Craigslist had climbed to $1,795 per month. A tenant would need to make at least $72,000 a year for that apartment to remain affordable, assuming a 30% affordability threshold.
Tracing the history of rent control, both nationally and in Washington state, is a strange saga, which CHS summarized in 2013:
Back in 1930s New York there was a store clerk who 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, although much of the fight came over moorage fees for houseboats.
The statute prohibits and cities and counties from establishing any limits on rent hikes, moving the rent control fight to Olympia.
On Monday night, both sides will likely use some form of the argument that “rent is already controlled” to support their positions. Sawant says developers and landlords control rent by exploiting the basic need for housing. On the other side, Valdez has pointed out that the city already has thousand of units that are rent controlled and could expand those programs.